Gloria Fokine : Ballet in Havana

Gloria in Les Sylphides, Havana, 1937

Born Gloria González Negreira in Havana, Gloria Fokine (1925–2012) studied ballet in the same school as Alicia Alonso and her sister Cuca Martínez. She saw — and remembered — a remarkable swath of dance history. This included the beginnings of Ballet Nacional de Cuba as well as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and other companies touring there in the 1930s and ’40s. In 1949 she married Leon Fokine, who was teaching classic Russian technique in Havana. They came to the U.S. and taught in Washington, DC for years, and then taught in the early years of Robert Joffrey’s company as well as at the Harkness Ballet. She taught for her sister-in-law, Irine Fokine in Ridgewood, NJ (where I took her classes as a teenager). After Leon died, she had her own school in Brooklyn Heights from 1978–84. She eventually brought her knowledge of ballet to her position as the photo editor for Dance Magazine. For a complete obit click here.

I interviewed Gloria on September 1, 2004, and it was printed in Ballet Review in the Spring 2007 issue.

(WP) Wendy Perron

(GF) Gloria Fokine

 

WP:  What are your earliest memories of seeing dance?

GF:  In Cuba there was an organization called Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical, which was formed by some socially prominent ladies for the purpose of bringing culture to Cuba. They built a theater and they proceeded to bring the best concert artists. There I saw [Sergei] Rachmaninoff, [Valdimir] Horowitz, [Yehudi] Menuhin. There was a Russian immigrant, Nicolas Yavorsky, who had studied dance, and when he left Russia during the revolution he joined a Russian opera as a dancer and wound up in Cuba. So the Pro-Arte ladies thought, “Aha, good opportunity,” and they opened the ballet school.  In the beginning they had the classes on the stage, but they built a very nice studio in the top of the theater. Yavorsky, who was a person of exquisite taste, decided to do, for his first production, Sleeping Beauty. It was lavish. I was six years old, and my mother took me to see the performance — my first ballet performance. I remember a little girl as the Bluebird who had a little suit, blue, with lots of jewels in the wings and jumping all the way around the stage, a dark-haired little girl. That was Alicia Alonso. She was Alicia Martínez Del Hoyo at that time, and only 11. I liked it very much. And then when I was 9 years of age my mother took me again to Pro-Arte Musical to see Coppélia, again with a little bit more grown-up Alicia Martínez Del Hoyo. The performances there were not like recitals here. Costumes were very professional; scenery was lavish.

Alicia Alonso in Coppélia

WP:  And the audience was not just the parents?

GF:  Oh, no, no, no, because there were the members. Pro-Arte Musical was by membership. And it was very affordable, with $3 orchestra, $2 first balcony, $1 second balcony. (Before Castro, dollars and pesos were equal.) That gave you the right to two concerts a month plus ballet, drama, or music lessons. It was a terrific organization, founded by women and run by women!

WP:  Did Alicia play Swanilda?

GF: Of course, and her future brother-in-law, Alberto Alonso, was Franz. And that was it for me. I started classes in that summer, 1935, and I loved it. Yavorsky had produced two professional dancers — Alberto Alonso and Delfina Perez Gurri — and he had gone to Europe to take them to Colonel de Basil’s Company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Baronova and Paul Petroff in Aurora’s Wedding*

WP: Was there already a connection between the Cubans and the Russians?

GF:  Yavorsky was a White Russian. He had run away from the Soviets.  In 1936 Pro-Arte Musical brought the Basil company when it was full with Massine, Toumanova, Danilova, Baronova, Riabouchinska. I went to see the performance in May, and it was so hot—of course there is no air conditioning—and you were perspiring and perspiring. But when the overture starts, you don’t feel the heat. And I saw some very fabulous performances: Aurora’s Wedding with Baronova, Three-Cornered Hat with Massine and Toumanova, [the dances from] Prince Igor with Yurek Shabelevsky. And also Les Sylphides with Danilova and Toumanova and Riabouchinska, who was the most ethereal dancer — in person she doesn’t look ethereal at all. How she can transform herself into a will-o-the-wisp, like a feather — it was unbelievable.

Toumanova and Massine in Three Cornered Hat

WP:  And what about Toumanova? What was she like?

GF: I was not tremendously impressed with her in Sylphides. Baronova in Aurora’s Wedding was the personification of the princess: beautiful, gorgeous, but with a strong, solid technique. I saw Toumanova with Massine in his Three-Cornered Hat and she was very beautiful. But then I saw Massine’s Présages, my first symphonic ballet.

WP:  Did they had live music?

GF:  Oh, yes.  And the conductor was Antal Dorati.

WP:  And what was your impression of Présages? 

GF:  I loved it. And then they did Massine’s Beau Danube, danced by Massine. He was the kind of person that he walks on the stage and fills it. He was not a classical dancer; he was more a character dancer, but he was a tremendous personality.

But there was Danilova, my dear. That little can-can she does as the Street Dancer with the very frothy skirt of deep red velvet, lined with white lace ruffles — I memorized the steps, I don’t know how. When Danilova was on the stage you never looked at anybody else. She was unique, unforgettable. Then there’s the romance between the Massine character and the Riabouchinska character, who’s a young girl, and then the Street Dancer tries to come between them. It was a thrilling experience.

In 1937 Yavorsky did Swan Lake with Alicia, and that was her last ballet with Pro-Arte as a student. She had some coaching from Baronova, who was a close friend of Yavorsky. And I made my debut in it when I was 11 or 12. I was a little buffoon, one of six kids (at right). It was Yavorsky’s choreography for the school, it was not the Petipa. We came out all in a line and then jumped.

WP: What other dancers did Pro-Arte bring?

Harald Kreutzberg, 1949

GF: Harald Kreutzberg. That was my first sight of modern dance. The stage was dark and this man, head shaved à la Yul Brynner, long before Yul Brynner, with a big spotlight, controlled the stage in a manner that nobody else does. Then Pro-Arte brought Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, which was again a different kind of ballet. What I liked the best was Filling Station, choreographed by Lew Christensen, which he danced. And the novelty was that his costume was made of transparent plastic.

Lew Christensen in his Filling Station (1937), ph George Platt Lynes

WP:  That’s very early for plastic.

GF: Yes, this was in 1938. It was very American. It was not about fairies or princesses, but about everyday situations. There was a filling station and a father and mother and the kids.

WP:  Were you in other Yavorsky productions?

GF: Yes, he staged a fantastic ballet for the younger ones — The Four Seasons. He had an ability to get the most from each student. He used to yell a lot, but we adored him. “Spring” was in the woods, and the younger ones were flowers. The older ones were butterflies, fireflies. And I was Little Red Riding Hood, and she has an encounter with Peter Pan. “Summer” was a wedding in Eastern Europe and we were peasants. That was my first taste of character dance because I was the groom and had to do all kinds of pas de chat, landing in grand plié. It was very elaborate with beautiful costumes. And then “Fall” was in the castle in Scotland, with hunters. I was one of four Scotsmen, which was fun because we were taught an authentic Scottish dance by one of the older students. I had a bagpipe and a kilt. And then for “Winter” there’s the snowflakes and the wind. The younger ones were Tyrolians; I was an ice skater.

WP:  What other modern dance did you see?

Ted Shawn in Mevlevi Dervish, Jacob’s Pillow Archives

GF:  Ted Shawn arrived in Cuba for a Pro-Arte production. I was already pre-teen, and all I can say is “Wow.” His men were so good-looking. They did one of those pieces that imitate machinery. [You can see a 1938 film of that piece, Mechanized Labor, here.] It was wonderful. What he did himself was a whirling dervish. That I enjoyed very much.

In 1940 Pro-Arte brought the Jooss Ballet. They did some things that were humorous, they did one that was like a fairy tale, with fantastic costumes [A Spring Tale]. And A Ball in Old Vienna and The Big City. And they did The Green Table. That was potent, to say the least. Ernst Uthoff was the Standard Bearer, but anyone who has seen Rudolf Pescht as Death will never forget it. I was sitting at the edge of my seat. It was fantastic. And then the light effects — the spotlight starts getting smaller and smaller, and just the face.

Ted Shawn’s Labor Symphony, 1930s, Jacob’s Pillow Archives

But that was a revelation of what you can do with modern dance. Kreutzberg is one man doing it. With Shawn they were all men and it was exciting to see. But this was a company of men and women. There was so much variety in the company. You have something as powerful as Green Table, and the Big City is very deep, but these nasty things that happen. And then you have the Seven Heroes, which was funny, with cheerful peasants.

WP: Jooss had already fled Germany? Where was he living?

GF: The Jooss Ballet and the Comedie Française came to Cuba because they were running away from the Nazis. Jooss took up residence in England with the company, and they were touring mostly the Americas. Ernst Uthoff, the father of Michael Uthoff, opened a school in Chile. I also saw Ballet Theatre in the mid-40s. They did Agnes de Mille’s Tally Ho. That was a lot of running around. I don’t know who was chasing who, but someone must have been chasing an imaginary fox. And in 1948 Ballet Alicia Alonso came with Coppélia, which Leon had staged for them. They also did Peter and the Wolf [the one choreographed by Adolph Bohm]. Melissa Hayden was a very charming bird; Cynthia Riseley was a sinewy cat, and Dulce Wohner, a product of Pro-Arte Musicale, was a very funny duck. Then unfortunately there were some politics in Pro-Arte and Yavorsky left. They brought in Georges Milenoff, a Bulgarian who had been in Ida Rubinstein’s company. In the meantime de Basil came back with a more extensive repertoire, but Danilova, Toumanova and Massine were not with the company. Baronova came but she danced only two performances. This time they had Coq d’Or, Swan Lake, Petrouchka,and Paganini.

One of the best things they did was Balanchine’s Cotillon. That was beautiful. It’s about the relationship between the young men and the young women at a ball. It had fabulous costumes and scenery by my favorite designer, Christian Bérard. I am kind of sorry that Balanchine never staged it for the New York City Ballet. It has mystery like Ravel’s La Valse. The “Hand of Fate” pas de deux is beautiful and unusual.

But then we had enough time to see a lot of Basil because the company went on a strike, which was considered by some to have been the beginning of its end. [See Vicente Garcia-Marquez’s book The Ballets Russes, p. 272.]. Half the company left Cuba, and the other half stayed with Basil in Havana for four months. They didn’t have money, of course. Yurek Shabelevsky came to join them, and Alberto Alonso and his wife, who had left the de Basil company in 1940, came to help them out. She was Canadian, with fantastic technique. Her name actually was Patricia Denise Meyers, but she was called Alexandra Denisova.

Jasinski in Cuba, 1933

We saw them in class and in rehearsals. It was amusing to see Serge Grigoriev, who had been the regisseur for Diaghilev and for de Basil, demonstrating a dance in the Beau Danube that Danilova had left. (I think it was Olga Morosova who had replaced her.) He was a big man, not very young, and holding up his pants. And there was his wife, Madame Lubov Tchernicheva, who had been with Diaghilev. Another ballet that they did was Schéhérazade, and she was Francesca in Francesca da Rimini by David Lichine. Tatiana Leskova was the girl in pigtails in Lichine’s Graduation Ball and she was wonderful and very funny. And so we had those Russians there for three months.

