Remarks on Simone Forti by Yvonne Rainer — Danspace Gala 2019
May 8, 2019
For starters, allow me to state what may seem like a contentious description of an enduring relationship: I cannot think of two such temperamentally different personalities than those belonging to Simone Forti and myself, a fact that we have been negotiating for the past sixty years! And I must add, from my perspective, with increasing success.
I first met Simone through our mutual friend, the late Nancy Meehan, when the three of us were taking classes at the Graham School in 1960. In retrospect, it seems like a odd place to have found someone like Simone — Her experiences dancing with Anna Halprin on the West Coast had put her far outside of traditional modern dance, as I was shortly to discover.
In the following years, observing Simone’s unique improvisations, reading her poetic verbal constructions, and submitting to her quixotic directions, almost in spite of myself I found her to be a most powerful influence. In a letter to my brother in 1961 I wrote, “I am indebted to Simone for my awakening as a dancer; I can honestly say that my creative life began when I met her.” During an improvisation in our shared New York studio, Simone scattered bits and pieces of rags and wood around the floor, landscape-like. Then she simply sat in one place for a while, occasionally changing her position or moving to another place to utter a thought, “I’m thinking of writing a letter; I’m going to write a letter to…” Sixty years ago I wasn’t sure of her intent, but what she did in that studio brought the god-like image of the dancer down to human scale more effectively than anything I had seen. It was a beautiful alternative to the heroic posturing that I felt had so far dominated much of my dance training. (At the Graham School I had been told to become more “regal” and less athletic!)
The term “dance”, as Simone understood it, could encompass an ever widening spectrum of events: An account of an onion that sprouted in a glass of water and toppled over from its own weighted development. Two people on either end of a see saw — one reading an art magazine and the other thrashing around — “danced.” A man unwinding in a loop of rope suspended from the ceiling, two people bouncing balls while concealed under wooden boxes — “danced.” Two men, having been given conflicting instructions unbeknownst to each other — one to force his partner to the wall and the other to stay away from the wall — “danced” in a fierce physical struggle. For many of us who had toiled for years in the discipline-bound classrooms of classical and modern dance or were just beginning to wet our feet in the ideas of John Cage, Simone’s work was a revelation.
Themes of danger and coercion have combined in mysterious ways in much of Simone’s work. An ongoing improvisation delves into the horrors of the news in speech and movement. I am usually not very interested in improvisation. It is either too private or too arbitrary. But over the years I have been struck by a particular quality in Simone’s way of handling it — someone once described it as “desperation.” Yes, there is a desperation or urgency that comes with having to think on your feet and in the moment, but there is also something else operating in Simone’s improvisations. She has an uncanny sense of the verbal and visual images that her body is able to invoke in movement and stillness — visceral metaphors, you might say. Her ongoing research into the movement of polar bears is especially prescient in light of current ecological portents. Yet another image is instilled in my memory: Wearing a silky bright red t-shirt she runs pell-mell across the space while tearing it off, ending sprawled on the floor on her stomach with a piece of the red shirt stuffed into a nostril and the rest spilling out from her body like a pool of blood.
Ever the creative maverick, Simone continues to challenge us with her restless intelligence and derring-do, even someone like me who so long ago came under the spell of her groundbreaking strategies. I am delighted to help celebrate her achievements tonight, with no further need to enclose her dancing in quotation marks!
Danspace Project’s Gala 2019 honored Rebel Angels Simone Forti & Okwui Okpokwasili on May 7, 2019