WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE MATERIAL, WHICH IS THE BODY IN MOTION: CONVERSATION WITH SIMONE FORTI

I first encountered the work of an American Italian Postmodern artist, dancer, choreographer, and writer, Simone Forti three years ago. As I was conducting movement research about the evolution of sleep patterns in predatory and prey animals, Forti's work inspired me to bridge language with movement and curiosity with empathy. Her dance seems to belong to both ancient traditions of moving religiously, with ecstasy, and to more direct and concise scientific approaches to the body in motion. Forti's drawings, sound pieces, movement experiments and writings have a playful and raw quality, dedicated to the in-depth and honest explorations of natural phenomena in this world.


Forti is one of the pioneers of Postmodern dancers and Fluxus artists, who revolutionized the artworld in the 1960s and '70s in the USA. Her work continues to defy art traditions and institutional practices today, inspiring new generations of dancers and artists worldwide. Forti is a recipient of various prestigious awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship in Dance in 2005 and a Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts in 2011. Her work has been shown at international venues such as the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Forti is represented by The Box LA Gallery.


Simone Forti. Al Di Là: An Evening of Sound Works by Simone Forti at Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles, (Feb. 1, 2020). Photo: Steve Gunther. Credit: Courtesy of the artists and REDCAT, LA.

Note: The text below is a transcription of the phone conversation Simone Forti and I had in November, 2020. The text has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Salome Kokoladze: You are considered one of Margaret H’Doubler’s legacies, who had more of a scientific approach to dance, incorporating physiology and kinesiology in her curriculum. According to H’Doubler, natural is not without form, but represents perfect, correct [1]. Can you tell me in what ways you have applied this belief to your practice?


Simone Forti: Well, that's going back to the very beginning of my study with Anna Halprin. She was just breaking away from working with technique, dance technique, and focusing on improvisation. Halprin had different ways in which she focused on movement improvisation. One was that anatomical approach. We would look at, for instance, the shoulder area. She had a skeleton and books with images; we would talk about the different joints and really look at that area by examining different forms of information. Then she would have us explore on our own, maybe throwing our arm with the sense of momentum of a swing or weight bearing. As we would move that area of our body, the rest of the body became involved to support, because the movement would shift our weight. We might have also wanted to move fast to see how the speed affected the subject of our study. Halprin would encourage us to be inspired by the movement that was coming from this point of reference to which the whole body was relating.


This was a way of improvising, let us say, it was dance improvisation with that anatomical focus. This approach to studying movement was not the only way we were improvising. Halprin's studio was outdoors in the woods. She had us observing movement of the clouds, of the leaves on the ground as we walked, or also of solid things like a tree, the bark of the tree. We would abstract some quality that we saw, touched or felt, and tried to bring it into our body, into our movement. In a way, we used our eyes to select what we would take as a score, and what we saw in our environment. That process was really just as strong as the anatomical approach.


I carried the memory of the anatomical point of reference to when I spent quite a few years observing animals in a zoo. I studied how animals are structured and how I am structured, how their movement is different than mine. But I would also try their movement. For instance, when a bear wants to turn to the left, it will swing its head over to the left, and that movement pulls the rest of the body along. And that is not how I would usually turn, so I was curious to try the movement. I would also try to hop like a rabbit. I observed how a particular rabbit would land and from where the start of the movement seemed to come. I think this study would have been different if I had not had the experience of working with Anna Halprin. And the thread of movement improvisation goes back to Margaret H’Doubler.


SK: Do you remember any specific observation (of trees, clouds etc.) that moved you deeply or with which you identified when improvising on Anna Halprin's dance deck?


SF: I do remember once in a while Robert Morris would take one of the classes with Anna Halprin. One time, we had the task of spending time in the environment to select an object and work with its qualities. It turns out that Robert had looked at a stone. When it was his time to show what he had found, he laid down on the floor. He took two or three minutes to compress himself together until he was as much in a ball as possible with a little surface of himself on the floor and he became a stone.


SK: What do you hope to learn from the experience of looking at other bodies, let's say, animal bodies that you observed in a zoo?