We became close friends with Roman Jasinski, Yurek Lazowski, and Paul Petroff. I remember Jasinski’s wife, Moussia Larkina (originally Moscelyne Larkin; they later co-founded Tulsa Ballet). She was about 15 years old. She’s American Indian, very round face, two pigtails, dark, a very good dancer. Afterwards she was dancing with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the other Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo [headed by Serge Denham].

WP:  Were you able to take classes when they were in Havana?

GF: I took classes with Paul Petroff. He gave me my first pas de deux class. He taught me the adagio from Swan Lake and the nocturne from Les Sylphides. In the meantime Milenoff started rehearsing Carnaval. I was Columbine. We didn’t have many male dancers so my Harlequin had to be a female Harlequin — who happened to be Alicia’s older sister Cuca.

Baronova in Les Sylphides*

WP:  Did you ever want to dance with Basil’s company?

GF: Oh, I would have loved to, but I was not even in high school and my mother wouldn’t have let me anyway. But Pro-Arte kept bringing the Metropolitan Opera, and I danced with the opera. I was in Aida and the Gioconda. And I danced also in Rigoletto and Carmen.

WP:  And who choreographed these?

GF:  Alberto did one. The “Dance of the Hours,” in Gioconda, I think, was his wife Pat. Aida I think Alicia did, because when Alicia had the eye problem, she couldn’t dance and was staying in Cuba.

WP:  When you finished high school what did you do?

GF:  I stopped dancing.

WP: Why?

GF: There were no other schools outside of Pro-Arte except what I call the twinkle-toes type of school. After that, Milenoff left. Alberto Alonso’s mother had become president of Pro-Arte’s musical group, so Alberto took over the school with his wife Pat. I realized later on that Pat was only about two or three years older than I was. Actually, it blew my mind also when I saw the first Basil company — I was 11— that those dancers that I thought were so sophisticated like Baronova and Toumanova, were only a few years older than I was.

Pat was very young but she was a tremendous technician. She had taken over most of Baronova’s roles. Then they started teaching character classes and pas de deux classes around 1940, maybe ’41, ’42. So the school was taking a different shape. Then we started doing the repertoire: Aurora’s Wedding, Les Sylphides, Petrouchka. Pat had just left the company; she had been one of the principal dancers for several years. She made a big mistake [by marrying Alberto] because that truncated her career as a dancer at only 18 or 19 years old. Tremendously strong technician — she could turn to the right, to the left, she could turn on her toes, she could turn on her head.

WP:  Where was she trained?

GF:  In Canada by a very good teacher, June Roper from Vancouver. Many good dancers came from there. And so it was fun to do Aurora’s Wedding. I was doing the Bluebird but with the original choreography, not the Yavorsky or Milenoff. I was doing the real thing. We danced Les Sylphides — the Fokine Les Sylphides, and it was very exciting. But then Alberto divorced Pat, and there was a big change, so I just didn’t want to continue. That’s when I went to law school.

WP:  In Havana?

GF:  Yes, in the university. One of my classmates was Fidel Castro. We didn’t have high school. We have the European system. It’s five years. Tough. There were no choices. I take two credits of this and one credit of that. It was very difficult.

WP:  What was Fidel Castro like as a classmate?

GF:  I don’t know because he was into politics, and I was into having a good time with my friends. But he was a very good student and was already involved in politics. He was always in this or that organization or going to Santo Domingo to overthrow the president. I was studying diplomatic law. I missed dance, but there was no place to go. Finally I found out that Anna Leontieva, from de Basil’s company, had stayed in Cuba and opened a small school. By the way, that’s really is her name. Beautiful dancer.

I was talking a couple of years ago with Tatiana Leskova, who was one of the dancers stuck in Cuba during the strike, and Lichine. They had to make some money, so Lichine got an engagement to do a show in the Tropicana, which was the biggest nightclub in Havana. (It still exists.) The show was called Conga Pantera — the panther. The panther was Tatiana Leskova, poor thing, and they used to throw her from one tree to the other. But they had to pay the rent. She’s wonderful. She’s the one who staged Présages for us.

WP: And she came up to Jacob’s Pillow to stage Massine’s Les Presages for the Russian-American student program in 1991.

Baranova practicing Choreartium in her dressing room, 1933*

GF: And she did also Choreartium. My favorite of all the symphonic ballets, which is unfortunately lost, is Symphonie Fantastique. Ah, what a beautiful ballet! The Berlioz music is beautiful. Again, costumes and scenery by Christian Bérard. [Unbeknownst to Gloria, there is a 1948 film of it danced the Royal Danish Ballet dancing it.]

WP:  So how did you get back into dancing?

GF: I went to Anya’s studio. Anya [Leontieva] had been trained in Paris Opéra Ballet, but her mother, Genia Klemenskaya, who was in the Diaghilev company, came too. She reminded me of Maria Swoboda, yelling her head off all the time.

I came to New York for the summer. It was during the war, 1944. Alicia had studied with Mme. Alexandra Fedorova, and she used to say to everybody, “If you go to New York, you have to study with Mme. Fedorova.” (Annabelle Lyon had told her about her.) But when I was in New York and I wanted to study with Mme. Fedorova, Mme. Fedorova was in Chicago with Leon Fokine, her son. It’s a twist of fate that I never studied with her, and then she became my mother-in-law. So I studied with her in the dining room!

I wanted to study  with [Anatole] Vilzak, but he was on vacation, so then I went to study with Sviacheslav Swoboda. The main students there were the Tyven girls, Gertrude and Sonja. Gertrude was the principal dancer of Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. That summer I saw that company do Balanchine’s Danses Concertantes with Danilova and Freddie Franklin. I kept going to Anya while still going to Havana University.

Then, in 1948, Ballet Theatre closed for one season because of financial difficulties. So Alicia and her husband Fernando rounded up a bunch of dancers from Ballet Theatre including Igor Youskevitch, Melissa Hayden, and Barbara Fallis, and came to Cuba with the idea of starting a company, with Pro-Arte as headquarters. Pro-Arte gave them the space, the costumes, the scenery, the orchestrations — everything. Alicia asked me to join; she needed a few Cuban dancers for Swan Lake. (Her company was called Ballet Alicia Alonso, and after the revolution it became Ballet Nacional de Cuba.) I said no because I was not in shape. Alberto Alonso left with the company on their tour to South America, so Pro-Arte had to have a new teacher, and they brought Leon Fokine [son of Alexandra Fedorova and Alexander Fokine, Michel’s brother]. So I started taking class to get back in shape. But I never got into the Alonso company because we got married.

WP:  What do you remember about Leon’s classes?

Leon Fokine with Vera Volkova, at the Harkness Ballet, 1964

GF:  They were fantastic. He taught me how to plié. I used to have a tremendous jump, but how to do plié, how to hold the arm, how to hold yourself, how to present yourself — he taught me that. We got married in 1949 and, after a short time in New York, we went to live in Washington, D.C. He was engaged to teach for a big school there that was the competitor of the Washington Ballet. And then the lady who owned the school decided to sell it, and Leon bought it. We were there from 1953 to ’61.

WP:  Did you have any students who later became professional?

GF:  Yes, Lili Cockerille [later Lili Cockerille Livingston, author of American Indian Ballerinas]. Lili was the prettiest little girl, had bright red hair. She was always spotless, with her little leotard, her tights were spotless, her ballet slippers, the hair in a little bun with flowers around it.

WP:  I remember her as an advanced student at SAB, around 1960, when I was there for the summer. I would watch the advanced class, and she was one of my favorites.

GF:  Yes. That’s before she joined the Harkness. Washington is a wonderful city, but the restaurants closed early. Once after a performance Alicia and Igor [Youskevitch] and I went out to have dinner. We wound up in a Whelan Drugstore having grilled cheese sandwiches.

Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch, ph Sedge Leblang, Dance Magazine Archives

WP: Were you in Washington when Castro led his revolution that took power?

GF:  Oh, yes. Almost every summer Leon used to go and teach at Ballet Alicia Alonso in Havana, and I took company class. Once I went, I hadn’t been home in three years. The company was going to South America, and Alicia asked me to come with them. But I hadn’t seen my mother in three years, so I said no. Castro was already in power and it was my last trip to Cuba. I had a big class reunion with my friends from school because it was my birthday. It was the last time I ever saw my schoolmates, because then everybody was leaving Cuba and going to different places. It was getting harder for Cuban citizens to leave, and I was still a Cuban citizen. But I was a U.S. resident, however, and so I could leave.

I came back to Washington. One day Fernando Alonso called to say they were going on tour to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and he wanted Leon and me to go with them, Leon as ballet master and me as regisseur.

WP:  This is for Ballet Alicia Alonso?

GF:  No, Castro was already in power so it was Ballet Nacional de Cuba. There are these posters for Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s Coppélia, saying “choreography by Leon Fokine.”

WP:  So, did you go with them to Russia?

GF:  Yes. Leon, who hadn’t seen his brother Nicholas in thirty years, was very interested. But we had to find somebody to stay at the school. So finally we came to Havana and started working. They wanted me to dance, but Leon wouldn’t let me. He had a previous relationship with a dancer who was always on tour, and he said, “No, no, no, I want my wife with me.” I agreed to it. What could I do?

We went to Russia but Leon had ulcers. We went to Riga [where Leon had lived and had danced with the Riga Opera, where his mother was ballet director], we went to Moscow, we went to Leningrad. And we went to Poland and Germany. When we got to Berlin, Leon had to have surgery. I stayed with him for a couple of days but then I had to leave to Leipzig. I came back to Berlin and he told me, “I don’t want to go back to Washington.” Hallelujah! Anyway, because of his surgery I had to leave the company, also because the company was going to China and I was not an American citizen. So we came back to New York. I went to Washington to settle the school and Leon was here.

Alexandra Fedorova in 1962

WP:  And then in New York did you take classes with Fedorova?

GF:  Oh, yes, I took many ballet classes with Fedorova. Even when we lived in Washington we’d come to New York and I’d go take class with her and sometimes with Vladimir Dokoudovsky also. He taught at Carnegie Hall.

WP:  So what did Leon do when he came back to New York?

GF:  Looked for a job.

WP:  Did he do Radio City then?

GF:  No, no, no, he was in Radio City before I met him, during the Depression. Rebekah Harkness wanted to take private ballet lessons, and Leon’s friend Jeannot Cerrone, who was manager of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Ballet Theatre, got him the job. When he lost the job at Harkness, he taught at Irine’s.

WP:  Yes, he taught at Irine Fokine School of Ballet in Ridgewood, New Jersey [where I studied]. I remember him as a strict teacher. So was he part of the beginning of the Harkness Ballet?

GF: Very much so. I was there too. Mrs. Harkness asked Leon to come watch the audition for her new company with Joffrey, and I went with him. When Harkness got together with Joffrey and went to Watch Hill, Rhode Island the summer of 1962, we spent the summer there. As a matter of fact I won a prize in a contest. Rebekah wrote music and Donald Saddler choreographed it, which had the black bottom and every social dance up to the twist. And my partner was Bob [Joffrey], appropriately.

