Symbolic Games: An Alternative Space for Spectatorship in Simone Forti’s Task-based Dance Construction Pieces
In this research paper, I am focusing on Simone Forti’s Dance Construction pieces from the 1960s, including Huddle, Slant Board, Platforms, See Saw, Roller Boxes, and La Monte’s 2 Sounds. Forti’s approach to choreography, which was greatly influenced by choreographer Anna Halprin, composition teacher Robert Dunn, and music composer La Monte Young, and often viewed through postmodern feminist theory, led the Dance Construction pieces to open up room for subjectivity and inclusivity. I argue that through kinesthetic awareness, minimalist ideas, Buddhist beliefs, conceptual frameworks, and playful task-based tactics, Forti’s pieces constructed new power dynamics between choreographer and dancer, and also created an alternative space for different forms of spectatorship. Through the explorations of these experimental procedures, Forti’s innovative choreographies demonstrated collectivity and troubled gendered behaviors in the context of the social and political events in the 1960s. In this paper, I begin by situating Forti’s choreography within her contemporaries of the 60s through an analysis of Sally Banes’ writings about the artists of Judson Dance Theater and their methods. I then analyze the movement in Forti’s pieces, while situating them in postmodern feminist theory through the work of feminist writers such as Linda Hutcheon and Linda Nicholson. Finally, by collecting and examining performance reviews, interviews, and writings by Forti and her performers, I look at how the pieces were received by audiences and experienced by the participants.
Through kinesthetic awareness, Forti provided agency to her performers to make decisions based on spontaneous movement sensations. Kinesthetic awareness, a technique she was immersed in for four years in Anna Halprin’s improvisation classes, became one of Forti’s main choreographic techniques (Breitwieser 38). Halprin’s democratization of studio space by allowing performers to make decisions in movement invention was a radical shift away from formalism in modern dance. In her book Democracy’s Body – centered on the Judson Dance Theater era between 1962 to 1964 – critic Sally Banes writes that Halprin’s workshops included “free improvisations, kinesiological analysis, and vocal work,” all of which were represented in some of Forti’s Dance Construction pieces (10). For example, in Huddle, six people clump together with their arms around each other, creating a strong bundle. One person slowly shifts their weight, detaches, and starts to gently pull themselves up over the huddle by stepping on another performer’s thigh and sliding on top of others’ arms and shoulders. There is no order in which people climb over because, as Forti describes the piece in her published journal Handbook in Motion, “everyone in the huddle knows when anyone has decided to be next” (59); this is precisely due to a developed sense of kinesthetic awareness. In Handbook in Motion, Forti also writes about her explorations with kinesthetic awareness in Halprin’s classes that “kinesthetic sense has to do with sensing your body’s changing dynamic configurations” (31). Later, when she was teaching, Forti told her students that if “they could sense these rhythms and tensions, they could sense how what they saw, felt” (31). The strong influence of Halprin’s movement ideas was thus of great significance in Forti’s creation of works sharing similar kinesthetic effects. However, Forti used the kinesthetic awareness technique to give her performers a physical task to not only stay in tune with their “movement intelligence,” as Meredith Morse called it in her article in Thinking With the Body (39), but also to be able to make their own choices according to their spontaneous bodily sensations and impulses.
In addition to using kinesthetic awareness as a way to allow for performers’ live decision-making, minimalism and Buddhist beliefs were other practical and theoretical frameworks through which Forti also created an alternative space for audience engagement. La Monte Young, whom Forti met during her time at Halprin’s workshops, was another major influence that led Forti to use the Buddhism-derived concept of pure sound as a way of making durational dance pieces with minimal movement. In another of her pieces in Dance Construction, titled Platforms, there are only two performers, and each slides underneath a wooden box that hides them from view. Staying underneath the boxes, they both whistle gently as the sound resonates and penetrates through the boxes. In Handbook in Motion, Forti describes the task and minimal actions of the performers and notes, “It is important that the performers listen to each other. Their whistling should come from the easy breathing of a relaxed state of easy communion. Each inhalation should be silent, and as long as in normal breathing” (62).
