Miguel Gutierrez: Age and Beauty
Witnessing his own development with a watchful eye has kept highflying choreographer Miguel Gutierrez grounded.
Miguel Gutierrez is an admired choreographer, known for his interdisciplinary dance-based works exploring identity, desire, and queerness.
Born to Colombian parents in Queens, NY, in 1971, Gutierrez began studying dance at age 9. He attended Brown University and New York University but left to work in gay activism in San Francsico, where he danced in the Joe Goode Performance Group. He returned to New York in 1996 to join the John Jasperse Company and began to create solo and group performances in 2001. His 2017 piece Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, won a prestigious Bessie Award for Best Revival, one of four such awards Guterriez has received.
He composed the music for several of his works as well as for other choreographers, and leads the cabaret concert group Sadonna, which performs sad versions of Madonna songs. His 2013 book When You Rise Up compiled his poems, lyrics, and other performance texts.
Gutierrez has taught at festivals, workshops, and colleges, including Yale, Princeton, NYU, and Brown, where he completed his BA after a twenty-seven year layoff.
Miguel Gutierrez comes from a long line of prodigal sons. And just like his father, he deviated radically from the path his family had envisioned for him. To go his own way he turned against his parents, and turned up the volume on self destruction. It was a lonely road.
Miguel Gutierrez: That took years, for me to be like, it’s okay for me to take suggestions from others. It’s okay for me to accept that my problems might just be like everyone else’s, actually. This idea of like, “No, my problems are operatically different.”
Miguel Gutierrez is named after his father. Miguel Sr. was a young man when he watched Rebel Without A Cause in his native Colombia. It’s depiction of the American dream and youthful rebellion against it appealed to him. And so when he was old enough, he left his home and his family for the US. He became an electronics engineer and married a Colombian woman, Elena. They had two kids, a boy and a girl. The American dream was working out just fine until their son, Miguel Jr., began his own youthful rebellion.
Gutierrez: I remember my dad, I think I was in eighth grade, and I was having this huge fight with him. And I really wanted to go to performing arts high school, and I had stealthily started researching. Then that became revealed. And he was like, “Tell me right now if you’re going to go to an Ivy league school or not, because that’s the only reason we have you in that school that you’re in.” I went to private school. Because for my parents, absolutely education was the ultra ultimate thing. So for my sister and me to not fulfill the greatest possible form of education that we could get was interpreted as failure on their part. And that was terrifying for them.
Young Miguel didn’t like sports. He liked Broadway shows and learning his older sister Margarita’s cheerleading routines. More than anything, he loved dancing. He says it was how he first experienced his body as his own. It soon became clear to him that dancing was what he was going to do, but his parents were not pleased with their son’s unconventional career choice.
Gutierrez: When I was really in the midst of having my fights with my parents in my teens, which these were epic, epic fights, my father and I just like, screaming at each other. It was horrible. But one of my big frustrations with them was always, you left your country and came here and you’re mad at me because I want to go dance? You abandoned your family.
The more Gutierrez explored who he was through dance, the more he realized he wouldn’t fit in with the ideal, the life his parents had envisioned for him. Raised Catholic, he went through a period of denial as he was coming to terms with being gay. When he came out to his family at 18, it confirmed his father’s worst fears.
Gutierrez: My father said two horrifically annoying things to me about my gayness. One time, he was like, “When you’re in a situation with a guy who plays the man and who plays the woman?” Like that whole thing. Which I was just—and that was more like eye-roll-y for me. I was like, really? This is where we are? And then the other thing was when he was like, “What you’re doing is an abomination against God.” That was the more severe, when I first came out to him. It was so painful to hear that. But I also just didn’t believe him because I knew him. I was like, you sleep on Sundays. You don’t even go to church if you don’t want to. We all know that you’re a skeptic. It was just always funny to me. I would see him take on these ideas, of like a stern homophobic dad and then he could be listening to Verdi. It’s like really, queen?
Miguel Gutierrez says he had to fully rebel against his parents to undo the Catholic self-hatred and shame he had been raised with. He did eventually go to an Ivy league school, just as his father had hoped: Brown University for theater and performance studies. And then, in what Gutierrez is calls a rebellious bourgeoisie act, he dropped out. He says he did it primarily to upset his parents. And so at 21, without family support and without any idea of how he might make a living as a queer Latino artist, he was on his own. But in San Francisco he found his place and a mentor who recognized and validated his need to find his own way. Slowly it became clear that there might be a need for the type of experimental, mold-breaking work he saw himself making.