WP: Yes, Bob was small too.

GF: We won second prize — the first prize was won by Mrs. Harkness! We got to perform it two times.

What she wanted was to do the Rebekah Harkness Ballet with Robert Joffrey as the director. But Bob Joffrey worked too damn hard to have his own company, not just to be the director of somebody else’s company!

WP:  So you were on his side.

GF:  Absolutely. Leon went on working with Harkness for several years more. I sympathized with Bob. [Joffrey struggled to remake his company after Rebekah Harkness started a company in her name with his dancers.]

WP: You once told me that what you liked about Leon was something about the arms.

GF:  Yes, because they’re one hundred percent Leningrad, Imperial Ballet — that openness. Leon trained there, and that stays with you.

WP:  So when you got to New York, Leon was teaching at Harkness and you were teaching sometimes at Irine’s school?

GF: I was teaching there from 1961 to ’74.

WP: I understand you studied with Olga Preobrajenska in Paris.

GF: Being a Cuban girl, I lived in the House of Bernarda Alba, a very Spanish family. There’s no such a thing as independence. You’re always dependent on your mother or your father or your grandmother or whoever. When I got married and came to New York for a day, I didn’t dare to leave the house by myself. The Royal Ballet came to Washington and a very dear friend of ours was with them, Svetlana Beriosova, who said, “Oh, you have to come and visit us in London.” So I asked Leon, “Is it okay if I go?” He said “Sure.” And Svetlana said, “Well, if you’re going to London you might as well go to Paris, and if you go to Paris you might as well go to Rome and Venice and Florence.” So the trip mushroomed to be a three-month affair. This was before air flight, and she said, “Of course you have to travel on the Ile de France.” Everything was so exciting and the kids in the studio gave me parties and presents. And then I got cold feet and said, “How the hell am I going to go Europe?” And so I came to New York first. My friends Sally Edwards and Marlene Rizzo—she’s Helgi Tomasson’s wife — took me out to dinner and to the hotel—it was my first time staying at a hotel alone.

WP:  So you made it to Paris and you studied with Preobrajenska.

GF:  I made it to London, I made it to Paris, I loved it. I studied with Preobrajenska for two months.

Preobrajenska

WP:  Tell me what you remember about studying with her.

GF:  She was tiny and very old by then. She always wore a maroon-colored jumper with a little crocheted blouse underneath, wrinkled stockings, and ballet slippers with ribbons. She would try to do entrechat quatre and she couldn’t get off the floor. When she explained how to finish a pirouette, she would open her arms, like saying, “Here I am — how beautiful.” At the end of the adagio, she always had a very dramatic pose, like putting your arm on your forehead like you’re suffering. Oh, but if you point that foot in the back, she’ll kill you. “You’re not dancing now; you’re acting. You don’t point your toes.” She was very persistent! That was one of the most thrilling experiences — just to listen to that woman and see her move.

WP: When did you get the job as the photo archivist at Dance Magazine?

GF:  Leon died in 1973. In 1978 I opened my own school in Brooklyn Heights, and that’s where I met Marilyn Hunt. I was planning with Marilyn to include dance history classes. But then it was 1984 and everybody’s leases were not being renewed. The school was doing fine. I opened with 50 students and in four years I had 125. But my lease was not renewed. I went to teach for Richard Thomas. His studio was in the former School of American Ballet.

WP:  …where there’s now a Barnes & Noble.

Richard Thomas and Barbara Fallis in an undated photo

GF:  Yes, and I loved Richard. We knew each other from Cuba because he was in Ballet Alicia Alonso with Barbara Fallis, his wife. (Actually I think his son was born in Cuba. I remember Richard, the son [the actor], in a little buggy as a baby.) But he lost his lease. Dokoudovsky lost his lease. David Howard lost his lease. Finis Jhung. Everybody. There was no place to go. I did not want to leave New York. I’m sorry, but I’m a New Yorker one hundred percent. I didn’t know what to do. One day Marilyn Hunt [a former student of Gloria’s who was an editor at Dance Magazine] and called me up and said, “How would you like to work in Dance Magazine.” I said “Marilyn, I have never worked in an office in my life.” She said, “Well, it’s the photo archives.” That was from 1985 to 1999. After that, Richard Thomas arranged for me to be ballet master at the Universal Ballet Company in Korea. So I spent three months there. They pay very well and treat you like a queen.

WP:  You said that you recently [2004] sat down with Alicia and talked.

GF:  We reminisced about Yavorsky because he was her first teacher, and about our friends at that time.

WP: I’ve heard that she’s on very good terms with Castro.

GF:  Oh, yes. She has government subsidy. If she didn’t have Fidel, she wouldn’t have a company. When I was in Havana University law school, almost every one of my classmates, if there was a ballet performance, used to go to see it.

WP:  So it was more part of the culture than it is here.

GF:  Yes.

WP:  Why do you think Ballet Nacional de Cuba has had such international success?

GF:  Well, it had damn good dancers, trained in the school. Everybody talks about the Cuban school, the Cuban school, but it’s the Russian school! It started with Yavorsky; it was started with Milenoff; it started with Fedorova. Cuba was friendly with the Soviet Union. Do you know how many teachers from the Bolshoi and from the Kirov were in Cuba teaching? Of course it has a different flavor. We’re Latins; we have a different feel for the music than the Russians. But basically it is the Russian school. The only trouble now, they’re losing a lot of dancers.

WP:  Yes, they’re defecting. Why?

GF:  Living conditions in Cuba are terrible, and the dancers don’t get paid well. There’s no water in the city, even if you have any Cuban pesos. It was in the newspaper here that they pay in Cuban pesos, but you cannot buy anything with Cuban pesos in Cuba. Even if they have a million pesos, they cannot eat in a restaurant because you have to pay in American dollars. You buy food with dollars; you buy clothes with dollars. There’s nothing — you cannot buy even a safety pin without dollars.

WP: Where else have you taught?

GF: Tim Wingerd, who had opened a dance conservatory in Albuquerque, invited me to come and teach ballet, and especially character. So I spent a wonderful two months there. He invited me to stay in New Mexico as the head of the ballet department, but unfortunately he passed away.

WP:  When you teach, what do you emphasize?

GF: You have to have technique. But also you have to have feeling, and a good ear for the music. The dancers in the de Basil company, their technique was nothing compared to today, but they danced from here [touches her heart].

WP:  When you were teaching at Irine’s, you set Les Sylphides on us. Whom did you learn Sylphides from?

GF:  In Cuba, from Pat Denisova from the de Basil company, which is the same Sylphides because it was staged by Michel Fokine himself.

WP: Did Leon stage any of the Fokine ballets?

GF:  No, I don’t think he knew the choreography.

WP:  So there’s only Vitale [Michel Fokine’s son] who knows them? And what was the relationship like between the cousins — Vitale and Leon?

GF:  Like brothers. They were both born in December of the same year, in the same house. I think they were even thrown into the same crib. They lived together, Fedorova and her husband, Alexander, and Michel and Vera, in the same house.

WP: What’s the relation between  Chopiniana and Les Sylphides?

GF:  Fokine did two Chopinianas. The first one was completely different from Les Sylphides; it had character numbers. One scene was a Polish wedding. In the first scene, the Nocturne is sort of similar to Symphonie Fantastique, the third movement. There’s the Poet and the Muse and then there’s a tarantella; it’s Chopin music but it’s a tarantella. The only thing that is left from that Chopiniana was the waltz that he choreographed for Pavlova and Oboukhoff — not Anatole Oboukhoff, but the older Oboukhoff, Mikhail.

Les Sylphide with Roman Jasinski 1940

WP:  Anatole Oboukhoff is the one who taught it at SAB [School of American Ballet].

GF:  Yes. That’s not the one. The older one saved it and incorporated it in the second Chopiniana, which is what we know as Les Sylphides.

WP:  What do you think should happen with the Fokine ballets?

GF:  I don’t know. I wish that they would continue. Alicia was very upset. She wanted to do Sylphides at City Center in 2001. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba has a wonderful Sylphides. But she couldn’t do it because a few weeks before, Isabel [Vitale’s daughter, Michel’s granddaughter] signed a contract with Ballet Theatre that gives them the exclusive rights to do Sylphides in New York I think for two years.

WP: What is it about Fokine ballets that are different from other ballets?

GF: Fokine was very Russian; his ballets like Schéhérazade are supposed to be Oriental, but Russian. I was married to a Russian for a long time. Their philosophy is Oriental. They’re not Western in their thinking. Don’t forget the Tartars were there for many years, so their way of thinking is fatalism. His choreography is very Russian. Some of the ballets are dated, like Paganini.

WP:  And what did you think of the way the Joffrey did Petrouchka a few years ago?

GF:  Well, that’s another problem. Petrouchka, Prince Igor — they will never be done right until you get character dancers. With de Basil it was exciting to have all these Polish boys like Shabelevsky and Lazowski and Nicolas Orloff.

WP:  Oh, I studied character with Orloff at Leila Crabtree’s studio around 1960!

GF:  He was the best Drummer Boy that’s ever been in Graduation Ball. Most of the company was character. They had three classical dancers: Paul Petroff, [Roman] Jasinski, and then later Michel Panaieff. Everybody else was character. Shabelevsky, the greatest of them all. And good-looking — oh! Gorgeous. Lazowski, he was teaching character later at ABT’s school. There was Marian Ladré and Narcisse Matouchevsky. They’re all character dancers.

Narcisse Matouchevsy and Yurek Lazowsky on the beach,1932*

When I see the Joffrey Ballet’s Petrouchka, and the Coachmen are dancing, the Nursemaid comes and they start taking off their jackets, you have to tease a little. That doesn’t come through. Prince Igor — I’ve seen it and it’s dead. They do the steps, but they lack the fire of true character dancers, the fire of the Polovstian warriors.

WP:  Thank you, we’ve covered a lot of ground. It’s been a long trip into the past.

GF:  I might not sleep tonight.

≠≠ END ≠≠

Postscript: Sometime after this conversation, I took Gloria to New York City Center to see the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Her eyesight was so bad she was legally blind. In intermission, I brought her over to where Alicia Alonso, who was even more blind, was sitting. The two talked animatedly about dancing in Havana when they were young. Then they joked about not being able to see well because they both would rather see their memories of ballet than whatever was onstage in the present anyway.

* These photos are from the book Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo by Victoria Tennant.

Special thanks to Victoria Tennant, Robert Johnson, Norton Owen, and Ballet Review.

 

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Simone Forti: BodyArtNature

Forti with makeshift horn, Vienna, 1978,
ph Robert Fleck via The Box L.A..

Simone Forti is an inventor of forms. In her performances, the elements of movement, sound, and objects commingle into a new hybrid. Her art embodies both the conceptual strength of minimalism and the curiosity of exploratory improvisation, with her own sly wit thrown in to ensure a dose of radical juxtaposition.

