Thursday, February 27, 2020
by Oskar Kokoschka
Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger
CHORUS: MEN and WOMEN
Night sky. Tower with large red iron grille as door; torches the only light; black ground, rising to the tower in such a way that all the figures appear in relief.
THE MAN in blue armor, white face, kerchief covering a wound, with a crowd of men—savage in appearance, gray-and-red kerchiefs, white-black-and-brown clothes, signs on their clothes, bare legs, long-handled torches, bells, din—creeping up with handles of torches extended and lights; wearily, reluctantly try to hold back the adventurer, pull his horse to the ground; he walks on, they open up the circle around him, crying out in a slow crescendo.
MEN. We were the flaming wheel around him,
We were the flaming wheel around you, assailant of locked fortresses!
Hesitantly follow him again in chain formation; he, with the torch bearer in front of him, heads the procession.
MEN. Lead us, pale one!
While they are about to pull his horse to the ground, women with their leader ascend steps on the left.
WOMAN, red clothes, loose yellow hair, tall.
WOMAN, loud. With my breath I fan the yellow disc of the sun, my eye collects the jubilation of the men, their stammering lust prowls around me like a beast.
FEMALE ATTENDANTS separate themselves from her, only now catch sight of the stranger.
FIRST FEMALE ATTENDANT. His breath attaches itself to the virgin!
FIRST MAN to the others. Our master is like the moon that rises in the East.
SECOND GIRL, quiet, her face averted. When will she be enfolded joyfully?
Listening, alert, the CHORUS walks round the whole stage, dispersed in groups; THE MAN and the WOMAN meet in front of the gate.
WOMAN observes him spellbound, then to herself. Who is the stranger that has looked on me?
GIRLS press to the fore.
FIRST GIRL recognizes him, cries out. His sister died of love.
SECOND GIRL. O the singing of Time, flowers never seen.
THE MAN, astonished; his procession halts. Am I real? What did the shadows say?
Raising his face to her.
Did you look at me, did I look at you?
WOMAN, filled with fear and longing. Who is the pallid man? Hold him back.
FIRST GIRL, with a piercing scream, runs back. Do you let him in? It is he who strangles my little sister praying in the temple.
FIRST MAN to the girl. We saw him stride through the fire, his feet unharmed.
SECOND MAN. He tortured animals to death, killed neighing mares by the pressure of his thighs.
THIRD MAN. Birds that ran before us he made blind, stifled red fishes in the sand.
THE MAN angry, heated. Who is she that like an animal proudly grazes amidst her kin?
FIRST MAN. She divines what none has understood.
SECOND MAN. She perceives what none has seen or heard.
THIRD MAN. They say shy birds approach her and let themselves be seized.
GIRLS in time with the men.
FIRST GIRL. Lady, let us flee. Extinguish the flares of the leader.
SECOND GIRL. Mistress, escape!
THIRD GIRL. He shall not be our guest or breathe our air. Let him not lodge with us, he frightens me.
MEN, hesitant, walk on, WOMEN crowd together anxiously. The WOMAN goes up to THE MAN, prowling, cautious.
FIRST GIRL. He has no luck.
FIRST MAN. She has no shame.
WOMAN. Why do you bind me, man, with your gaze? Ravening light, you confound my flame! Devouring life overpowers me. O take away my terrible hope—and may torment overpower you.
THE MAN, enraged. My men, now brand her with my sign, hot iron into her red flesh.
MEN carry out his order. First the CHORUS, with their lights, struggle with her, then the OLD MAN with the iron; he rips open her dress and brands her.
WOMAN, crying out in terrible pain. Beat back those men, the devouring corpses.
She leaps at him with a knife and strikes a wound in his side. THE MAN falls.
MEN. Free this man possessed, strike down the devil. Alas for us innocents, bury the conqueror. We do not know him.