The sustained, “relaxed,” “easy,” “breathing,” and “communion” aspects of this performance are descriptive qualities of Zen in Buddhism. In a photograph by Peter Moore, published in Handbook in Motion and taken during the 1961 performance of Platforms, a young man is sitting with his hands held together, resting on his forehead, and his eyes closed (63). The fact that the performers cannot be seen creates a meditative space in which the audience can imagine the movements, as it is also part of Zen to observe the mind. Buddhism, in Young’s minimalist music as well as in Forti’s pieces, created a state of awareness and consciousness to engage the audience in moments of reflection, as portrayed in Moore’s photograph. Young and Forti collaborated on creating a piece in which there is a long rope hung from the ceiling, creating a loop. A person steps inside the loop, and the sound recording begins then. The piece is titled Accompaniment for La Monte’s “2 sounds” and La Monte’s “2 sounds,” which, as Banes writes, “deliberately reversed the usual relationship between dance and music by announcing itself as an accompaniment to Young’s 2 sounds” (Writing Dancing 315). In the recording, the sounds are produced by Terry Riley rubbing tin cans and windows, while Young rubs a wooden mallet on a wooden gong; hence the effect is a sustained squealy and disturbing noise without much change, set against the gentle sway of a person standing solemnly inside the rope, embodying the Buddhist ideology of peaceful solitude in disarray. In a 1961 performance review of this piece, Robert Morris wrote that “after she [Forti] stopped moving, still in her rope sling listening, she listened for us, and we were calmed by her stillness and could allow ourselves to listen (endure?) with her” (47). As Forti said during a 2004 re-showing talkback, she wanted the audience to listen to this disturbing sound with patience, and this bold contrast of chaos versus calm created a balance reflecting another Buddhist principle: attaining inner peace. Furthermore, the piece tries to represent what it means to listen with the whole body. These choreographic choices, situated in minimalist frameworks and Buddhist ideologies, invited the audience to participate with active minds and body awareness, instead of as passive members consuming fleeting visual information.
Many of Forti’s choreographic methods were acquired from Robert Dunn’s composition class at the Cunningham studio, which led her to create conceptual work in which both the performers and the audience were more concerned with fulfilling tasks, rather than making or interpreting expressive movement. At this time, Forti also took Cunningham technique classes, but she became uninterested in their assemblage of fragments, as this mode contrasted with Halprin’s improvisations in kinesthetic awareness. Subsequently, she realized that her interests still lay in simple, curious, playful, and task-based works that resemble childlike movements (Banes, Democracy’s Body 11). Robert Dunn’s compositional techniques allowed Forti to create work with these elements, as Dunn was also a minimalist music composer and a peer of John Cage; both Dunn and Cage, like Forti, believed in the Buddhist minimalistic understanding of sound and compositional structures based on duration rather than harmony. A similar minimalistic approach based on time was taken towards dance making in Dunn’s classes. For example, Forti explained a particular assignment that resonated with her in which students were asked to make a three-minute dance in three minutes. For her, this meant “that it had to be an idea” (Forti). Dunn’s assignments and “the confrontation with John Cage’s ‘pure sound’ and his method of chance operation opened [Forti’s] work up to a conceptual approach” of task-based performances that often included objects and sculptures (Breitwieser 9). Morris wrote in his reflection on Forti’s Dance Construction pieces that “self-expressive or improvisatory movement was largely foreclosed by the stressful bodily efforts required to negotiate the objects or follow the rules, at least in the more physically demanding of these works” (46). Although it might seem that the performers did not have much choice but to follow the rules, they were in fact given latitude not to invent expressive movement (as it is often in improvisation) but instead to accomplish tasks as pedestrian bodies. Steve Paxton recalls of his performance experience that it was “shocking to viewers to be denied a meaning with which they can mentally anchor the experience they have when confronted with such an artistic phenomenon” (60). In her task-based performances, Forti managed to resist, to a certain extent, the cultural habits of interpreting dances by removing expressive movement quality and concentrating on completing physical tasks.
Forti’s Dance Construction pieces not only highlight the choreographic methods that she acquired from Halprin’s kinesthetic awareness, Young’s Buddhist and durational minimalism, and Dunn’s conceptual frameworks; they also challenge performer and choreographer power dynamics, as I briefly mentioned earlier. The way that Forti tries to achieve a democratic process is by structuring task-based performances during which the performers have autonomy to make some decisions. In one of the earlier Dance Construction pieces titled Slant Board, performers were given the task of staying on a wooden ramp, with four or sometimes up to six ropes knotted from the top, for the full duration of the piece and moving only from side to side and top to bottom by using the ropes. In the description of these tasks, Forti writes, “the activity of moving around on such a steep surface can be strenuous even when done casually. If a performer needs to rest he may do so by using the ropes anyway he can to assume a restful position” (Handbook in Motion 56). Hence, more variations of Slant Board can be created due to the differences in strength and endurance among the performers. Similarly, in Huddle, performers can climb over gently or aggressively, slowly or quickly, and make their own adjustments as needed. Forti’s position as a choreographer is radically auxiliary when compared to her more authoritative (especially in modern dance) contemporaries. It is important to note that in her journals, Forti addresses participants in her pieces as “performers,” “people,” or “person,” and never uses the word “dancers.” This opens up room for an inclusive participation of people in her pieces and breaks up the conventional hierarchies of choreographer, dancer, and audience relationships.