Forti’s great gift is simplicity—a divine, earthy simplicity that can touch onlookers to the core. She possesses an intuitive sense of what is artistically essential at each moment of performance. About the 1960s, the decade in which she forged her aesthetic, she has written, “Back then, making a piece was like brushing away all the sand and debris to reveal one stone.”[i]

A singular force in the art of our times, Forti was the bridge that connected Anna Halprin’s nature-based improvising on the West Coast with the chance methods of John Cage via Robert Dunn in Manhattan. It was Dunn’s composition classes at Merce Cunningham’s studio that led to the revolutionary Judson Dance Theater. Forti’s ingenious concepts and daring dancing inspired Judson co-founders Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, and Trisha Brown to be rigorous in their rule-breaking. She was a major influence, a spirited catalyst, in the formation of Judson Dance Theater, and thus postmodern dance, a role for which she has not been fully recognized.

Forti is known as a master improviser in the dance world. She’s written about what it feels like to be swept up in the “dance state.” By this she means either “that mysterious response to the music”[ii] or “a certain gear…an activation of motor intelligence.”[iii] But from the start she has identified as simply an artist—or a “movement artist”—rather than specifically a dance artist, having no wish to divide the arts into separate categories. In 1961, she mixed disciplines in a way that was natural for her and momentous for the times. Her “dance constructions,” as she called these pieces, merged object and motion in a way that made each essential to the other, thus achieving the desired “one-thingness” of minimalism. In recognition of her achievement in the art world, the Museum of Modern Art recently acquired her dance constructions (more about that later).

Red Illumination drawing, 1972

Yet the source of her decisions, rather than the theoretical reasoning of male minimalists, has always stemmed from her emotional needs. Her subsequent work—the animal studies, the “illuminations” with musician Charlemagne Palestine, the news animations, the garden journals, the drawings, and the two books she has written—continue to elude categories. In today’s cultural climate where many artists, educators, and thinkers try to move beyond binary thinking, Forti’s embrace of holistic process remains a quintessential model.

An Arts Childhood

Born in 1935, Forti counts writers and composers among her extended family. One uncle, an art critic, was a friend of Giorgio De Chirico, and another was a composer who wrote film scores and composed music for the guitarist Andrés Segovia.[iv] But her immediate family were refugees. When she was four, they narrowly escaped the Holocaust. Having fled Mussolini’s Italy to stay in non-aligned Switzerland,[v] the Fortis lived in Bern for six months, during which time Forti’s mother (Milka Forti) fell gravely ill. On the way to visiting her mother in the hospital, Simone remembers going to the zoo and watching the bears. This was the first time of many that watching animals in motion became a source of self-soothing. (The Swiss, Forti points out, regard the bear as a protective animal.)[vi]

She was five when the family finally settled in Los Angeles. At eight or nine, Forti was sent to dance class because she had flat feet. She took lessons in ballet, tap, Mexican folklorico and what was then termed “oriental” dancing, the latter being her favorite because she liked the “snaking arms.” At home, when she and a friend danced to records of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt, “We’d whip up a storm.”[vii] In Los Angeles, she again visited the zoo, often drawing the animals she observed.[viii]

At Fairfax High School, when she was given a choice between gym and modern dance, she chose the latter. “The teacher had us creating our own dances with a lot of improvisation, with the records we wanted to bring in. There was the matter of just cutting loose and letting movement come out.”[ix]

Robert Morris and simone Forti,
c. 1957, ph © estate of Warner Jepson 2017. Museum of Performance + Design, San Francisco.

She took Saturday art lessons at Jepson Art Institute in Los Angeles and grew up surrounded by art books. Her favorite painters were Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, and Francisco Goya.[x] But she also loved surrealist films and often rode her bike to the Coronet movie theater. “My first awareness that you can work with anything that captures your imagination is from films—Cocteau films, early Renoir.”[xi] (The experimental dancer/filmmaker Maya Deren was also on that list.[xii]) Forti not only responded to the moving pictures, but she dug the style flaunted by the sandal-soled denizens who mingled in the lobby. “I was going to be a Bohemian girl,” she pledged to herself.[xiii]

At Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she had planned to study biology and sociology, Forti met visual artist Robert Morris. In 1955 they dropped out, moved to San Francisco, and got married.[xiv] (She completed her BFA at Hunter College in New York in 1965.) At the time, Morris was making abstract expressionist paintings that required physical agility to apply paint to canvas. He encouraged his new wife to start painting too; he built a palette table for her and showed her how to stretch canvases.[xv] Typical of Forti’s, shall we say, unorthodox use of the body, she would sometimes “start a painting by taking a nap on a freshly stretched canvas.”[xvi]

Working with Anna Halprin

For Forti, encountering Anna (then Ann) Halprin in 1955 nurtured all her emerging movement and art interests. At first she took classes at the Halprin-Lathrop Studio in San Francisco, which were based on modern dance techniques. But when Halprin’s interests shifted toward improvisation, Forti was thrilled. The moment of that particular awakening occurred in a class taught by a top Halprin student:

One evening, instead of the usual technique class, one of Anna’s senior students, A. A. Leath, taught a dance improvisation class. He had us work with the idea of upwardness. I clearly remember a moment of deep and joyful involvement, lying on the floor, every cell of my body reaching upwards. And from the edge of the room I saw A.A. make a gesture as if to cast a fishing line to reel me in.[xvii]

Forti was invited by Halprin to study at her mountain

Halprin’s Branch dance, Kentfield, CA, c. 1957: Forti, foreground, Halprin & A.A. Leath, ph © estate of Warner Jepson 2017, MPD.

home studio, where sessions on the outdoor deck involved keen observation and concentration. The younger dancer felt it was a “tremendous gift” to be working with her mentor at a time of change.[xviii] “It was all very new,” she said about the work with Halprin. “It was her honeymoon with improvisation.”[xix]

The focused explorations led to specific revelations about the inter-connectedness of the body. “If you pick up something heavy, the work of the legs changes,” Forti noticed. “If you swing an arm, the whole body changes. We’d be improvising around a point of reference, and it would be joyful.”[xx]

She often quipped that improvising was physically like making expressionist paintings minus the baggage of the actual canvas.[xxi] From the beginning, Forti conceived of her body as part of the art.

The somatics practitioner June Ekman, who started studying with Halprin in the summer of 1955, was struck by Forti’s dancing right away. “Her quality was sensuous; it was organic—in a way, fearless.”[xxii] She also observed that Forti had already earned a favored place in the Halprin constellation:

It seemed to me that Simone was quite established. Anna was crazy about her. Anna loved her.…Every time we were on the dance deck, a lot of attention was paid to what Simone was doing. Her quality was sensuous, it was organic—in a way, fearless. Simone was very lyrical and Anna was not. Anna had a strong, attenuated body, wonderful in a Hanya Holm way. She did a lot of arcing and swinging. Simone didn’t have bones; she was very flexible.[xxiii]

Ekman felt that Halprin, while breaking away from modern dance and reaching toward a more functional use of the body, saw in Forti a dance artist who embodied the new path.

For her part, Forti found resonance in the Bauhaus aspects of Halprin’s approach as it reminded her of Saturdays at Jepson Art Academy.[xxiv]

She would have us work with elements like the negative space between two dancers…Or we would explore conceptual elements: momentum, weight, line. She wouldn’t show us movements, but would say, “We’re going to work with fast and slow for an hour, and then we’ll show each other interesting things that we found”…And then Anna might say…“What was interesting about this?” or, “You could go deeper into that.”[xxv]

Halprin immediately trusted Forti. She cast the newcomer alongside the senior members of the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, and she sent her to teach children’s classes. They were on the same wavelength in terms of observing nature—nature as in landscape as well as the nature of the human body. They also shared a willingness to try new things. Words came into their work through John Graham, a longtime Halprin performer who had had theater experience. While experimenting with vocalizing and movement, Forti realized that words could be used not only to illustrate movement but also to oppose it:

Maybe you could be doing very watery movement, very languid, soft undefinable movement. At the same time you could be describing the splinters of glass of a broken window. So we were juxtaposing very different qualities. It was a collage kind of aesthetic. We were working with nonsense and the kind of surprise to the imagination— non-sequiturs—and I think the more something would slightly unhinge our mind, the more delightful it was.[xxvi]

The “surprise to the imagination”—often involving the juxtaposition of two very different things to produce an unknown effect—is basically a Dadaist idea. According to Forti, Halprin also urged “that we should base our work in the experience of sensation. That has some roots in how California absorbed Zen—mainly from Shunryu Suzuki, whom all the beat poets studied with.”[xxvii]

Halprin’s Four Square (1959), 1960: Forti and A. A Leath, MPD

Doris Dennison, a pianist who accompanied classes at the Halprin-Lathrop School, had worked with John Cage at the Cornish School in Seattle. Through that connection, Cage came to know and respect Halprin’s work.[xxviii]

Like Halprin, Cage had interests in both Zen and Dada. In the 1950s, he had attended lectures at Columbia University by D. T. Suzuki (no relation to Shunryu), who was instrumental in introducing Zen Buddhism to the U.S.  Even before that, he’d attended a lecture at Cornish by Nancy Wilson Ross, who had experience in both Dada and Zen. With just a bit of dramatic flair, Kay Larson wrote, “As Ross made the spiritual link between Dada and Zen, Cage’s mind flew out of its nest.”[xxix]

Cage felt Zen was essential to his work as a composer and thinker, but he did not want people to think Zen was responsible for the controversial nature of his ideas. “What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen.” At the same time he felt that Dada, as embodied by Duchamp, could leaven Zen. Conversely, he said that Zen had put “a space, an emptiness” into the ideas of Dada.[xxx] In other words, there were ways that the Dadaist sensibility and Zen beliefs meshed well.

In January 1960, Cage urged his student and colleague La Monte Young to contact Halprin. Young, on his way to becoming a major minimalist composer, brought stimulating experiences to Halprin’s workshop. Often they were about listening. Forti was impressed that Young was using “a single mass of sound that didn’t change over time but was very complex within itself.”[xxxi]

During this period Forti was reading her own mix of Zen and Dada: British Zen specialist Alan Watts, surrealist poet and artist Kurt Schwitters, and absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco. All three writers reinforced her interest in the “surprise to the imagination.” While performing in Halprin’s work, Forti and her cohorts would sometimes veer off into nonsense. “We would set up something that seemed to make sense so that we could flip it and have it not make sense.”[xxxii] It might have been exactly this kind of humor that made Forti say later, “We were California kids. It was sort of surfer surrealism.”[xxxiii]

Breaking Away from Halprin, or The Call of Minimalism

Forti was passionately engaged in Halprin’s work as it evolved. What she learned was central to the future development of her own work: “to really trust the body, its intelligence and how it wants to move.”[xxxiv] She loved the freedom of improvisation but found herself waking up in the wee hours and pounding on the floor, perhaps to protest what she felt was an overdose of super-saturated improvisation.[xxxv] Plus, she was also frustrated by the nonsense aspect of the verbal portion. “I began to wish that I could say what I meant. I remember toward the end of my time there one evening shouting out, ‘Say what you mean! Say what you mean!’ ”[xxxvi]

Saburo Murakami, “Passing Through,”1956, ph Osaka City Museum of Modern Art.