THE MAN, in convulsions, singing with a bleeding, visible wound. Senseless craving from horror to horror, unappeasable rotation in the void. Birth pangs without birth, hurtling down of the sun, quaking of space. The end of those who praised me. Oh, your unmerciful word.
MEN. We do not know him; spare us. Come, you singing girls, let us celebrate our nuptials on his bed of affliction.
GIRLS. He frightens us; you we loved even before you came.
Three masked men on the wall lower a coffin on ropes; the wounded man, hardly stirring now, is placed inside the tower. WOMEN retire with the MEN. The OLD MAN rises and locks the door, all is dark, a torch, quiet, blue light above in the cage.
WOMAN, moaning and revengeful. He cannot live, nor die; how white he is!
She creeps round the cage like a panther. She crawls up to the cage inquisitively, grips the bars lasciviously, inscribes a large white cross on the tower, cries out.
Open the gate; I must be with him.
Shakes the bars in despair.
MEN and WOMEN, enjoying themselves in the shadows, confused. We have lost the key—we shall find it—have you got it?— haven't you seen it?—we are not guilty of your plight, we do not know you—
They go back again. A cock crows, a pale light rises in the background.
WOMAN slides her arm through the bars and prods his wound, hissing maliciously, like an adder. Pale one, do you recoil? Do you know fear? Are you only asleep? Are you awake? Can you hear me?
THE MAN, inside, breathing heavily, raises his head with difficulty; later, moves one hand; then slowly rises, singing higher and higher, soaring.
Wind that wanders, time repeating time, solitude, repose and hunger confuse me.
Worlds that circle past, no air, it grows long as evening.
WOMAN, incipient fear. So much light is flowing from the gap, so much strength from the gate, pale as a corpse he's turned.
Once more creeps up the steps, her body trembling, triumphant once more and crying out with a high voice. THE MAN has slowly risen, leans against the grille, slowly grows.
WOMAN weakening, furious. A wild beast I tame in this cage; is it with hunger your song barks?
THE MAN. Am I the real one, you the dead ensnared? Why are you turning pale?
Crowing of cocks.
WOMAN, trembling. Do you insult me, corpse?
THE MAN, powerfully. Stars and moon! Woman! In dream or awake, I saw a singing creature brightly shine. Breathing, dark things become clear to me. Who nourishes me?
WOMAN covers him entirely with her body; separated by the grille, to which she clings high up in the air like a monkey.
THE MAN. Who suckles me with blood? I devour your melting flesh.
WOMAN. I will not let you live, you vampire, piecemeal you feed on me, weaken me, woe to you, I shall kill you—you fetter me—you I caught and caged—and you are holding me—let go of me. Your love imprisons me—grips me as with iron chains—throttles me—let go—help! I lost the key that kept you prisoner.
Lets go the grille, writhes on the steps like a dying annual, her thighs and muscles convulsed.
THE MAN stands upright now, pulls open the gate, touches the woman—who rears up stiffly, dead white—with his fingers. She feels that her end is near, highest tension, released in a slowly diminishing scream; she collapses and, as she falls, tears away the torch from the hands of the rising leader. The torch goes out and covers everything in a shower of sparks. He stands on the highest step; men and women who attempt to flee from him run into his way, screaming.
CHORUS. The devil! Tame him, save yourselves, save your selves if you can—all is lost!He walks straight towards them. Kills them like mosquitoes and leaves red behind. From very far away, crowing of cocks.
*Reprinted from An Anthology of German Expressionist Drama, ed. by Walker H. Sokel (New York: Anchor, 1963), pp. 17-21.
© 1963 by Anchor Books.
First performed at the Kunstchau Theatre in Vienna in 1909, Murderer, the Women's Hope, by artist Oscar Kokoschka, was one of the seminal plays of German Expressionism. The shocking representation of the battle of the sexes, ends with everyone except the Man, dying. The Vienna premiere cause a great deal of controversy, as soldiers, watching the play from the edge of the garden, rushed through the barrier, a riot breaking out before the police arrived. Kokoschka, as well as his writer friends Adolf Loos and Karl Kraus, were issued a warning, but not arrested for disturbing the peace. But both public and press, for the most part, detested the play, describing it as a collection of "screaming images," and a "pretentious Decoration Drama."
