Who’s Afraid of the Old, Gay Dancer?
Miguel Gutierrez, Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist / Suicide Note or &:-/, 2014. Pictured: Miguel Gutierrez and Mickey Mahar, Collection of the artist. Photograph by Eric McNatt.
When it comes to respecting our elders, society is shamefully dismissive. In the case of the gay community, this is doubly rotten since our forbearers bravely bushwhacked the social jungle on our behalf.
But when choreographer Miguel Gutierrez dissects ageism in Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/, his contribution to the Whitney Biennial (through May 4)—and the first in a planned series addressing queerness and the passage of time—he’s not talking about generations so much as he is grappling with vanity: the 42-year-old casts himself as the old fogey. In other words, he’s the victim here—but not a defeated one.
For the duration of the work, Gutierrez wears a lady's pink floral Speedo one-piece, which matches his fingernails. His hair (on the scalp and the chin) is bleached; his eyes shadowed with a streak of pink, a la Jem (of the Holograms). Even the stage is lined with a strand of pink lights—making the otherwise white space feel both stereotypically gay and young—like the bedroom of a preteen girl.
Stretching nearby in a loose white jersey and short white shorts (also with pink fingernails) is Mickey Mahar, a 24-year-old who could read for the part of someone ten years younger. Here, he’s cast as Gutierrez’s Adonis, and perhaps also as his Nemesis. Side by side, the two make up a kind of “before and after” snapshot of a dancer: the fresh-faced innocent and the wise bearded man. This casting is perhaps the strongest conceptual choice in the work: Gutierrez immediately forces the audience to compare, contrast and contemplate the lightning quick arch of a dancer’s body and career.
The two launch into a spirited synchronized dance to a throbbing beat that could easily be transferred to the stage of a Beyoncé concert. (Gutierrez more than holds his own.) They also take turns with drunken, stumbling solos. What we notice is that Mahar leaps higher and is more physically fearless, but Gutierrez commits more fully to every gesture, carries himself with grounded confidence and sweats more. Mahar stares ahead with the sultry/bored look of a model; Gutierrez makes eye contact with a knowing, confident smirk in his eyes.
Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/ is essentially a performed mid-life crisis. Because it’s abstract, we don’t know exactly what discrimination or indifference Gutierrez has faced as an artist who is no longer “emerging” or a gay man who no longer gets carded, so we can only take his word that it sucks, or assume that the demons are internal.
But where is he pointing the finger? At us for always seeking the next big thing? At himself for letting it get to him? At Mickey and all the others who keep coming up for their turn? Still, his insecurities are understandable and relatable and it’s a brave thing to turn them into the seed of your work.
There is a long, humorous and engaging section in which Mahar and Gutierrez recite and repeat and distort sentences in sync, the verbal equivalent of their earlier dance. They say things like: “We are the dancers, bitches”; “We are beautiful”; “Do you want to fuck us?” Then, in what has become a recurring device in his work, Gutierrez, now in fluffy white tulle, grabs a mic and starts looping his own voice, hopping around and screaming like a rockstar.
But for all the burdens, there are privileges of being a mid-career artist, too. One of which is that when you know who you are, you don’t have to scream to be heard. Gutierrez is at the point where we’ll listen to a whisper and even lean in closer; he doesn’t need to shout anymore. Even when Mahar is rolling around seductively in the back, also enveloped in white tulle, it’s still Gutierrez who commands attention.