In 1958 or 1959, Forti saw an article in a magazine at Halprin’s studio about Japan’s radical postwar collective, the Gutai group. “They were doing single events, body events, jumping off of high places into mud, leaning logs up together and then crashing ’em down.”[xxxvii] One photo that imprinted itself on her mind depicted Saburo Murakami bursting through a series of large, framed paper sheets. His solo performance piece, Passing Through (1956), was a singular action that, even glimpsed in a magazine, made a strong impact. It seemed to be an antidote to what Forti called “a plethora of writhing” in her improvisational practice.[xxxviii] At the same time minimalism, with its demand for a single action, was gaining traction in the United States. Years later Forti wrote, “I prefer to see…some radical change take place in the course of the ‘piece’ rather than to see many varied shiftings.”[xxxix] Murakami’s bold action answered this wish. She experienced the call of minimalism as a response to the too-muchness (of physicality, emotional heft, and gesture) of abstract expressionism as well as to endless improvisation. “I still love abstract expressionism,” she told me recently, “but it was a little bit like when you’re drunk you want to lock your eyes onto something stable.”[xl]

In terms of style, Forti was crystallizing her own aesthetic of “plain beauty,” which did not always jibe with Halprin’s growing wish to produce finished dances. Forti recalled that while working toward a performance, Halprin would bring in a costume designer…“and the whole spirit of it changed. It would become much more theatrical.”[xli] She preferred the stripped down mode of rehearsal wear or street clothes.

For all these reasons, after four years, Forti needed to move on. Her husband, Bob Morris, wanted to go to New York to be around painters like Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko[xlii] and she felt she needed a break. Together they moved to New York in 1959 (or perhaps early 1960[xliii]).

During the late summer workshop of 1960, when Forti returned to Halprin’s deck after having moved to New York a few months earlier, Halprin and Forti were observed arguing.[xliv] Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be tension between these two women, both at an early stage of becoming giants in the field. However, looking back on her time with Halprin, Forti said, “I feel that whether or not I had stayed with her vision, I really got a sense of what it is to have a vision.”[xlv]

Arriving in New York: Cunningham, Cage, Dunn

When Forti hit New York she felt alienated from the natural environments she loved. “It was like a maze of concrete mirrors. It was very depressing. I remember how refreshing and consoling it was to know that gravity was still gravity. I tuned into my own weight and bulk as a kind of prayer.”[xlvi]

One day, after a Cunningham technique class that Forti could not (or would not) absorb, Steve Paxton, then a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, noticed her drop to the ground. As he described it, while the other students were leaving the studio, Forti got down on her hands and knees to crawl on the floor, hair hanging in her face. In the context of an upright dance class, that was practically a savage act. But Paxton realized it was what she needed, and it made him curious about her. “Was she returning to basics, the roots of movement?”[xlvii] [Paxton 59]

Forti’s Grizzly Turning Corner, 1968, via The Box, L.A.

Indeed she was returning to the roots of movement, which for her lay in the movement of animals. This pull toward the earth may have reminded her of the comfort she felt at the age of four watching the bears in Bern. It was a touchstone, a reminder of something basic in life. Bears don’t throw words and movement around just to be clever. She could channel a lumbering bear or a hopping frog whenever she needed to.[xlviii]

Although Forti did not cotton to the Cunningham technique, it was at the Cunningham studio that she found out about Robert Dunn’s composition class. A pianist who played for classes at the studio, Dunn had taken John Cage’s famous course in experimental music at The New School for Social Research. The course became an incubator for new modes of performance, and students included future interdisciplinary artists Allan Kaprow and George Brecht; visitors to the class included Jackson Mac Low, Jim Dine, and Yoko Ono.[xlix] Cage himself had taught a composition class at the Cunningham studio in the 1950s; by using methods of indeterminacy he rejected the theme-and-variations format that had been taught by Louis Horst, Martha Graham’s musical director. Not wanting to continue, he asked Dunn to take the reins starting in the fall of 1960.[l] Dunn had played piano for Horst’s composition classes, which he considered hopelessly old-fashioned,[li] and he accepted Cage’s challenge.

Forti was among the first five who signed up for Dunn’s class, the others being Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Marni Mahaffay, and Paulus Berensohn. Dunn combined the Bauhaus artists’ focus on the nature of materials with Cage’s embrace of the everyday in art. Cage’s idea that any sound could be music was extended to Any movement could be dance. (That idea remained theoretical for Cunningham. It was Halprin and the Judson dancers who accepted pedestrian and task movement as dance.) His assignments offered structures based on Cage’s concepts of indeterminacy, and his feedback offered curiosity rather than judgment—not unlike Halprin’s feedback. Like Cage, Dunn was influenced by Eastern thought:

From Heidegger, Sartre, Far Eastern Buddhism, and Taoism, in some personal amalgam, I had the notion in teaching of making a “clearing,” a sort of “space for nothing,” in which things could appear and grow in their own nature.[lii]

To this clearing, Forti brought the richness, curiosity, and daring of Halprin’s explorations from the West Coast. And in the cauldron of Dunn’s composition class, she clarified her interests. She was steeped in the nature-based improvisations of Halprin but embraced the rigorous structures of Cage via Dunn. “Anna Halprin’s work and Robert Dunn’s work coming together really set me on my path.”[liii]

One of Dunn’s assignments was to compose a three-minute dance and not work on it more than three minutes. Because choreographing is so time-consuming, Forti quickly realized that the only way to solve the problem was to come up with a strong idea. It was the dawning of Forti’s consciousness of herself as a conceptual artist.

Remy Charlip, at the time a dancer in the Cunningham company, after watching a session of the students’ responses to the Satie assignment (which used the composer’s number structure for Trois Gymnopédies as a score[liv]), said that he was “most impressed with Simone Forti’s solution to the assignment.”[lv]

Forti handled that assignment in a way that forced her to be physical:

I decided that being up in the air was going to be my neutral position for it. I would begin with a jump and had to land with a certain number of points of my body touching the floor. Then I would jump again, and land with a different number of points of my body touching the floor. These numbers were determined, somehow, by the phrasing in the music. It was very awkward to do and wasn’t pretty to see, which I liked.[lvi]

Her pleasure at not being “pretty” was part of her aesthetic of plainness. Forti was such a beautiful woman and luscious mover that the unadorned aesthetic suited her. Her natural sensuality and the awkwardness of such a solution played off each other to produce a beguiling kind of restraint.

But there was also a conscious component to this preference for plainness, which had to do with what she (and Rainer as well) perceived as narcissism. “One aspect of modern dance I saw around me…was a narcissism that didn’t charm me a bit,” she wrote in Oh Tongue. Looking back on her insistence on plainness, she continued, “The interest in looking at movement, just plain generic movement, everyday movement, must partly have been a response to that narcissism.”[lvii]

Later, when Forti got together with Paxton and Brown in independent improvisation sessions, they often worked on what Forti called “rule games.” Brown relished the challenge of a structure that Forti had come up with, one that was similar to the Satie assignment:

This one was awful! Start walking across, enter and exit a rectangular space, but when you crossed it you had to have only one part of your body on the floor. And when you returned you had to have two parts of your body on the floor. Three, four, five…So you end up with everything on the floor actually when you get to ten parts. So that was sort of arduous.[lviii]

Brown considered Forti to be a mentor to both Rainer and herself, especially in the area of improvisation.[lix] She pursued the idea of games that Forti had introduced. In Brown’s Rule Game 5 (1964), the performers walked within demarcated tracks and had to get lower to the ground as they approached the seventh and final aisle. When passing a fellow performer, you had to crouch lower or rise higher depending on where your track was in the room.[lx]

The game structures drew on both Dunn’s interest in chance methods and Forti’s continued passion for observing animals. She watched long enough to discern patterns in the walking of the bears, the sparring of the chimps, the diving of otters….She noticed that some animals, like children, make up games to entertain themselves. She saw bears “whipping their bodies around…sorta like kids do somersaults or twirl or swing on a swing. It’s a free ride. It feels good, it’s fun, it passes the time.”[lxi] Describing polar bears diving into a pool, she wrote, “There remains some element of fun and the practicing of skill, an impeccable measuring and matching of shape and effort…to the length of the pool.”[lxii]

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that she would be captivated by a human being who possessed the same combination of wild fun and impeccable measuring:

The first work I came across in New York that I felt an immediate kinship with was a piece by Bob Whitman called E.G. Part way through it, Whitman took a flying leap directly over the heads of the audience. It looked like he was going to come crashing down into the crowd when, just in the nick of time, he grabbed some bars which he had installed in the ceiling, and swung away out of sight.[lxiii]

She was attracted to the “undomesticated” (animal-like) quality of his actions.[lxiv] And she found a soul mate in Whitman (who had been a student of Kaprow). Forti started performing in his pieces and helping him paint the sets,[lxv] the first one being American Moon at the Reuben Gallery in the fall of 1960.[lxvi] Whitman brought lights, imagery, objects, fabrics, and film projections together in an ingenious and surreal jumble. The look of his works was so chaotic that sometimes they were called Happenings. But they were in no way haphazard.

Robert Whitman’s American Moon, Reuben Gallery, 1960: Lucas Samaras above, ph Robert McElroy, Getty Research Institute.

After a break-up with Morris in 1962 (long in the works), Forti married Whitman. She felt fulfilled working with him, partly because of his ability to mix media while keeping a consistent focus. She likened his theater pieces to “moving sculptures”[lxvii] “In Whitman’s work, it was going towards the central image. There was a central theme that maybe never was spelled out but poetically it was there.”[lxviii]

Some of her later works that used projections, for example Cloths (1967) and Bottom (1973), were influenced by Whitman.[lxix] Her drawings at the time were influenced by Whitman’s use of primary colors. In 1966, she made a series of vibrant “Red Hat” watercolors. “I had a big red hat,” Forti remembered, “and somehow it became the signature for this character, me, running over mountains, sometimes pursued by dark figures.”[lxx] These are striking pictures with saturated color that tread the line between the figurative and the abstract.

Watercolor series, 1966. Clockwise from upper left: Red Hat With Black Background, Red Hat Pursued With Yellow, Red Hat on Bicycle.

Defying Categories

Forti never aspired to become a dancer in the sense of the virtuosic bodies we see on a proscenium stage. She recoiled at any attempt to fit her into that mold. Taking the intensive June course in 1960 at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, she was appalled when told to hold her belly in—a standard correction in almost any dance technique class.[lxxi]

Fascinated with motion rather than dance per se, she would observe natural phenomena for hours. Over a period of days, she watched an onion grow sprouts and topple over; then she wrote a “dance report” about it consisting of two sentences that she recited in Dunn’s class. Why was this a dance? For Forti, observation, time, and change were part of dancing.