Douglas Messerli | "Explaining to the US What Evil Is All About (on Paul Hindemith's Murderer, Hope of Women and Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins as directed by Essa-Pekka Salonen)
explaining to the us what evil is all about
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) The Weimar Republic: Germany 1918-1933 Weimar Nightfall / Los Angeles Philharmonic / the concert I attended was on Sunday, February 16, 2020.
The great Bauhaus architect/designer Oskar Schlemmer did the original costumes, choreography, and sets for the Hindemith performance, which was so controversial that it was removed from the State Theater in Stuttgart in 1921, after only its second performance. This work might be one of the most often performed work of an absolute flop of first performances that ever existed.
Despite its terribly dark tones, however, Hindemith’s 1919 work is not only highly lyrical, but filled with beautiful romantic flourishes, with 3 flutes, an English horn, rumbling brass, clarinets, drums, tam-tam, cymbals, strings, and 2 harps—along with a full chorus (in this case the talented Los Angeles Master Chorale, headed by Grant Gershom), and eight singers led by Madeleine Bradbury Rance (as the woman) and Christopher Purves (as the Man). In the Sunday production I saw Alaysha Fox replaced Anna Schubert as the First Maiden, and there are 2 others who observe the horrors of the woman and man in their sexual mis-match, ending in love and murder.
The LAPhil performed this work with their usual professional polish, soaring along with the composer’s score in its often lush rises and flourishes; yet I felt it seemed somehow a bit toned down, particularly after hearing, a couple of weeks ago, the absolutely thrilling renditions by Gustavo Dudamel of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky (a concert that I will never be able to remove from my head thank heaven). It may have been that the seemingly heavy metal cut-out shards created by director Simon McBurney and production designer Anna Fleischle to suggest the breakup of the Weimar world, may have slightly muted the normally glorious sounds of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
As a short prologue to this piece reminds us, all of the composers and writers involved in this project, having to escape Nazi Germany for their religious convictions and being classified by Hitler and others as “degenerate” artists, eventually made their way to the US, and ultimately arrived in Los Angeles, helping to create the long literary and musical legacy that survives still today.
Escaping to Los Angeles, German authors along with Weill and Brecht attempted to bring their somewhat formulized notion of world-wide evil to the US, in the central piece of the evening, the delightfully evil Seven Deadly Sins, with two versions of a character named Anna (Nora Fischer, dressed in a slinky blue gown) and her theatrical other, in this case a dancer (Gabriella Schmidt).
Together the two figures travel from their Louisiana home to visit the major cities of the US, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, seven cities of course, discovering their personal attachments to Sloth, Pride, Wrath, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, and Envy, yet gradually overcoming each before returning to their Louisiana home and, presumably, redemption.
Here, with somewhat Brechtian staging, the singer and dancer do not remain on stage but move through the orchestral seats in order to engage the audience with their sins.
I can just say that when Fischer sings that state’s name in German, it sent shivers down my spine, the same way Weill’s and Brecht’s great Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny made me feel about a state I could not even imagine living in, Alabama. In their works, in which the whole of the American continent was made to feel the same sins of the world they had had to abandon, they helped the culture to perceive they were not to be isolated from what was happening in the whole world, and, even more importantly, that they were not innocent from its sins. The Seven Deadly Sins were not “over there,” but scratching the backs of everyone in LOUisIANA, Al-abMAMA” and everywhere else where we might have lived.
For the world in which we today live, there can be no better lessons than these and other European émigrés taught us through their arts. O please, send us your…tired, poor, and even your rich. We need them, as this LAPhil concert clearly reveals to us.