While challenging choreographer and performer power dynamics, Forti’s pieces are also indicative of notions of personhood derived from postmodern feminist theorists such as Linda Hutcheon and Linda Nicholson. By applying the choreographic methods and techniques that I have explained, Forti brought out the personalities of the individuals involved in her pieces, especially in Huddle. In Thinking With the Body, Sabine Breitwieser writes that Forti, through her group task-based choreographic methods, could “investigate the relationship between abstraction and subjectivity” (10). In Huddle, “laughing is permitted,” as Banes writes in Terpsichore in Sneakers (27), and as Forti says, it has a “behavior” (Handbook in Motion 59). In performances of the piece, there has often been a “second-generation huddle,” where each of the performers find six audience members to join them, and each huddle develops its own behavior: some are laughing, some are talking, and some are focused on the task.
What many of Forti’s playful pieces, such as Huddle, do, is bring out the personality and subjectivity of the performers, regardless of how difficult their tasks are. To bring out the subjectivity of performers is to bring out their person-ness and to make them fall further away from being objectified or seen as objects. Especially in feminist discourse, as Linda Hutcheon explains in Politics of Postmodernism, politics of (mis)representation often situate women as seen through the male gaze of sexual desire, and hence sexually objectify their bodies (138). However, as Hutcheon further argues, postmodern art involves a “subverting of conventions, including conventions of the representation of the subject” (13). For example, in Huddle, all genders are embodied as equal because everyone is consensually supporting the weight of the person who climbs over, which in turn deconstructs the modernist traditional expectation of a man lifting a woman. Moreover, Huddle, like many of Forti’s pieces, is so playful and childlike that it invokes in adults the idealized non-biased, bigot-less inner child, free of social constructs of judgment and with a strong sense of intuition.
The enhancement of subjectivity and non-expressivity of her performers was a way that Forti challenged gendered behaviors, specifically that of feminine traits. In Judson Dance Theatre: Performative Traces, Ramsay Burt, through the work of art theorist Anna Chave, argues that “female dance artists had to minimize any personal or feminine traits in order to be taken seriously as artists” in minimalist art (55). Chave claims that therefore, choreographers such as Forti were marginalized in comparison to their contemporaries, mainly because her pieces were not as “coolly impersonal” (54). While it might be a fact that Forti’s pieces were not as popular as other female choreographers at the time, I would argue that many of Forti’s pieces maintained an impersonal relationship (choreographer-performer and performers’ relationship) and still highlighted the subjectivity of their performers. For example, See-Saw, which was first performed by Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer, begins with the two performers entering the gallery space wearing identical long rain coats and setting up a wooden plank on a sawhorse (Forti, Handbook in Motion 39). They take off their rain coats, and underneath are wearing identical shorts and t-shirts (Banes, Terpsichore in Sneakers 25). Already, Forti has positioned her performers in unisex roles through their wearing of the same costume (Burt 61). As the piece goes on, the performers do not lose their sense of kinesthetic awareness, as their task is to coordinate their weight and maintain an equilibrium. That image, in which both performers find the seesaw perfectly balancing, is in and of itself symbolic of gender equality: whereas so often in patriarchy men are portrayed as stronger, here they find a way to distribute their weight (power) equally. Performers in See-Saw merely play with and follow tasks that, as Burt also argues, “signified simple, adopted personae that referred to individual, personal experience in a generalized way” (61). The invention of expressive movement is extremely minimized, which besides amplifying the subjectivity of performers, also conveys that female artists are making nuanced work that is not always autobiographical or expressive.