Another experience that Forti decided to view as a performance occurred when she was working at a nursery school and taking the children to Central Park:

I remember one day one of the little boys said, “You all sit there and watch me.” He had a tin can on a string, and he climbed up on this rock with it. Then he dropped it, making it bounce against the side of the big rock, almost like a puppet. We were just mesmerized watching this tin can. It made me realize that anything can be interesting. And that’s what Bob Dunn was teaching us also. I think it’s because of Bob that I could see this little event with the tin can as theater, as dance, as working with movement.[lxxii]

Forti was starting to see art in everyday experiences. She believed, as Duchamp did, that art is whatever an artist says it is. In terms of genre, she felt that you could define your own terms. Crossing disciplines was in the air in the 1960s, and she felt supported by the downtown milieu.

I have the feeling that I wasn’t the only one. I did a lot of sound pieces and I felt very free about it, calling them “dances.” I like doing one thing and calling it something else…People were doing things that really crossed lines. Lucinda Childs did a piece where she was walking over sand, leaving her footprints…Sculptors and painters were involving their own bodies…I thought of it as a broken field running… sorta like a rabbit getting across a field safely by dashing this way and then holding still, and then dashing that way so that there’s not this announcement, “I am going to make a dance” and everyone saying, “Yes, yes, it’s a dance.” It’s more like I’m going to bake a cake and then instead… [she looks around, takes an object and tosses it on the floor] There’s your cake![lxxiii]

She was aware of Duchamp’s readymades, Rauschenberg’s collages, and of course, Cage and Cunningham’s use of chance. She was right in tune with the Dada Zen sensibility that was infusing the art scene.

But something even more fundamental was going on. The blending or colliding of different forms was a way to subvert an age-old habit of Western philosophy: binary thinking. In terms of perception, this deconstruction of our tendency to polarize genres and ideas is something that La Monte Young brought into focus. During his days with Halprin, he is quoted as saying, “A person should listen to what he ordinarily just looks at, or look at things he would ordinarily just hear.”[lxxiv]

Just as Young proposed a melding of sound and sight, Forti proposed, in her own moving body, a melding of art and dance:

You are composing when you’re improvising. One of the kinds of improvising I sometimes do is to stream myself around through space. And I think it’s very close to abstract expressionism in painting. To use your body almost as a bunch of wet paint that I can move around the space. In my imagination I almost leave traces.[lxxv]

In a physical, intuitive way, she had already eluded binary thinking. During this period she continued making drawings and watercolors. She felt she was equally a maker of dance and a maker of visual art.

All these experiences of knitting different modes together led up to the moment when she sat on her bed and drew five “ideas” that she decided to call “dance constructions.”

The Dance Constructions — A Landmark in the Arts

Forti’s floor plan for the Dance Constructions

In the spring of 1961, La Monte Young invited Forti to create an evening in the series of interdisciplinary programs he had organized at Yoko Ono’s loft at 112 Chambers Street.[lxxvi] Forti easily came up with ideas that merged the task elements of Halprin with an object or visual situation. She called them dance constructions, and they embodied the non-dualistic thinking that she had been working toward all along. She was still with Morris at the time, so he built the necessary objects from simple materials like wood and ropes. She presented these dance-and-sculpture hybrids in a bare studio. There were no seats and people could mill about, viewing the pieces from any orientation.

What follows is a partial list of the events included in “Dance Constructions & Some Other Things” in May of 1961. I describe most of them in the present tense because these structures exist and can be performed at any time. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art recently acquired the dance constructions—a remarkable development. Just as they would buy a tangible work of art, they have bought Forti’s dance constructions, to be loaned out and performed according to Forti’s stipulations. The acquisition, which has been in the works for several years, is considered “groundbreaking” by the curators at MoMA.[lxxvii] Not to mention that it cements Forti’s reputation as a leading figure in the avant-garde.

Slant Board consists of an 8-foot square ramp with a 45-degree incline to which several knotted ropes are attached. Three or four performers pull themselves across the surface, going under and over each other while holding a rope. The physicality of pulling on the rope as the legs grapple with the incline—a bit like rappelling in a climbing gym—ensures a certain level of difficulty.

Slant Board (1961), Forti at upper right, Stedelijk Museum,1982.

Huddle, later sometimes titled The Mountain, is a moving sculpture of humans. Six to nine people cluster together to form a group that collectively makes a small mound, girding themselves by holding one another, shoulder-to-shoulder, heads lowered. One at a time, each person extricates from the group and climbs up, over, and down the huddle of other bodies, feeling the surfaces with her or his body. The idea is to keep it plain, to focus on the simple task of climbing across the top of the “mountain.”

Forti in Huddle, Stedelijk Museum, 1982

In From Instructions (also called Instructions for a Dance), again, no concrete object, just two people and two conflicting sets of instructions. Forti told Morris to tie his sculptor friend Robert Huot to the pipes jutting from the wall, and she told Huot to lie on the floor no matter what. Not surprisingly, the piece devolved into a wrestling match.[lxxviii]

Platforms consists of two low and long, hollow platforms of slightly different dimensions. A man helps a woman crawl underneath one of the platforms, then takes his place under the other one. From that hidden position, they whistle, responding to each other’s sounds, for a designated period of time. The man then emerges from his cave and, adding a chivalrous touch, he goes to help the woman out and up.

“Accompaniment for La Monte’s 2 Sounds” (1961), MoMA, 2009, ph Yi-Chun Wu

For the most enigmatic piece, Forti used a sound score recorded by Young and fellow minimalist Terry Riley the previous year at Halprin’s studio. For Accompaniment for La Monte’s “2 sounds,” and La Monte’s “2 sounds,” she steps into a hanging rope loop about one foot off the ground. An assistant winds her all the way in one direction, like kids do with a rope swing, and then lets ’er rip. Unlike kids, however, this is done to an almost unbearably harsh combination of two simultaneous sounds. Forti describes them this way: “One sound I think is a glass or a nail on a window, those are the high pitches, and the other one is a wooden mallet rubbing on a gong.”[lxxix]  (The two sounds were actually called “Cans on Window” and “Drumstick on Gong.”[lxxx] This score was later used for Merce Cunningham’s notorious Winterbranch in 1964, and is described slightly differently on the Cunningham Trust’s website.[lxxxi]) As the momentum untwists her, then twists her in the other direction, she adopts a waiting, listening expression on her face. The loud scraping sounds are gloriously god-awful. Says Forti, “I’m listening to it and the audience is listening to the music, and I have some idea that I help them listen.”[lxxxii]

When I saw Forti perform this work at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009, the audience definitely needed help staying calm while being bombarded with Young’s sounds. Watching her slow down to eventual stillness was a beatific thing to witness. Her face, like an Italian Renaissance portrait, has a timeless beauty, and in its listening mode emanated a serenity that coexisted with (or, as indicated in the title, accompanied) the twelve-minute racket. We were in the presence of a poetic—and somehow spiritual—example of stillness and acceptance.

Forti now counts two earlier works as dance constructions as well: Roller Boxes (also called Rollers) and See-Saw. These two were performed in December, 1960 at the Reuben Gallery in a shared program with Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg. See-Saw was a crude see-saw whereby two performers (Morris and Rainer in the first performance) used structured improvisation to experiment with balancing each other out. A noise-making toy emitted a “moo” each time the balance was tipped.

Roller Boxes involved a pair of wooden boxes on swiveling wheels, in which Forti and Patty (Mucha) Oldenburg sat. The idea was that they would both hold a single tone while audience members pulled the boxes by a rope.

Forti recently described what actually happened:

The audience started careening us around…When I was a kid I loved the bumper cars, and this was very much like being in the bumper cars except that they were wooden boxes.…The audience was jumping, running to stay out of the way. Our boxes were banging together, and we were screaming. We were lucky we didn’t get hurt.[lxxxiii]

In subsequent performances, Forti, concerned about safety, asked people she knew, rather than random audience members, to pull the boxes.

Impact on Judson Dance Theater

The dance constructions had a far-reaching impact. These works, and Forti’s approach in general, were a strong influence on four of the groundbreaking Judson pack: Paxton, Morris, Rainer and Brown. Paxton, who performed in Forti’s program and later became another seminal figure in postmodern dance, recognized the dance constructions as a precursor to Judson Dance Theater. He said they were like “a pebble tossed into a large, still, and complacent pond. The ripples radiated.” He wrote that the Judson choreographers “took courage from” her daring hybrids.[lxxxiv] His solo Flat (1964), in which he walked around, removed almost all his clothing one piece at a time, and hung the garments on hooks affixed to his bare skin, seems to echo the unity of body and object of the dance constructions.

But on a more philosophical plane, Paxton ruminated about the divesting of the trained body that was necessary for him to perform in the dance constructions. He sent me this in an email:

Simone demonstrated her movement for the cast. There were no pointed toes, no extremely extended limbs. It is not easy to shed these elements. First with Simone, and later in Judson performances, there was the question about movement not governed by the Western Dance Aesthetic. To that point, Simone said, “I have worked hard on my ideas, and I don’t want other people’s ideas in my work.” And evidently that meant “not the Western world’s” ideas of movement. As one of her dancers I had to honor her wish, and then to confront the system I had before training, admit one existed, try to discover the innate movement I had prior to hours every day trying to change that movement. It was self-shaking, paradoxical, and enlarging…My Modern Dance–made body needed to relax and reform. “I” needed to admit that I was also non-conscious, a more complex entity than I had imagined myself, or could imagine myself.

Simone’s work provoked what I might call a growth of awareness, and that growth seems to be in the form of inhabitable viewpoints, such as seeing an elusive former, preconscious self from the post-training vantage, imagining a post training body from the hope of a pre-training state, my conscious mind trying to discern what my non conscious mind is, etc, a cycling circling twisting attempt to catch oneself in the wild, unaffected by the fact one is watching. The cards are stacked against us, but the struggle makes us stronger, or just makes us us.[lxxxv]

Like Paxton, Morris, who went on to make several performance pieces at Judson, also felt the need to divest. But since he was not a dancer, it wasn’t dance training he was trying to get rid of. It was the disconnect between the making of a work and “the static, finished product.” His stated problem was that the object had no relation to the process that produced it.[lxxxvi] For him, sculpture that extended into time was a solution to what he considered a troubling difference. “I found in the theater a situation where that dichotomy was not the case.”[lxxxvii] (The term “theater” was Cage’s term for aNY time-based art “that engages both the eye and the ear.”[lxxxviii]) In his eyes, his ex-wife was a part of that solution. In fact, he places Forti in the line of other major figures: “A thread runs from Duchamp to Cage to Forti and is part of the larger story of modernism,” Morris wrote in 2012. “All share a common strategy.”[lxxxix] What he is referring to is that all three had broken through convention to discover that the materials one is working with can suggest a single decision that governs the artistic process.

