Miguel Gutierrez: Coming full circle, from an unexpected angle

As a member of the Class of 2021, award-winning performer and choreographer Miguel Gutierrez completed the Brown degree he had begun 31 years before, finding unexpected peace while fulfilling his parents’ dream.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In geometry, a trajectory is a dynamic curve, propelled by constant force, whose path can be predicted by mathematical formula. For many Brown graduates, earning their degree marks a defining point on their personal trajectories — a celebratory pause in a planned arc from high school to college, and college to the varied professional goals they will pursue.

But for Class of 2021 graduate Miguel Gutierrez, completing his degree at Brown was part of a narrative shaped much differently — one whose swerves, shifts and unexpected full circles map a personal geometry with forces whose patterns have been harder to predict.

“I feel like my life has been an experiment in irregular temporality,” he said.

Gutierrez, an award-winning performer and choreographer — whose decades-long career has taken him from San Francisco to Europe to New York, where he has been based for the past two decades — returned to Brown in Fall 2020, where he completed the degree that he had begun decades before.

“At graduation, I could see all these students looking at me, like, ‘Who is that guy? What is he doing?’” he said. “I was like, ‘I’m just working out a 27-year-old thing, you guys. It’s all good.’”

"I loved being a student. I’m ready to be a student now in a way that I could never have been when I was actually college-aged. It’s crazy to realize — I needed the world to stop in order to focus my energies."

Miguel Gutierrez — Photo by Marley Trigg Stewart
Miguel Gutierrez

In some ways, the starting point of Gutierrez’s full-circle journey began before he was born. His parents both immigrated to the United States from Colombia, bringing with them a strong faith in the power of education — for both themselves and, later, Gutierrez and his older sister, who is herself a Brown alumna.

His father in particular held a deep passion for learning. An electrical engineer whose dream to attend MIT led to a honeymoon in Boston, where he walked the school’s campus, he put himself through college while Gutierrez was growing up, completing a bachelor’s degree in engineering the same spring that Gutierrez completed high school.  The two had a joint party celebrating their twin achievements.

“Education was literally the most important thing for my father,” Gutierrez said.

His family’s investment in education followed Gutierrez to Brown, where he was quickly drawn into the University’s student-run performance scene.

“I loved the people,” he said. “Brown was so attractive because I wasn’t lacking for things to do creatively at all. I was very involved with other student choreographers. I was in their work, they were in my work... All I wanted to do was rehearse.”

With performance becoming his driving force, Gutierrez transferred from Brown to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts after his sophomore year. There, he completed one more year before leaving school to pursue a full-time position with Joe Goode Performance Group, an experimental dance company based in San Francisco.

Miguel Gutierrez at Brown
At Brown in the early 1990s, Gutierrez was quickly drawn into the University’s student-run performance scene.

It was an excellent professional opportunity and one that would have a lasting impact on his own work as a dancer, performer and choreographer. But Gutierrez felt torn.

“There was this feeling that I had kind of disrupted the presumed order of events,” he said. “I think particularly as a first-generation person, there is a set amount that you’re meant to fulfill the dream of your parents. If your parents were immigrants, you’re really not supposed to do things out of order because they’ve already been in such a challenging situation. I think that I felt aware of the fact that I was leaving this presumed narrative that had been sort of set up for me — one that I had never really participated in writing.”

Gutierrez went on to write a narrative that was definitively his own. His professional identity encompasses many nouns — composer, performer, singer, writer, educator and arts advocate — all constellated around a verb: choreograph.

“I prefer sometimes to define myself with the verb, because if I say, ‘I am a choreographer,’ often I think people have this very 1980s movie idea of what a choreographer is — like it’s me in front of a room barking at a bunch of people,” he said.

In contrast, Gutierrez describes his work as driven by conceptual questions — often examining how markers like sexuality, age, race and politics affect identity — and deep collaboration with his fellow performers.

“I’m definitely making dance-based performance work that’s in the tradition of a particular experimental legacy,” he said. “I am asking myself these kinds of political, philosophical questions, and they are taking the form of performance... It feels like the place where I get to be the most complicated, both clear and irresolute, because the performance work isn’t necessarily coming up with a solution to anything.”

Fulfilling a legacy

Gutierrez’s most recent work is a performance piece called “This Bridge Called My Ass,” which features six Latinx performers exploring tropes of Latinidad through movement and sound. It had begun touring outside of New York City when the COVID-19 pandemic began, halting live theater in nearly all major U.S. cities.

It was in this pause that Gutierrez’s thoughts swerved back to college. His reasons were partly practical: As his professional profile rose, he was receiving offers to teach at colleges, some of which required a bachelor’s.

But he was also revisited by the dream his parents had had for him years before, which carried a new weight in the wake of his father’s death a year before. “I think there was some part of this that was about making amends to my father and to my mother,” he said.

He added: “I think things happened the way they were meant to,” but “enough water has passed under the bridge” for him now to see sacrifices his parents made for his schooling: “Things that I just wasn’t aware of or couldn’t possibly have appreciated the gravity of, because I was very caught up in the maelstrom of Miguel, the tornado that was my mind and my body at the time.”

So with much of the country in lockdown to curb the spread of COVID, Gutierrez applied to return to Brown through the Resumed Undergraduate Education program. A few short months later, he began his first Brown coursework in almost 30 years — this time virtually, as he was at the time leading his own Zoom courses as a guest instructor at Princeton.

“I loved being a student,” he said. “‘I’m ready to be a student now in a way that I could never have been when I was actually college-aged. It’s crazy to realize — I needed the world to stop in order to focus my energies.”

In his long-postponed senior year at Brown, Gutierrez took a wide range of courses, from a graduate-level theater and performance arts seminar to a Latinx history course to Introduction to Economics.

“A lot of research in my own work has been about the relationship of art-making to philanthropy and the ethics involved in that,” said Gutierrez, who recently launched a podcast called “Are You For Sale?”, which explores this topic. “I literally taught a class on the topic at Princeton last fall. So I was like, ‘I should probably take an economics class if I’m ever going to teach that class again’ …  It was really fun to be in that class.”

After first arriving at Brown as a member of the Class of 1993, Gutierrez completed his coursework last spring and graduated in May as a member of the Class of 2021. At Commencement, he wore two items that pointed to the unexpected trajectory that had brought him away from Brown, and then back, in the 32 years in between. The first was a mortarboard decorated with the message: “Started Class of ’93. Life happened. Now Class of '21.”

The second was a tapestry Gutierrez wore over his gown, printed with a sepia-toned photograph of his father, sitting cross-legged with an enormous textbook.

“He’s so young — 25, 26 probably,” he said. “I had that picture next to me all year at my desk.” He brought the photo with him to the ceremony, too, “just to hold.”

Shrouded in his father’s image — with his mother cheering him on as a member of the ceremony’s virtual audience — Gutierrez felt one thread of his untimely narrative come full circle, he said.

“I know that I don’t need the degree to make my work,” he said. “The degree is a beautiful signpost, but it’s not the thing I need in order to make art, and it never was. But it does allow me to close a certain chapter that I needed to resolve for me to feel right, psychically and spiritually — to feel like the legacy of my father, of my parents’ work on this planet, was able to be fulfilled.”