Gutierrez: When I started dancing professionally in a company, in California in the nineties, which was Joe Goode Performance Group, and Joe actually was the first person who curated me into a show. He saw that I was really into it. And I just knew that there was something that would take over me when I knew I had to make something or that I wanted to make something that was very particular.
In California, Gutierrez spent his money recklessly partying, boozing, drugging. Eventually his recklessness caught up with him.
Gutierrez: I remember being six months behind in the rent, I remember I couldn’t bend my foot, I remember I had this cough that wouldn’t go away.
At 27, Miguel Gutierrez was diagnosed with gout. Soon after, he sobered up. Looking back he says his self destructive phase, though painful, was probably necessary. Miguel Gutierrez can’t explain exactly how he stopped drinking, but he believes there was a spiritual force guiding him. What filled the void he says was recognizing that he wasn’t a victim. And that he was surrounded by people who loved and cared for him. And in time he began to heal his relationship with his family.
Gutierrez: They were like, what is this sobriety thing this person’s doing? Because that’s not the example they had seen in their lives. People drank themselves to death. That’s what they knew. And because also there’s a spiritual component to the way I deal with sobriety, they were also, like, wait, what? Like, you’re not going to church, but you, it’s this whole thing. It’s different, and I think there’s a kind of mutual respect that formed around that. Similarly, I remember one time being at a New Year’s Eve party with my parents in Florida and they were handing out drinks on a tray and my father was like, “He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t drink!” I remember being like, oh, that’s so sweet. I think that later, when I was able to make amends to my parents for the ways I had exploited their very hardly won successes in the form of not showing up at school the way I should have, it took time for me to appreciate the amount of pain and the work that it meant for them to give me those tools. And it took time for them to understand that my taking of those tools in the directions that I wanted to was not an abdication or a renouncement of them as humans or as people.
Success and recognition from Gutierrez’s peers soon followed his family’s reconciliation. In 2006, Retrospective Exhibitionist, a solo show about the vulnerability of being watched by others and the search for love, won him one of dances highest honors: the first of his four Bessie awards. Gutierrez flew his parents to Austin to watch it. His dad was glowing.
Gutierrez: Afterwards he was like, “I’m really proud of you. I think that was amazing.” I remember being like whoa. Again, I did not think we were going to get here. Even if they didn’t understand like logically what it was, I think that the affect of the work was powerful for them.
In 2008 Miguel Gutierrez Sr. had a stroke. The following year, his son presented one of his most important works, Last Meadow. The piece uses several references to James Dean’s movies, including Rebel Without A Cause. The title refers to a kind of stroke in which the heart is too weak to pump enough blood to the brain. Gutierrez turned it into a symbol of the disintegration of the traditional family, and particularly the perennial conflicts between fathers and sons.
(Excerpt from Miguel Gutierrez’s Last Meadow)
In his personal life, Gutierrez’s dad’s stroke offered both father and son the ultimate shot at redemption.
Gutierrez: Weirdly enough, when my father started having his brain problems, any stitch or trace of homophobia left him. It was really weird. It was like, okay. This is what it took? Multiple brain operations can chase the homophobia away?
Miguel Gutierrez Sr. passed away in 2019. His death devastated his son, who once again morphed his grief into work. In 2019’s Unsustainable Solutions, he performs a duet with his dead father, who’s present on stage in the form of home videos. The piece is a powerful display of his father’s influence and their ever changing relationship.
(Excerpt from Miguel Gutierrez’s Unsustainable Solutions)
Just like his son and like James Dean’s most significant characters, Gutierrez Sr. was a victim of toxic ideas about masculinity. But Gutierrez Jr. didn’t remain a victim. He bravely chose to follow his own path, something few dare. And in doing so, he released himself from the shackles of paternal domination, breaking the generational curse of the prodigal son, and ultimately redeeming his relationship with his father. His dad followed suit, moving lovingly towards his son. Miguel and Miguel finally accepted each other. They became equals.
Gutierrez: My father was not a macho guy. He was macho in the sense that he was a straight guy. But he wasn’t a football dad. My dad was like a philosopher. My dad was like a weirdo scientist. My dad loved computers. My dad loved opera. My dad loved concert piano. He was an aesthete and an intellectual. So for him to try to foist some idea of masculinity upon me was kind of hilarious. We both failed at the script of manhood in a certain kind of way.
Miguel Gutierrez’s journey of rebellion against his family caused suffering and regret. But much like his self destructive years, it may have been necessary, maybe even hereditary. But in unashamedly seeking out his unique, true self, he has shared the possibility that we too might also dare to become openly and unabashedly ourselves.