The physical struggle between Morris and Huot triggered by From Instructions may have served as a seed for their collaborative duet War (1963) at Judson. They really went at it—wearing outlandish costumes while yelling loudly and taking whacks at each other—but only for a few seconds. War was one of the more bizarre performances at Judson. Rainer loved it; Paxton hated it.[xc]

Back on Halprin’s dance deck, in response to one of Halprin’s assignments to observe nature, Morris had chosen to focus on a rock. Forti still has a vivid memory of it:

Bob had observed a rock, and he started out lying down. Over a period of three minutes he drew himself together until he was all balled up and balanced on the smallest part of himself as possible, as that rock—which kinda foretold some of the work that he was then going to do.[xci]

Later Forti sometimes performed with the idea of placing herself as a stone in different areas of the performance space.[xcii]

When Judson Dance Theater launched on July 6, 1962, it was a natural outgrowth of the Dunn workshop that Forti was very much part of. But by that time she was involved with Whitman, who was in a different camp, so to speak. Most of her fellow students in the Dunn class—Rainer, Paxton, Brown, Lucinda Childs, Rudy Perez, Elaine Summers—performed as part of the Judson collective, which is widely known as the crucible of postmodern dance. As Sally Banes has written, that first concert “proved to be the beginning of a historic process that changed the shape of dance history.”[xciii]

Possibly the two Judson renegades most influenced by Forti were her friends Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown. Needless to say, they both went on to become seminal figures in postmodern dance. Rainer met Forti in New York in 1960 through fellow Bay Area dancer Nancy Meehan.[xciv] That fall, after the Halprin intensive, Rainer was sharing a studio with Forti and Morris in lower Manhattan:

Around this time I saw Simone do an improvisation in our studio that affected me deeply. She scattered bits and pieces of rags and wood around the floor, landscape-like. Then she simply sat in one place for a while, occasionally changed her position or moved to another place. I don’t know what her intent was, but for me what she did 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 continued to dominate my dance training.[xcv]

See-Saw (1960), with Yvonne Rainer above and Robert Morris below, ph Robert McElroy

Forti’s effect on Rainer is even more strongly expressed in this excerpt from Rainer’s diary of September 1961: “I am indebted to Simone for my awakening as a dancer. I can say that my creative life as a dancer began when I met her, shortly before our trip west last year.”[xcvi]

Another artistic revelation for Rainer was working on See-Saw. About that experience, Rainer says of Forti, “She made no effort to connect the events thematically in any way…And one thing followed another….Whenever I am in doubt I think of that. One thing follows another.”[xcvii]

This disjunctiveness—one thing following another even though it may not make obvious thematic sense—is typical of the way Forti works. Perhaps it owes something to the Dada Zen sensibility of Cage as well as to the Halprin tendency to “flip” meaning. Forti had an uncanny ability to commit to each thing as it happened—even when there was no continuity. “My style is more to jump from things to things,” she said. “If I stay with something and see where it evolves to, I’d feel a little bit imprisoned by it. I get a little claustrophobic.”[xcviii]

Forti’s association with Trisha Brown, whom she met that same summer of 1960 at Halprin’s course, continued throughout the Judson years and beyond. Brown was immediately struck by Forti’s inventiveness at the house of Halprin. For years she retained a vivid image of Simone “with a garden hose pointed at her mouth, singing a beautiful Italian aria. It was riveting. I didn’t know what category of behavior that went into.”[xcix]

That happy confusion of categories, of course, became even more pronounced in the dance constructions. One can see their influence on Brown’s equipment pieces. For example, Brown’s Planes (1968) took the incline of Slant Board and made it so steep as to be an almost vertical plane with holes to get one’s feet into—a precursor of the more famous Walking on the Wall (1971).

Trisha Brown’s Lightfall, with Brown and Steve Paxton, sound by Forti, ph Al Giese, 1963.

Forti and Brown shared a sensibility that favored a relaxed body and the freedom to go wild while improvising. They trusted each other artistically, and Forti provided sound for several of Brown’s pieces. When Brown performed her first solo, Trillium (1962), at Maidman Playhouse[c] and later at Judson, the sound score was a recording of a vacuum cleaner with Forti vocalizing tones she heard in the sound of the machine.[ci] And for Brown’s Lightfall (1963) at Judson’s Concert No. 4, Brown and Paxton performed the perching-and-falling duet to a recording of Forti whistling.[cii]

Rainer, Paxton, and Brown were stalwarts in the Judson rebellion who each went on to become a force in contemporary dance (in Rainer’s case, film as well). In recognizing Forti’s influence on them, we recognize her influence on the whole phenomenon of postmodern dance.

 

An Emotional Pull

While many of the male minimalists explained their motivation with mathematical formulas or academic theories, some female artists gave an emotional motivation. For example, Morris has written, “[T]he decision to employ objects came out of considerations of specific problems involving space and time.”[ciii] In Forti’s writing, we see the words “want” and “feel” and “need.” Even her reaction to Cage’s ideas was emotional. Although she threw herself into solving Dunn’s assignments that were based on Cage’s chance methods, what stayed with her was learning about Cage’s own expressed need”

[Robert Dunn] said that John had wanted to be able to hear sound, and that when he listened to music that was in any way traditional, he’d know that after this sound and that sound and that sound, then there could be this or that or that, but it was gonna be one of them.…he always had a double experience of the sound itself and the expectation. And he wanted to be able to just hear sound without any expectation…I felt from that, that if you need something, you can create a structure that will give it to you.[civ]

Ultimately Cage, via Dunn, had given Forti permission to set up whatever framework she needed to satisfy her emotional/artistic needs. And what she needed at that time was physical contact. Ultimately, that need, plus her growing interest in mixing genres, fueled her dance constructions:

I had just left San Francisco, I had just left the trees, I had just left the mountains. I needed to climb, I needed to feel my physical strength.…And it occurred to me that I could make this little mountain, which I call the Huddle… and be part of that structure or climb on it, that I could make something that could give me what I was needing.[cv]

Floating in Water, 1971, via The Box, L.A.

In another interview, while talking about her move to New York, she admits to a level of vulnerability rarely acknowledged by artists, male or female:

I think it hit me especially hard because the marriage [to Robert Morris] wasn’t going so well. I remember feeling that the nature that I’m really part of, that I can really still experience, is my weight—that I take up space and have weight…The work was a way for me to connect to universe. To say, I’m here, I feel confused, bad, and lost, but I’m still attached to the earth.”[cvi]

Forti’s emotional radar was alerted over an ethical issue in 1968 when she was living and working in Rome. She tells this story about Fabio Sargentini’s Rome Festival of Music, Dance, Explosion and Flight, which she had enthusiastically helped to organize. She was horrified by a series of “experimental” explosions engineered by American sculptor David Bradshaw. In fragmentary writing that reflects her state of mind (she was known to sometimes partake of marijuana and acid in the late 1960s), she recounts the incident:

The jolt. The water rising…The fish were coming up dead…I walked over to David Bradshaw and asked him if, in the light of the dying fish, he felt one explosion had been enough. He said…that the death of the fish was not the intention of the piece, and that he would continue. Right. I just squatted beside a tree, my head in my hands. Another jolt, water rising… It is true. I was stoned and I was watching the ants at my feet. They were going crazy. Through their frenetic scrambling I had a vision of their ancient tunnels crumbling. My tears fell among them. And I was miles into the sky. And these tiny forms were people down below, scrambling on the surface of their crumbling survival structure. Radial victims of a linear intent. It is true. I was stoned. I was there, but I was not in Rome. I was with the ants.[cvii]

Forti with her father, Mario Forti, in Florence, c. 1948, via The Box, L. A.

The trauma of that experience left her feeling like the New York art world, of which Bradshaw was a part, was becoming as hawkish as U.S. foreign policy in its disregard for human life.[cviii] This disaffection harks back to the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when Forti felt a sense of protest, but it was more emotional than actively political.

I started going to hootenannies. Getting together with people to sing folk songs and songs of resistance. The feeling state which I picked up from that community was good for me, as was the singing. Opening my throat and singing my heart out.[cix]

A later decision, one that ignited her series of “news animations,” hinged on her feelings about the death of her father, Mario Forti.

My father died in 1983. He was an avid reader of newspapers. I’ve thought that that’s how he knew, before so many others did, that it was time to get out of Europe. When he died I figured I’d better start reading the news. Also, it felt like a way to be close to him. Still does.[cx]

Going back to her early childhood, there may be a residue from the traumatic events of her family’s escape from Europe. Although Forti has never said this, I think there is something about her work—the hunger for touch, the desire to feel the earth under her feet, the distrust of authority—that may be the legacy of being a four-year-old child bewildered by the haste with which her family had to flee their home country.

Traditions Nevertheless

Although she has railed against the conventions of the dance world, Forti also had a respect for lineage in both dance and visual art:

I felt aware that I was in the same tradition with Kurt Schwitters and I felt the tradition wasn’t gonna end with us. The continuance of this tradition like working with Ann Halprin: she also had worked with Margaret H’Doubler, who worked with exploring movement anatomically. Laban had been working with movement, even factory movement, how to lift—how to build machines so the body functions in harmony with them…When a tradition’s been going a period of time, you don’t imagine it’s gonna end with you. You’re gonna have something to do with its going on.[cxi]

She also feels in line with the tradition of another California girl—Isadora Duncan. She calls Duncan “one of the founders and sources of dance improvisation in America”[cxii] and admires how, in the Cagean sense, Duncan created a structure for what she needed.

[Duncan] who stood silently still in the center of her studio waiting for a movement impulse, was working with this very particular problem she had given herself, of clearing the environment and listening for an inner impulse.[cxiii]

Perhaps Forti’s sense of valuing the past was most poignantly expressed in a hand-written letter she wrote to Trisha Brown after seeing her perform Accumulation in Rome in 1972. She wrote that Brown’s solo, in which she returned to the first gesture (extending the thumb outward almost like a hitchhiker would) after each new movement was added, served as a kind of guide for Forti. “I used to stretch both hands to the future,” she continued. “Now I’ve been stretching one hand to the future and one to the past, and my house seems to be building up a lot stronger.”[cxiv]

Forti’s Planet, P. S. 1, 1976

Another way she connected with the past has more of a cultural basis: “In Naples people speak with their dead as much as with their saints. Enlist their help. As a Florentine Jew, I too speak with my dead. I love them, and they help me clear my mind.”[cxv]

She found reinforcement for this kind of communication in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, which is the tome Cage relied on as a guide to chance procedures. This kind of connection with the past has a spiritual element:

In the I Ching they often talk about music and dancing and inviting the ancestors to be present…I do have a sense of the ancestors …being present in this ongoing, redoing and redoing…as our way of making art changes. It is a way of having the antenna to intuitions that are vital to survival as one of its functions. I see myself as a worker in the ongoing format of divination.[cxvi]

Legacy, True and False

Big Room, 1974. ph Robert Alexander, via Fales Special Collections at NYU, and The Box, L.A.

