Wednesday, February 5, 2020
Douglas Messerli and Simone Forti | "A Different Space: An Interview"
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