3899163687_472496452cThis past weekend I had the chance to check out Miguel Gutierrez and The Powerful People’s production Last Meadow, a dance-performance work that is part of the American Realness Festival happening throughout January in New York City. Gutierrez’s work first came to my attention a couple years back when we performed together in a cabaret at my former pad on Avenue A in Manhattan. What Gutierrez did in the cabaret was engaging—an acoustic version of Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It To My Heart”—but what particularly impressed me about Gutierrez was his ability to discuss dance so articulately in terms of cultural politics.

Last Meadow is unique for the ways that it approaches cultural politics through a variety of performance techniques including, but not exclusive to, dance/movement research. At the center of the performance is James Dean, who the dancers impersonate, deconstruct, and ultimately cathect both as a figure for queer culture and as an icon of post-war America. Throughout the performance of Last Meadow, I was thinking about longing and grieving in terms of Dean’s place in U.S. cultural mythology. Other than Brando, Dean is of course the male actor of the 50s, representing an American cultural tendency to place feelings over ideas, actions over verbiage, psychology above philosophy. In the three films Dean made, he is both insider and outsider, hero and rebel, naïf and sage. Though I hadn’t realized it before seeing Last Meadow, Dean is also a melancholic figure in all of the three films he made (Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant); all of his characters have a Melvillian air about them—adventurous but dejected.

Last Meadow is a kind of elegy/eulogy for America (both its idea and reality) which, in a monologue, Gutierrez himself refers to as a “disaster” (Gutierrez dances in his works, as well as being the choreographer). At another moment the dancer Terek Hallaby—who cross-dresses as Judy from Rebel Without a Cause—sings the (United States) national anthem through a reverb-effected Fender amp placed on the stage. Hallaby’s voice resembles that of Angelo Badalamenti’s singers—the ones he used for David Lynch’s films and the Twin Peaks television program: it is pure; perhaps too pure. Hallaby doesn’t sing the anthem for very long. Just long enough to give the audience goosebumps.

But the real mourning of Last Meadow (if a work of mourning is what it's doing) has to do with Gutierrez’s use of cinematic techniques in live, movement-based performance. One of the opening vignettes of Last Meadow (the performance has the rhythm of consecutive vignettes or episodes) has Gutierrez, Michelle Boullé, and Hallaby onstage together as Jim, Judy, and Plato from Rebel Without a Cause. The dancers don’t say anything aloud, but their gestures mimic exactly those of Rebel Without a Cause’s original actors (Dean as Jim, Nathalie Wood as Judy, and Sal Mineo as Plato). It is as if the sound track has been removed. This disjuncture of sound and image-track is a powerful move on Gutierrez and co’s part. Had Last Meadow done nothing else but lip-synch in this way throughout the entire production I would have been satisfied by the performance.

The word that kept runnning through my head throughout Last Meadow was “cinematicalness.” There is a feeling for the cinema, and almost everything about Last Meadow evokes this feeling. Another extraordinary technique that Gutierrez used was an interlocution between himself and the other two dancers in which he would say their lines with/over them, timing this “voice over” precisely. Reciting a scene from Elia Kazan’s East of Eden in which Dean (as Cal) is about to leave his house and Julie Harris (as Abra) adjusts his tie, the scene is first played between Hallaby (as Harris playing Abra) and Boullé (as Dean playing Cal). It is played again with Gutierrez saying their lines over them in the Fender amp, and for a third time with Boullé absented from the scene, looking at herself in the mirror as Dean playing Cal.

While there was so much else to like (and report about) in Last Meadow this scene was among my favorites for its minimalism and the powerful impact it exerted through simple means. I think the scene’s impact has something to do with repetition (witnessing a scene repeatedly, as though a film or video loop); but also with the disjuncture of image/voice, script/actor, sound-track/image-track. It also has to do with bringing cinema onto the stage—redoubling the cinematic image through the image of actors/dancers. Is uncanny the word I’m looking for here? There is certainly a recognition that something we thought to be itself is not what or where we thought it should be (Freud’s definition of the uncanny). In Last Meadow’s lip-synch of Dean films some of the most sentimental and nostalgic images we have of the American imaginary are not merely deconstructed (though they are slowed down, and broken down, and explained to us a la Brecht) but not where they should be inasmuch as they are being reproduced too accurately in a different medium.

Originally Published: January 13th, 2010

Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog (whof.blogspot.com) and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...

  1. January 13, 2010

    Really nice post, Mr. Donovan. What you describe here may contain elements of the uncanny or it could just be more cinematicalness. Whatever the case, I was reminded of nothing so much as the scene in Governor Ventura: Pet Detective, where we see the real mourning of the film (if a work of mourning is what it’s doing). I will paste it in in case you do not recall it.\r


    We see the back of the Shiatsu staring at the crack in the front door. He has not moved an inch. James Dean looks over.\r

    Hey, Freud! Get away from the door!\r

    The dog doesn't budge and this really pisses him off. He gets up and heads for the dog.\r

    What's the matter with you, I said GIT!!!\r

    He roughly picks the dog up by the scruff of the neck, but as he turns it around we see that it is a stuffed dog. Around it's neck is a business card that reads, "You have\r
    been had by Governor Ventura - Pet Detective." He breathes fire.\r

    Son of a bitch!

  2. January 14, 2010
     Thom Donovan

    I'm not sure who you are "Ian," but you are supplying me with great material for my Facebook status updates. thanks!

  3. January 14, 2010
     Bhanu Kapil

    Mourning and repetition....very beautiful language. Thank you. Each time you write about art or film or anything really, you give us an insane gift. It would be interesting to meet your mum or the person who functioned as a mother. Robert Creeley was a mother, for example, I discovered, reading Anne Waldman's IOVIS 2 last night. You don't have to answer this.

  4. January 14, 2010
     Thom Donovan

    you would like my mother because she is also a cancer Bhanu. still trying to nail down what the connection between film and mourning is... something to do with the lip-synch. I am a little obssessed by the lip-synch. Susan Howe used to say that the American voice (literary voice) was like a lip-synch of England. she gave this really cool lecture once reading Emerson's "The American Scholar" through Dickinson and David Lynch. I think all of this has to do with your sentences too. you and Susan have similar ways of punctuating. deep in the American grain, insofar as the American grain is deeply uprooted--borderline and migratory. it's so funny you mention Creeley--who I often think about as family even tho I barely knew him while at Bflo. I like to think of him as mother. there was something seriously gentle about that man (despite the violence of many of his poems). I need to read more Waldman. IOVIS is a good place to start? have you ever read (Robert) Duncan's The H.D. Book? I think you wld love it. there Duncan talks about his first mother in becoming poet--a school teacher whose voice he fell in love with. THE POET GOES WHERE (S)HE IS LOVED--a mantra. talk about an insane gift! lots to say abt your "Animaux" post later...

  5. January 14, 2010
     David Buuck

    ah, Miguel! an old friend from college - I used to play piano occasionally for his dance classes when he lived in SF--- and yes, an amazing thinker, performer, writer...\r
    check out his new book:\r

    & say hi from Buuck next time you see him!\r

  6. January 14, 2010
     thom donovan

    that's not at all surprising that you and Miguel know each other David--two brilliant synthetic minds. I am actually reviewing his book for The Brooklyn Rail. quite good! \r
    how are you? is the instruction festival a go?