Los Angeles, February 20, 2020
Reprinted from World Arts Review (February 2020).
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Douglas Messerli | "Active Fruits" (on Tabaimo and Maki Morishita's Fruits Borne Out of Rust at REDCAT)
by Douglas Messerli
Tabaimo and Maki Morishita (director and choreographer) Fruits Borne Out of Rust / REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) / the performance I saw was with Lita Barrie on Sunday, February 23, 2020
I never, as a critic, enjoy complaining about the difficulties one has in describing the event he has just encountered. I’ve done it only a very few times. But the rather stunningly beautiful Tabaimo and Maki Morishita performance of their Fruits Borne Out of Rust is just such a work. I think part of the problem exists within me, enjoying the sensibility of Japanese culture without entirely being able to completely comprehend it.
Having just come back from the completely energetic dance performances of Lula Washington and the Contra-Tiempo Urban Latin Dance Theater performances at the Wallis Annenberg theater in Beverly Hills, I was a bit underwhelmed by this quieter and more intellectually conceived work.
Both of those previous concerts were so exciting to the audience and performers that you had to just wonder at their exuberance. Combining, Latin American, African, and black American cultural references made me realize just how much of US dance depends on these sources. After all, jazz and Latin American rhythms are at the heart of what is perhaps one of our very greatest of contributions of the popular theater musicals, Leonard Bernstein’s and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story.
Just yesterday, in The New York Times Gia Kourlas rightfully called out the abandonment by the rather dour Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s version of the new Broadway representation of the great musical made even greater through its cinematic presentation. The finger-clips, she argued, represented the very visceral and bodily tension of the young people of that period, a kind of beat-like energy that went right down their torsos into their legs. As Kourlas quite brilliantly argues:
Robbins’s choreography — with its searing blend of tension and
freedom — gives “West Side Story” its joy and its horror. It
springs the events into action. Arthur Laurents wrote the book, but
Robbins’s choreography is the true libretto.
Let’s just say that US citizens, like as the name of one of the characters in West Side Story, like “action.”
Compare that with director Tabaimo’s note about the work I saw the other night:
Rust is the reaction of iron undergoing oxidation in effort to obtain a more
stable state of matter.
From instability, stability is born. Then, when that stability loses its balance,
an unstable state is born again….
Though it may look as though the cycle is going around and around, it is
actually progressing little by little until the fruits of this cycle are born.
Those fruits will not be still, but rather will create another phase of instability.
And indeed, this performance by the excellent dancer Chiharu Mamiya, a classically trained ballet dancer, does gradually represent just those cycles and transformations that Tabaimo and Morishita proclaim.
Brief—in my mind all too brief—exultations of exciting dance movement alternate in this work with slow-moving, on-the-floor arm and leg gesticulations. These seem more like something, to me, out of Kabuki theater than traditional Western dance. I realize my lack of perception, and my own inability to recognize the theoretical possibilities of dance—which I also truly admire—yet by the performance’s ending I felt disappointed, particularly after the wonderful final Medea-like let-go of Mamiya at the end. Somehow I felt frustrated to not experience Mamiya’s balletic abilities.
Yet, she was able to convey a great many emotional expressions even laying on the floor, particularly when alternating in a colorful leotard with more active expressions of her skills. But the true genius of this work exist in Tabaimo’s startlingly beautiful video projections—reminding me somewhat of the Barrie Kosky videos for Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
In the end, I came to appreciate this work because it was based on a theory inside the body’s simple ability to explode in its need to express possible motion. Perhaps the citizens of the US need to curtail their more violent expressions and maybe the Japanese need to let themselves—and I say this after reviewing dozens of Japanese films by Kurosawa, Oshima, Teshigahara and numerous others—desire to open themselves up to a livelier expression of love and desire. Rust and oxidation just doesn’t do it for me.