SF: I was developing a movement vocabulary with which I was improvising. I would be inspired from one animal to another. I started doing a lot of these observations in Rome because I was living near the zoo. I also remember going to Turin, where they had the Egyptian and Etruscan Museum. I was interested in some of the gods, some of the deities that were part animal. In my improvisations, I had those in mind too.


Simone Forti. Animal Study - Ox (Breathing), (1982). Ink on paper, 10 5/8 x 12 5/8 x 1 1/2 inches framed. Credit: Courtesy of the artist and The Box, LA.
Simone Forti. Sleep Walkers / Zoo Mantras, (1968/2010). Performance at artist’s residence, Los Angeles, September 7, 2010. Photo: Jason Underhill. Credit: Courtesy of the artist, The Box, LA and Jason Underhill.

More recently, I have been closely watching the ants in my kitchen. I stopped going to the zoo. I do not know things change, but also the zoos are very sad. When I moved out to Vermont, to the countryside, I thought I would start seeing animals in the woods. But they stay away. It is hard to see them. However, I had a vegetable garden and there I started to notice a lot of worms, beetles and different little animals in the ground. I even started finding some movement myself from watching. Worms are really interesting, how they stretch forward and then they pull their hind parts together, and stretch forward and pull their hind parts together. Well, I can do that. And at one time that was part of my movement vocabulary.


SK: More generally, what is the significance of quotidian and repetitive movements for you?


SF: Looking back many decades, I was working differently at different times. But I am thinking of, for instance, the Dance Constructions, which came before looking at animals. I am also reminded of the Slant Board, which is a dance piece with a board, a wooden surface at a 45-degree angle with some chords to help climb around. To climb the board, it is a normal movement in relation to the task, to the job of climbing around on the board. But I think that my interest was to feel the strength in my arms, to feel the strength in my body, and also to see people simply moving and the beauty in that. I was also interested in the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, and in the feeling of looking at the material, which is the body in motion, without stylizing it or without using it for some other reason, but to look at it.


This sort of movement also comes through in my work with Charlemagne Palestine. In Illuminations, I am dancing, I am working with the dynamic forces of running in circles. It is a study of circling, momentum and centrifugal force while he is working with sound waves. I have really worked in different ways. In working with Charlemagne, I am confronted pretty directly with the forces encountered when you run in a circle. Rather than stylizing the movement, again, it is working as much as I can with the raw material.


SK: Can you further describe the process of collaborating with Charlemagne Palestine and your movement inspiration for Illuminations ?


SF: At the start of the work with Charlemagne, we were both at the California Institute of the Arts. There was a beautiful, not very big studio with a wooden floor and wonderful piano. We called that space the temple. We were going in there, I do not know, maybe three, four times a week. And he would play while I was finding what dance I was going to make based on how I felt like moving with this music. I started doing the circling and then I did a lot of drawings of circles. I was working with the geometry of the Star of David, how the Arabic numerals fit on it. I have made drawings that were coming along with my movement. But to find the movement I was moving.


Simone Forti and Charlemagne Palestine. Illuminations, (1971–ongoing). Performed at Vleeshal Markt, Middelburg, April 2, 2016. Photo: Marian van der Weide. Credit: Courtesy of the artists and Vleeshal, Middelburg.
Simone Forti. Illuminations - Red Vegetable Ink, (1972). Vegetable ink and pencil on vellum 11 x 8 1/2 inches. Credit: Courtesy of the artist and The Box, LA.

SK: How has your work evolved or changed more recently?


SF: I am writing more poetry these days. I am trying to find a form. I do not know if I would call it poetry. Some poems, sometimes. I am kind of testing around, engaging in different processes. I think I am still looking for something, a form on which I can start depending. If you are interested, you can read some of my recent poems in the latest publication of the PEAK Journal.


SK: Are there any emerging dancers or movement artists whom you find inspiring?


SF: Well, you know, I was just thinking that I really need to be more open or not so lazy, to see what is going on. I almost know more about New York than Los Angeles. There is a lot of work confronting systemic racism, which is very energetic and motivating force right now in many art forms including dance. I would recommend looking into Danspace Project in New York City for those interested in dance, choreography and movement improvisation.


Endnotes


[1] Margaret H’Doubler. Dance: A Creative Art Experience. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957. 93.