Dancer-choreographer Miguel Gutierrez strode into the Palm Court Ballroom at the Alexandria Hotel Friday night looking ever-so-much like a grad student in jeans, sweater and backpack -- except that his face was a messy mask of white clown makeup and false eyelashes that pulled heavily on his eyelids.
"Hi. Hi. Okay. So my piece has already started," Gutierrez announced, looking around at the crowd assembled for his Los Angeles solo debut (co-presented by Show Box LA and Blankenship Ballet).
The "my piece has already started" went down quickly. If you missed that, you might not have realized that Heavens What Have I Done, a performance art piece full of contradictions, humor, unanswered questions and a ferocious, manic energy, was underway and you were in it.
In Heaven What Have I Done, Gutierrez obliterated the formal lines that not only safely separate the artist from the audience, but also those that divide the art from the viewer. We were participants without fanfare, and without the self-consciousness that usually accompanies avant-garde works.
Gutierrez, who has worked with experimentalists such as Joe Goode and John Jasperse, roped us in with ease. The piece is going to take place over there, he explained, pointing to the other side of the ballroom. So even though the white folding chairs were neatly arranged facing the east wall of the faded, but elegant, Palm Court, Gutierrez insisted the "stage" was really meant to face the west wall. We picked up our chairs and trooped to the other side of the room.
Gutierrez then set up his production, pulling out a speaker and his microphone; taping poster paper to the walls; throwing insulation about; changing into his costume and Marie Antoinette wig; grabbing books from the backpack and giving us pithy critiques of everything. Plato's The Symposium, for example, was just about "a bunch of motherfuckers sitting around talking about their boyfriends."
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The floor was quickly littered with the detritus of Gutierrez's life. He chatted non-stop. We learned about his French boyfriend and his back troubles; how he had auditioned for the first production of Rent.
"This whole piece is super-'80s," he informed.
For the first 25 minutes, the lights were up, and he made direct eye contact. For the second part, Gutierrez morphed into a desperate character, repeating French phrases, which he then electronically manipulated into a jackhammer-like drone. He stalked wildly about the stage, slipping hard on all the junk, seemingly out of control.
The work reached its crescendo when Gutierrez sang -- soulfully, beautifully -- with a Cecilia Bartoli recording of "Sposa son disprezzatta" ("I am a wife, and I am scorned"). Even without knowing the words, you felt the regret and sorrow of lost love. Likewise, by not playing by the expected rules, Gutierrez took us on a ride filled with the unexpected twists and turns of life.