As my theater companion for the night, Lita Barrie, and I rose to leave the REDCAT Theater, she asked me what I thought about the performance. I didn’t immediately answer since I do not like to have other theater-goers overhear my appreciations and peeves. Each to their own views I would intensely argue. But as we left the theater for the parking lot, I suggested that I found the dance quite “gestural.”
She laughed: “That’s just what the man next to me whispered as we were about to leave.”
But “gestural” is not necessarily a negative statement. It’s simply a different tradition from ours, one that I might want to explore more deeply. If the highly expressive Method Acting and melodramatic dramas of US theater define us, perhaps just a gentle movement of the hands, the face, the legs, might be a better way to express our pain and frustrations. Perhaps the cycle of rust to oxidation represents a far longer view of human life. And perhaps the slow movement from one to the other is not so very different from what occurred in West Side Story: the past to the present, when the oxygen of the one redacts the other. The newly acclimated Sharks, after all, destroyed the Jets.
Los Angeles, February 26, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Peformance (February 2020).
Wednesday, February 5, 2020
Douglas Messrli | "It Ain't Necessarily So" ( George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the MET HD-live production)
it ain’t necessarily so
by Douglas Messerli
DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin (libretto and lyrics), George Gershwin (music), based on the fiction by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy, Porgy and Bess / Howard Fox and I attended the HD-Met Performance presentation on February 1st 2020.
What can you say of the great American opera, Porgy and Bess? Yes, there are some of the greatest Gershwin brothers songs which include “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” “I Loves You Bess,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Oh, Lord, I’m On My Way”—“Who could Ask for Anything More”?
Yet there is so much more to this opera, now finally redeemed by the new MET production I saw on an HD live performance on Saturday, February 1st, 2020 so that I can’t imagine why this great “folk opera” was not previously perceived as one the greatest of US opera conceptions. It is definitely not a Broadway musical, at least how I heard it this time round.
And yes, we all know this was a work conceived by white boys and women, the original book being written by DuBose Heyward and his wife (who deserves her own special tribute), Dorothy, and then reconceived by George and Ira Gershwin. And, we recognize, years later, that they translated their work into a South Carolina dialect and sometimes stereotypical behavior of the denizens of Catfish Row. Yet, this great operatic presentation asks us, straight-forwardly, to get over it. There were dialects, blacks spoke, at that time, differently from white idioms of speech. Good for them, even if they aren’t quite rendered precisely by their white interpreters.
But no one who sees this opera can really proclaim that these figures are completely stereotypes: in fact these characters, at least in this production, are amazing individuals, each in their own way suffering and challenging us to comprehend their particular identities in a manner that no previous US musical or opera performances had previously demanded.
Clara (Golda Schultz) hushes her baby by declaring her own ascendancy into the black community in which she resides:
And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich
And your mamma's good lookin'
So hush little baby
Don't you cry
He will ascend eventually into this all black community as a kind of person to “spread his wings.” The Gershwin’s, in short, made it clear from their first song, that this was not a closed community, but an expression of new possibilities. Catfish Row, although locked down each night, was an open possibility of the new, of something outside of the racist world in which most of the opera’s figures, faced always with their possible deaths, knew that their desolate community was alive, willing to create a new world outside of their limited confines.
And, then central characters, with George Gershwin’s remarkable soaring orchestrations, which conductor David Robertson evinces from the always remarkable MET orchestra, help us to perceive that the drug-driven and highly abused Bess (the amazing Angel Blue) who must, in order to survive, make the impossible decision to move away from both Crown (Alfred Walker) and the truly satanic figure of this opera, Sportin’ Life (a devilishly loveable Fredrick Ballentine).
As much as she loves Porgy (the always engaging Eric Owens) and much as he loves his Bess, she is doomed by her own past. Another “crippled,” destroyed individual in this community—Porgy cannot quite save her, even if he successfully protects her from the brutal Crown’s attempts to reconnect to a world of a kind of Eurydice and Hades—if there was ever a “them and us” world it is here in Catfish Row—they protect one another while still slightly ostracize their own community members. The balance is nearly impossible; at one moment you are at home, the very next moment thrown out for you own natural proclivities.