While Forti’s pieces, like Huddle, do not hide performers’ personalities, they still attempt to focus on collectivity and community in an era when greater concentration, especially in the arts, was on individualism and self-reflexiveness. In her article Feminism and the Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Nicholson uses Marxist theory on production in capitalist societies, such as the US, to insist on the importance of historical context in the emergence of ideas (55). What this means when looking at Forti’s pieces is that she was indeed creating work in response to or in conversation with the ongoing socio-political climate of the time. In Terpsichore in Sneakers, Banes writes that choreographers such as Forti were searching “to find alternatives to the established power structures of the dance world” because their historical context was situated in an era in which “cooperation, collective living, and working situations, and attention to process over finished products,” were the concerns of American people (208). Huddle emerged during this era and challenged individualism by symbolizing the clump as a unification of people in support of one another, particularly every time that a person’s weight is held by the human-structure. Moreover, Huddle in its nature, is a continuous process that is being reshaped every time it is performed, rather than a sealed finished product that is unchangeable. Banes continues writing about the climate of the 60s by saying that “in politics and social situations as well as in the fine arts, people began to look to spontaneity and improvisatory methods to provide a life better than that which a rigidly constructed, individual-oriented, hierarchical society had created” (209). Huddle manifests this struggle by providing an alternative in embodying collectivity, ensemble, oneness, trust, and integrity.
Spectatorship plays a significant role in achieving collectivity, and Forti does this by positioning her pieces in all-around and 360 spaces with close proximity. In Roller Boxes, for example, some performers are sitting in boxes with wheels under them, while other performers push and pull them around the space and the audience; the spectators were encouraged to participate and walk or jog around with the boxes (Banes, Terpsichore in Sneaker 26). Yvonne Rainer recalls the performance as an exciting and somewhat fearful experience that was “perilous” for both the performers and the audience (Morse 42). In this piece, Forti enhances the sense of empathy in the audience by inviting them to move around the space and with the performers, and in doing so, also activates their kinesthetic awareness as spectators. In Huddle, spectatorship played a major role in encouraging audience engagement, in particular audience participation. Forti describes Huddle “both as action and as sculpture, with room for people to walk around and look at it close up or from further away,” and explains that her “intention was to have the onlookers be able to focus on the performers just as they are, moving calmly and quite directly to accomplish the task at hand” (“PASTForward” 200). It may seem that the audience could be passively watching; however, the 360-degree positioning and the close proximity of audience to the performers enforce an attentive and engaging encounter, and as Banes writes, “changed the spectator’s physical relationship to the dance” (Terpsichore in Sneakers 28). In a video produced by Charles Dennis in 2000, one of Forti’s performers comments on her experience doing Huddle, and says that because the audience is able to walk around the performance, it brings people together in a communal kinesthetic experience. This proves Forti’s attempt to create kinesthetic awareness in performers that in turn engages the audience collectively. In the same video, another dancer commented that Huddle fosters a sense of community: “when you are in it, you can hear others breathing.”
Although Forti’s pieces challenged gendered behaviors, and achieved subjectivity in performers and collectivity with spectators, her audience remained mostly white middle-class downtown New Yorkers. The fact that Forti could experiment with objects and child-like, task-based movements in ways that she did, as Susan Foster criticizes, was in part because her work was “inflected with the power dynamics that had privileged white artists for centuries” (Burt 127). In a segment of Judson Dance Theater: Performative Traces, Burt juxtaposes the works of Forti in comparison with Bill T. Jones (131). He concludes that much more attention was given to white artists experimenting than artists of color, and white artists so often appropriated non-Western traditions, as did Forti with Buddhism, for performance affects. In Reinventing Dance in the 1960s, Banes writes that Forti made familiar things, such as children’s play, become strange in performance settings such as art galleries. The defamiliarization process in Huddle “is paradoxically made more difficult through transgressing artistic convention by means of utter simplicity” (9). Forti constructs simplicity and inclusivity through arousing kinesthetic awareness, evoking Buddhist ideologies, generating minimalism, making conceptual frameworks, and stimulating audience participation. Through these choreographic methods, Forti’s Dance Construction pieces successfully embody subjectivity, gender equality, community, and collectivity, but only to a certain demographic. There are more questions yet to be explored in regard to experimental and participatory dances of Forti and her contemporaries alike, such as: how can the child-like, playful task-based performances engage audiences of different backgrounds, traditions, and races, in the same way that it engages white audiences? How can these performances and spaces be more accessible to different communities than just the downtown dance scene or white populated areas in the 1960s? How can the choreographic techniques that Forti has used be applied in different dance traditions? What would be the stakes of that, if any? If there are stakes there, are there any for the white artists?!
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