Miguel Gutierrez brings a telenovela to the Wexner Center

Lavinia Huang, Ohio State second-year, Psychology and Dance

Jan 06, 2020

A performance still of theater artist Miguel Gutierrez and his company during the performance work This Bridge Called My Ass

Miguel Gutierrez’s This Bridge Called My Ass, a play on words from the 1981 anthology of Third Wave feminist essays called This Bridge Called My Back, comes to the Wexner Center January 24-26. For Gutierrez, this is the continuation of an exploration that began with a piece he made in Stockholm for students in 2017. The series also includes Cela nous concerne tous (This concerns all of us), a piece commissioned by the Ballet de Lorraine in Nancy, France. In This Bridge Called My Ass, six Latinx performers present themselves, their bodies, and their identities in a space of material and sound that allows them to explore connections between their individual abstractions. I had the pleasure of video chatting in December with Gutierrez while he had breakfast in his Brooklyn flat.

His casual demeanor made me feel as though I should make a cup of coffee and sit at the table with him. He told me that performing this piece is different everywhere he goes. He remembered specific gigs that particularly resonated because of the willingness of the audience to engage with the piece. As a queer Latinx person, he experiences a dual consciousness between his secret desire that there be an minoritarian audience to give the performers a sense of support and identification, and his opposing feeling that the work is designed for anybody and everybody who wants to receive it. In France, he said, the piece was met with a kind of colonial gaze; the audience appeared confused by “a bunch of Latinx folks being fleshy and wild and vulgar.” In the past, he has made the mistake of thinking he knew what the audience was going to be, but in truth, there is nothing monotonous––or predictable––about a community of people. What came out of making this piece was not only the awareness and celebration of the differences within the Latinx performers, but the audience members as well.

An image of a performance of Miguel Gutierrez's This Bridge Called My Ass
"If queerness is put on the margins of society, but you live in that margin, then your subject position is the center from which you engage and eventually what is considered normative seems strange to you."
Miguel Gutierrez

Reflecting on his past, Gutierrez remembers switching between Spanish and English and the different kinds of ways he experienced “Latinidad” in his family life. In this piece, he unequivocally chooses to foreground his Latin identity, but biculturalism has always been present in his work. As a first-generation immigrant, he undergoes constant negotiation between insiders and outsiders. That is, he experiences different modes of consciousness. In creation, he wanted and needed to claim the space around his Latin American identity; with five other Latinx performers, he can suddenly place the “Latinidad” from his upbringing into his work which all together holds a prominent significance.

Naturally, queerness is present in this piece as a result of his being invested in these aspects of his identity. Even with those who didn’t necessarily identify as queer, the other performers’ abilities to understand the codes in the space and the different ethics and possibilities proposed became evident and welcomed. One of the things Gutierrez learned early on in queer politics is that what is peripheral for other people can be the center for another. “If queerness is put on the margins of society, but you live in that margin, then your subject position is the center from which you engage and eventually what is considered normative seems strange to you.”

As an expression of his identity, he follows what the work is, what seems logical to him––an intersectionality of everything that makes up the identities of these six performers.

Reading This Bridge Called My Back at age 19 gave Gutierrez the capacity to see the intersectionality reflected in the harsh social climate. White feminists wanted a revolution and a woman-centered consciousness, but women of color called them out for not “having their backs.” Exposed to modern culturalist media, and at a time of heavy involvement with semiotics, he was also aware, during his time at Brown University (1989-1992), of the danger of a certain positioning. Such consciousness continues to impact his work in the fever pitch of today’s identity politics.

There is a constant dialogue in This Bridge Called My Ass, says Gutierrez. The performers speak Spanish at the beginning of the piece creating distinct experiences for those who understand the language and those who do not. For him, the fact that there are people who will easily receive certain symbols and those who do not is exactly one of the proposals of abstraction (a subject he'll address at the Wex during a January 21 panel discussion). How the individual audience member negotiates the perception of the improvisation is highly subjective. Tension continues throughout the piece into the second part when it becomes a telenovela. The melodrama and absurdity of the caricature is an abstraction of reality. But to accept this insanity, the audience is invited to delight in the narrative illogic that makes the piece what it is.

This selection is part of Writing about the Performing Arts at Ohio State, an interdisciplinary student-led project supported by the Ronald and Deborah Ratner Distinguished Teaching Award. Students from departments across the university composed responses to the center’s 2019–20 Performing Arts season under the direction of award recipient and Department of Dance Professor Karen Eliot and Manager of Public University Programs Alana Ryder with support from Performing Arts Director Lane Czaplinski.

Photos: Ian Douglas, courtesy of the artist