Bess is one of the most tragic figures in all of opera. She loves her Porgy but cannot truly escape her errors of the past. She is hated and loved in a community that would embrace her but, in the very next moment, send her, as the last song proclaims, “on her way,” This is, in fact, a story about community—all of our communities—which love us and hate us for our variances at the very same moment. The tragedy of this great opera—and in this production I did perceive it as a great opera—was that Bess, despite her love of Porgy, cannot get rid of her demons.
Porgy, in his last song, had to embrace them, presumably moving on the New York City, where drugs and Sportin’ Life has taken her to, but also to where we truly know will also be his own death, “The Promised Land.” Of course, his reverse travel from South to North (I recall the impossible journey in Irving Reis’s The Big Street, wherein Henry Fonda moves Lucille Ball by wheelchair to Florida), will probably result in his “promised land” death. He will never recover his Eurydice surely, and if he might, he will obviously turn back to see her following him, resulting in her death again. His home to “the promised land” is a certain statement of his sorrow and breakdown.
Porgy and Bess is as tragic as any European opera. Catfish Row is Venice, Rome, Paris, and all the communities of the world that have witnessed tragic deaths of divas and the tenors, baritones, and even contra-tenors who loved those cities. Forget the dialect, the white writers and composers, who created them. These are major statements of love and desire that remain eternally located in all of our imaginations. Porgy is always in love with his beautiful Bess no matter how we might re-imagine them.
Los Angeles, February 5, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (February 2020).
a different space: an interview between douglas messerli and simone forti
In late January I was invited by the publicist for REDCAT, Matthew Johnstone, apparently on the suggestion of a staff member who I don’t know, to interview the great dancer/creator Simone Forti.
I quickly agreed, although I was fairly ignorant, I must admit, of her vast career. I had met her, I believe, decades earlier, probably at Judson Dance Theatre, in 1969, with Yvonne Rainer. Today I cannot even imagine who might have taken me to that venue; perhaps Peter Frank (who Simone said she knew), or another figure such as Mac Wellman or Fiona Templeton. It’s not important: I shook hands and was simply happy to be around their company. I later saw her perform at the memorial service for the great artist/performance figure Nam June Paik at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But beyond that, I was quite unaware of her entire career and oeuvre.
A little, or even great deal of research, made me perceive how our lives had long circled each other’s, as later my friend Fred Dewey published some of her books, and my own editor and assistant Pablo Capra came to know her through her involvement at Beyond Baroque, a poetry reading venue in Venice, on whose board I once served.
And, finally, truly meeting one another in the dressing-room bowels of the Redcat at the Walt Disney Center in downtown Los Angeles, we bonded, it seemed to me, in a way that she and I have done with so many other dancers, writers, artists, and performers over long years.
I left the interview almost in tears over the new friendship I felt I had made with this incredible figure.
Below is my interview, reconstructed, carefully, from the computer notes and memory of my warm encounter with Simone. (I’ve identified my inquiries with an “M” for my last name, and Forti’s answers and other statements with an “F.”
M: I’m going to ask you questions, which perhaps you have answered several times in your life, I must apologize, in a rather historical context, in part, to simply help readers understand the entire scope of your work.
Simone, you were born in Florence, Italy and left early in your life with your family to escape Mussolini’s reign to Bern, Switerzland (incidentally the city in which my relatives from both sides of my family originally came from). Did your early life in either of these countries later influence you in any manner? And if so, how?
F: We were in Bern, for six months. During that time my sister and I were taken for walks in the bearpits. It was winter, and I loved the snow.
M: Yes, we don’t have such weather here in Los Angeles, do we?
F: I miss weather. It’s almost scary to wake up and realize you’re under the glass veldt.
