Gutter Cleaners; a video portrait

In the mid 90s, guitarist Derek Bailey (1930-2005) forwarded me a copy of the VHS video “Mountain Stage”, a performance from 1993 featuring himself and dancer Min Tanaka. Upon viewing, I was immediately struck by how their aesthetic paralleled that of Gutter Cleaners, a dance music duo founded by myself and dancer Susan Sperl which was active from 1982-1992. Unlike the “formal” or “structured” indeterminacy utilized by John Cage and Merce Cunningham — the choreography and music created independently and only brought together at the first performance but then fixed — our shared aesthetic was an “improvised” indeterminacy; an approach to music/dance collaboration rarely employed at the time (or since). (I should note that in 2004, I was fortunate to be able to view videos of trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon’s improvised work with dancer Judith Dunn from the mid-60s , wherein they explored similar terrain to magnificent effect.) I wrote to thank Derek, informing him of the aesthetic connection, and he responded by expressing interest in seeing video of our work. As we didn’t have the means to properly video concerts, such documentation was almost nonexistent in the early years, and, later, possible by using the venue’s single stationary camera. Occasionally, however, someone would video tape a concert, capturing the work in a more conventional (pan/scan, etc.) manner. Without exception, the tapes were of a, shall we say, verité/in situ nature. Pursuant to Derek’s request, Susan went through the videos and selected several to forward. The response from Derek was utterly effusive. He was extremely taken with Susan’s work (and, I suppose, liked the music as well [smile]). (Despite a few slightly higher profile concerts, Gutter Cleaners was essentially ignored by the so-called dance and music communities, the media and the general public. Having given her all in what was essentially a vacuum, this praise, coming from someone with Derek’s experience, to say nothing of his having worked with someone of Min’s calibre was, even after-the-fact as it were, as unexpected as it was deeply appreciated.) The set he and his partner Karen Brookman chose to publish on his Incus imprint was one of those slightly higher profile gigs, captured by an unknown videographer. By the time it went through the transfer/duplication process, the visual looked as if it had somehow been “treated” with the overall effect curiously complementing/enhancing the work. Up until this point, that VHS tape was the only publicly available document of Susan’s and my collaborative work. Now, thanks to filmmaker/videographer Mike Yaeger’s sensitive, skillful editing, a mini-documentary on Gutter Cleaners which, in addition to a narrated overview, effectively captures the artistry of Susan’s improvisational acumen, has been posted on YouTube.

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