Thinking with the Body was the title of the first major international retrospective of the dancer and choreographer Simone Forti. Born the daughter of Jewish industrialists in Florence in 1935, she has lived in the US since her family fled to Los Angeles in 1938. Despite being a key figure in the burgeoning US Minimal art movement of the early 1960s she remains relatively unknown. Her exclusion from Minimalism’s generally male canon was reinforced by dance’s longstanding reputation as an uncritical, ‘feminized’ art form rooted more in physical gesture than intellectual rigour.
This extensive survey revealed Forti’s overlooked accomplishments within Minimalism and Postmodern dance (especially to the concept of a theatrical relationship between the viewer and object). As early as 1960, at Reuben Gallery in New York, she created the object-centred happenings See-Saw and Rollers. In See-Saw, the movements of two dancers (Yvonne Rainer and Forti’s husband, Robert Morris) were determined by the up and down of a seesaw they were standing on. For Rollers, two crates on wheels were pulled around the exhibition space by visitors while, crouching inside the crates, Forti and her collaborator Patty Oldenburg sang an improvised duet.
A year later, in a happening at Yoko Ono’s loft titled Five Dance Constructions & Some Other Things, Forti presented nine new choreographed works. The five titular constructions included Slant Board – a board leaning against a wall at a 45-degree angle with ropes allowing dancers to move up the inclined surface – and Accompaniment for La Monte’s 2 Sounds and La Monte’s 2 Sounds, a loop of rope hanging from the ceiling supporting a dancer. To the nerve-jangling sound of a 12-minute tape recording by La Monte Young a second dancer twisted the rope taut before letting it unravel. As explorations of the relationship between an object and the body, these early works by Forti highlight the interface between sculpture and performance – a key issue for Minimal art – an approach further developed by the Judson Dance Theater formed in 1962 whose members included Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton.
Reconstructions of the five Constructions, plus See-Saw and Rollers, appeared in the Salzburg show, distributed around the space and visited in sequence by dancers performing Forti’s pieces. The works were performed daily, along with other pieces including Herding (1961) and Scramble (1970). Supplementary videos, photographs and drawings gave visitors the chance to study further works including the Illuminations series, which Forti collaborated on with the composer and artist Charlemagne Palestine from 1971 until 2001, and Sleepwalkers (aka Zoo Mantras), a dance series developed by Forti during a stay in Rome in 1968–69 based on studies of the movements of zoo animals limited by their cramped cages.
Everyday movements are typical motifs in Forti’s choreography. Her approach was also shaped by methods taught in the composition class of Robert Dunn (a student of John Cage) at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio, especially the combination of strict compositional rules with generous margins of interpretative freedom. As well as objects, these rules became a second factor that coaxed a reaction from the dancers.
Whereas Forti and Morris, whose marriage lasted from 1955 to 1962, energetically pursued their careers in art together (Morris produced sculptures for Forti), the situation changed after their divorce and Forti’s marriage in 1962 to the performance artist Robert Whitman. Instead of continuing her own career, Forti assisted her new husband in the production of his performances and multimedia works. When she returned to her own work after her divorce from Whitman in 1966, the radical developments she had set in motion six years previously had already become established tropes. The subordination of her own ambitions to those of her second husband then, seems another reason why she has yet to attain the level of recognition she deserves. What this exhibition made clear was just how far ahead of developments in Minimal art and Postmodern dance she really was.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 17