M: After graduating from the famous Los Angeles Fairfax High School you attended Reed College in Oregon, another hotbed for writers, dancers, and performers. Did Reed help you to perceive what you later accomplished?
F: Most importantly was meeting Morris there. Cage and Olson were also at Reed, but I wasn’t aware, and I had little recognition, given my age, about what was going on around me.
M: In 1955 you married the soon-to-be important artist Robert Morris, working with him over the next several years. How did Morris effect your dancing and artistic aspirations, or, perhaps more interestingly, how did you help effect his own art?
F: For one thing he was a task master. He wanted me to be applying my talent. People were doing light-shows at the time. I was influential in helping Bob come into the performance world. At the same time, I did a number of abstract expressionist paintings.
M: Once you moved with Morris to the Bay Area, you began working with the dancer/choreographer Anna Halprin, joining her Dancer’s Workshop which included other great figures such as A.A. Leath and John Graham. At the time you were 21 years of age, a long time after which most dancers begin their career—and I might add that Paul Taylor, himself a late beginner, encouraged me at about that same age to begin dancing, which I did soon after, taking courses at the Joffrey Ballet Company in New York. How did that age difference liberate or perhaps delimit your aspirations?
F: To do ballet you had to start as a very small child, but as an artist working with movement… it didn’t cross my mind that I should have started earlier. These artists working Halprin were older, working with movement, not working at the baré.
M: In the late 1950s you and Morris moved to New York City, and you began to work in an improvisation class at the Merce Cunningham studio. Merce could be a difficult critic of his even own dancers. What was your experience with him?
F: I didn’t have much contact with Merce himself, since I worked primarily with Robert Dunn. Later I had a wonderful lunch with Cage.
M: Well, Cage was always the charmer.
Obviously you flourished, not only making contact with Merce’s companion John Cage but developing relationships with other dancers such as Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Steve Paxton. Today, it seems almost remarkable that you were so able to draw younger and same-age talents to you, later working with many of them. Did you perceive yourself as a rather gregarious person, or simply someone who befriended so many talents?
F: Yes, I was rather gregarious, but also my talents and their talents were attached to Bob Dunn. He wanted us to make a frame for ourselves in order to create our work.
M: Soon after, in the early 1960s you were already creating what you described as “Dance Constructions,” featuring what might be described as every day or even pedestrian movements with Yvonne Rainer (in See Saw) and Matty Mucha (then Patty Oldenberg) who performed one of your most noted works Roller Boxes. How did this wonderment of creativity come about?
F: One thread in this story was I became aware of the Gutai movement in Japan, through photos of their work, especially of walking through paper, a series of frames stretched with paper set in front of one another, walking on paper. And it seemed to me as one action, one gesture.
Gutai means concrete. I felt dizzy with “Improvisation 15,” all of us working until 3:00 in the morning!
M: Bringing together both dance and visual art (one of your major early pieces was performed in Yoko Ono’s studio) along with Ruth Allphon, Marni Mahaffay, Morris, Paxton, Rainer, and Carl Lehmann-Haupt, you almost single-handedly transformed the dance landscape, which led, the same year, to the establishment of the famed Judson Dance Theater in Judson Memorial Church. What did you feel about these incredible achievements, and weren’t you a bit overwhelmed?
F: I don’t think I was aware of these great achievements; it was what I had the opportunity to do. Not so different from happenings. Accumulating a lot of work.
O Black Mountain, if I had been around at Black Mountain, I felt in those days! I didn’t quite realize what were attaining on our own in New York.
M: As Paxton has written: "All I know is that this small, radical group of works by Forti was like a pebble tossed into a large, still, and complacent pond. The ripples radiated. Most notably, Forti's event happened prior to the first performance at Judson Memorial Church by the choreographers from Robert Dunn's composition class, and they took courage from it."
From there you moved on to what at the time was described as “happenings,” many with your second husband Robert Whitman, now calling yourself Simone Whitman.
F: I was on Whitman’s team, participating in his work.
M: It’s almost as if you kept transforming yourself, creating new worlds of dance, performance art, and other combines that no one before had somehow imagined, with works such as American Moon, “Hole, Water, Nighttime Sky and others which called up a world of natural imagery before turning in the late 1960s to your Zoo Mantras and other works based on the movements of animals locked behind bars in the Rome Zoo and elsewhere. I’ve seen some of the animals, particularly the bears in Berlin, although I’ve never visited the Rome zoo.
How did you come perceive that such primitive and often obsessive behaviors might be interesting to dance?
F: As I mentioned previously, when I was a kid my father would take me and my sister to the zoo in Bern and we’d draw, and then we’d discuss how we’d captured their movements.
That was one thing which I had in my background. In Rome, I had lodgings near the zoo, and the animals were sad and I was sad, having just broken up with Whitman.
I started drawing the animals again and watching them move and looking at other animals in the New York Zoo. New York bears are pretty creative. They do not simply pace but work out relationships with their spaces. Part of their behavior inside, and outside represented on tapes of the museum, was expressed in their gaits, how they walk, which was what became most interesting to me. I would try it to imitate the gaits of bears and other animals: giraffes, kangaroos, etc. Even though I, as a human being, walked so very differently.
M: Yes, and isn’t it sad what is now happening to the kangaroos in the Australian fires.
F: Yes. Tragic.
M: And later, in Fabio Sargentini’s Festival Music and Dance, you met and worked with figures such as Joan Jonas, Charlemagne Palestine, and La Monte Young. Were those figures or earlier ones who introduced you to the concepts you would later embrace surrounding Fluxus?
F: Going back to Robert Dunn’s class, we were assigned to do a 3-minute piece and not work on it, a kind of Fluxus-like act. But I don’t feel so much aligned with Fluxus. I always say I was married to Fluxus through my third husband, musician Peter Van Riper, who wanted very much to be a Fluxus figure, but did other things as well. The Fluxus group was very selective about who they might include among their midst.
M: I’m completely ignoring your time in Woodstock but let us move forward a bit.
Back in California, working at the California Institute of the Arts in the early 1970s you worked and shared a house with the innovative composer/performer Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles and your third husband Peter Van Riper. That must have been an astonishing household—a bit like the time when Paul and Jane Bowles lived in the same house with set-designer Oliver Smith, W. H. Auden, Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten, and Golo Mann, the son of Thomas Mann. Can you describe it?
F: A very nice experience, sharing a large house with them. Shuya Abe, Paik’s assistant, was staying in the house? He would cook, announcing, with hand-written messages to each of us how to proceed, usually requiring us to wash the pans before the meal was cooked.
M: Usually we wash the dishes after we cook. (Simone laughs).
And here you are today rehearsing for yet another anthology of your dances at Redcat. At age 85 aren’t you just a bit exhausted? Or let me just say I am amazed at your energy.
F: Well, you won’t see any grand jetés or other such balletic movements. I move in a different space.
Los Angeles, January 31, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2020).
The next evening, I attended the performance of Simone Forti’s sound works: Al Di Lá: An Evening of Sound Works by Simone Forti at REDCAT. With fellow performers Tashi Wada, Julia
Jessika Kenney, and Corey Fogel, she selected works she had performed, that
centered upon sound, over 50 years, a kind of golden anniversary of her
dance-sound focuses. The works she performed included her 1968 Largo Argentina, featuring
her use of an instrument created for jerry-rigged tubing, from the same year; Face
Tunes, “played with a slide whistle equipped with a stylus” that follows the
outline of the a series of face profiles from a scroll rolling down from the
vision of the face; her noted Hippie Gospel Songs, “Fire on the Mountain” (1969-70),
Lullaby to an Ant from the same years, Ocean Song, Piru Song, and On
This Great Field, along with more recent works such as Dance of the
Happy Dog (from 2006). A sold-out audience gave Forti the standing applause