In the years following the dance constructions, Forti has gotten involved in many new and recurring collaborations. Her work with composer Charlemagne Palestine, which began when they met at California Institute of the Arts in 1970, led to the “Illuminations” series, including various ways of performing circles (she was “banking from orbit to orbit”[cxvii]). Her animal studies in the 1970s and 1980s were performed with musician Peter Van Riper. The news animations, ongoing since the 1980s, braid words and movement together in a slyly oblique way. In the late 1980s Forti started feeling that integrating one’s body and mind was not enough. She wanted her art to be aware of the world too. Thus she came up with a way of framing her work that she called “Body, Mind, World.”[cxviii]

Forti has continued to perform in museums, galleries, and festivals in the United States and Europe. A part-time faculty at UCLA from 1997 to 2014, she has given workshops all over the world (except Germany, where she has refused to go[cxix]). About her approach to teaching, she says, “I still teach the workshop process that I learned from Anna.”[cxx]

Her practice of improvisation, now often combining dance and words, is part of her legacy. She aims not only to cross the barrier from dance to art, but from body to mind:

Movement, or improvisation, always involves following impulses while also watching the whole situation…There is always thinking going on while the movement is happening…What I want to impart… is the experience of having the motor centers and the verbal centers of your mind communicating with one another, working together. I want to facilitate that dialogue.”[cxxi]

Forti’s drawings and watercolors have been shown at galleries in Los Angeles, New York, and Zurich. The holographic pieces she made with holography pioneer Lloyd Cross in the ’70s (Striding Crawling and Angel) are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Forti, who has received several lifetime achievement awards,[cxxii] was the subject of a major retrospective the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, Austria, in 2014. As mentioned, she has a permanent relationship with MoMA, which has acquired the Illumination ink drawings that came out of her work with Palestine, as well as her dance constructions, giving her the status of a major visual artist.

Illustrious dance artists who have been influenced by Forti, including Susan Rethorst, David Zambrano, Daniel Lepkoff, and K. J. Holmes, have made her sensibility visible to a new generation of dancers. Her legacy is inextricably entwined with her longevity, allowing several generations to experience her work. Recently Forti reunited with Charlemagne Palestine for a reprisal of their “Illuminations” series. When this was performed at MoMA in 2014, Brian Seibert of The New York Times described her presence as Palestine hummed and made sounds with a glass and a laptop:

Meanwhile, Ms. Forti, in black pants and a white sweater, eyes closed, slowly rolled across the floor. The beauty of her approach, if also its limitations and risks, lies in how she doesn’t put on a show; she just is. At one point, she directed attention to the moon outside by saying “moon.”[cxxiii]

Clearly, she still revels in her aesthetic of plainness and her connection to nature.

But there is also a part of her legacy that has gone beyond actual witnessing to rumor and hearsay. You know that an artist’s reputation has reached the realm of legend when that happens. In the fall of 2014, I attended a performance event in a small loft in SoHo. All of us were standing, packed like vertical sardines, shoulder-to-shoulder, ear-to-ear. I could not help but overhear one young Italian man telling his friends this story with great authority:

When Simone Forti’s relationship with Robert Whitman broke up, she was so unhappy that she had to do something very different. She went to Rome and she did a piece where she got naked and performed in a cage with a bear. A big f—-g bear!

I was impressed. But after a moment I realized there was a chance this story might not be entirely true. So I e-mailed Simone and asked her about it. I received a reply right away.

Hi Wendy,

Well, I really should leave that rumor intact. But as I remember things, I did go to Italy shortly after breaking up with Whitman, and began my zoo studies. Then, years later, I was in Paris to perform with Charlemagne. While walking in the street on a cold day, with a videographer associated with the Sonnabend Gallery, I saw a cage-like mid basement walk-down to an entrance. I don’t know how else to describe it. We decided to shoot me moving down in that pit-like place. After a while of doing my bear studies movement, I took off my clothes, leather jacket and all, and continued naked. There’s a very nice video of that, which was once shown in a mini retrospective of mine at MoMA.

With love from Paris where I just performed with Charlemagne, fully dressed,

Simone

One of Forti’s News Animations, ph Ellen Crane, 2017, via Radical Bodies

[I originally wrote this essay for the exhibit I co-curated titled “Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955–1972.” It originated at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara in 2017, and came to the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts. The Radical Bodies exhibition catalog was published by UC Press. Special thanks to The Box L.A. for this posting.]

¶¶¶

Endnotes

[i] Forti, Simone, “Reflections on the Early Days,” Movement Research Performance Journal #14, Spring 1997 (a special edition titled “The Legacy of Robert Ellis Dunn”), 4.

[ii] Simone Forti, Handbook in Motion (1974), (Northampton: Contact Editions, 1997), 129

[iii] Simone Forti, “Full Moves: Thoughts on Dance Behaviors,” Contact Quarterly 9, no. 3 Fall 1984, 8.

[iv] E-mail to the author, October 17, 2015.

[v] In an email to the author January 8, 2016, Forti elaborates: “Here is the narrative I’ve settled on: We crossed the border into Switzerland in December of 1938. There had been Kristallnacht and the way across the border was easy at that moment because many Italians were heading to Switzerland for their ski holidays. The story goes that we put our skis on top of the car and were waved through along with everyone else. Why did we hide our departure? Was Fascist Italy already blocking Jews from leaving? Supposedly, no more passports were being issued to Jews and ours were about to expire.”

[vi] Oral History transcript of Simone Forti, interviewed and recorded by Louise Sunshine, May 8, 1994, Dance Division, NY Public Library of the Performing Arts, 1–3.

[vii] Ibid., 7.

[viii] Forti, “Full Moves,” 7.

[ix] Oral History transcript, 8.

[x] Conversation with the author, June 10, 2014.

[xi] Bennington College Judson Project (1981) dir. Wendy Perron, video interview with Simone Forti conducted by Meg Cottam, in Forti’s Manhattan studio.

[xii] Forti, Oh Tongue (Los Angeles: Beyond Baroque Books, 2003), 125.

[xiii] Oral History transcript, 10.

[xiv] E-mail to the author, Sept. 21, 2015.

[xv] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 32.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Forti, Oh Tongue,131.

[xviii] Ibid., 132.

[xix] Conversation with the author, June 10, 2014.

[xx] Breitwieser, Sabine, “The Workshop Process, In Conversation with Simone Forti,” in Breitwieser, ed. Simone Forti: Thinking with the Body, (Salzburg: Museum der Moderne, 2014), 21. Exh. catalog

[xxi] Conversation with the author, June 10, 2014.

[xxii] Author’s phone conversation with June Ekman, September 7, 2015.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Forti, Oh Tongue, 132.

[xxv] Breitwieser, 21.

[xxvi] Oral History transcript, 24

[xxvii] Breitwieser, 22–23. Note: Shunryu Suzuki, author of the influential book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, founded the San Francisco Zen Center in 1962.

[xxviii] Ross, Janice, Anna Halprin: Experience As Dance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 80.

[xxix] Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 79.

[xxx] Cage, John, Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press 1961, paperback 1973), xi.

[xxxi] Bennington College Judson Project.

[xxxii] Cypis, Dorit, “Between Conceptual and Vibrational,” X-tra, Vol 6 No. 4, Summer 2004, 10.

[xxxiii] Oral History transcript, 25.

[xxxiv] Ross, 151.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Forti, Oh Tongue, 117, and Cypis, 10.

[xxxvii] Bennington College Judson Project.

[xxxviii] Oral History transcript, 32.

[xxxix] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 53.

[xl] Author’s phone conversation with Forti, October 19, 2015.

[xli] Author’s phone conversation with Forti, August 25, 2015.

[xlii] Steffen, Patrick (2012), “Forti on All Fours,” Contact Quarterly Online Journal, https://community.contactquarterly.com/journal/view/onallfours.

[xliii] Gerard Forde has exposed a discrepancy as to when the couple moved east. Forti had said 1959, but Morris dates the relocation as 1960. Forti has told me that Morris has the more dependable memory. Forde, Gerard. “Plus or Minus 1961—A Chronology 1959–1963.” online

[xliv] Ross, 136.

[xlv] Oral History transcript, 22.

[xlvi] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 34.

[xlvii] Paxton, Steve, “The Emergence of Simone Forti,” Simone Forti: Thinking with the Body, 59.

[xlviii] See Forti, Oh Tongue, 135, for Forti’s eloquent description of the “dancers among the captives in the zoo.” She describes, among other actions, “bears running back and forth up a ramp and …reaching and spiraling their noses skyward…the biggest male of a herd of deer doing a terrifying leap straight at but just short of at the newborn fawn.”

[xlix] Banes, Sally, Greenwich Village 1963 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), 28, and Biesenbach, Klaus and Cherix, Christophe, Yoko Ono: One Woman Show 1960-1971, New York: MoMA, 2015).

[l] Charlip, Remy, Movement Research Performance Journal #14, Spring 1997, 10. Charlip was a dancer, choreographer, costume designer, and writer and illustrator of children’s books.

[li] Soares, Janet Mansfield, Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), 250.

[lii] Dunn, Robert, Movement Research Performance Journal #14, 1997, 1, originally printed in Contact Quarterly, Winter 1989.

[liii] Forti, Simone, video interview in Judson Dance Theater: 50th Anniversary internet series, Artforum.com, 2012.

[liv] Banes, Sally, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater 1962–1964 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983) (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 4.

[lv] Charlip, Movement Research Performance Journal #14, 10.

[lvi] Breitwieser, 24.

[lvii] Forti, Oh Tongue, 117.

[lviii] Brown, Trisha (2004) Trisha Brown: Early Works 1966–1979, DVD Two: A Conversation with Trisha Brown and Klaus Kertess, ArtPix DVD.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Teicher, Hendel, Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue: 1961–2001 (Addison Gallery, distr. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 300.

[lxi] Author’s phone conversation with Forti, August 25, 2015.

[lxii] Forti, “Full Moves,” 7.

[lxiii] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 35.

[lxiv] Forti, Simone (1999), “Animate Dancing: A Practice in Dance Improvisation,” in A. Cooper Albright,  & D. Gere (Eds), Taken By Surprise (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 61.

[lxv] Kaminski, Astrid, “Join the Movement,” Frieze.com, Issue 168, January-February 2015, http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/join-the-movement/.

[lxvi] Forde, Gerard

[lxvii] Cypis, 10.

[lxviii] Oral History transcript, 51.

[lxix] Breitwieser, 24.

[lxx] Ibid., 30.

[lxxi] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 34.

[lxxii] Breitwieser, 65.

[lxxiii] Bennington College Judson Project.

[lxxiv] Ross, 145.

[lxxv] Oral History transcript, 67.

[lxxvi] Although most researchers say that Young organized the series at Yoko Ono’s loft, Ono has expressed her feeling that they organized it together. See “A Letter to George Maciunas,” 1971 and subsequent note in 2014, both appeared in Biesenbach, 70-71

[lxxvii] Phone conversation with Ana Janevski, associate curator, Department of Media and Performance Art, Museum of Modern Art, January 20, 2016.

[lxxviii] Oral History transcript, 45.

[lxxix] “In Conversation: Simone Forti with Claudia La Rocco,” Brooklyn Rail, April 2, 2010

[lxxx] Janice Ross, “Atomizing Cause and Effect: Ann Halprin’s 1960s Summer Dance Workshop,” Art Journal, Vol. 68 No. 2, Summer 2009, 75.

[lxxxi] In the Dance Capsules section of the Cunningham Trust website, David Vaughan writes that La Monte Young’s 2 Sounds consisted of “the sound of ashtrays scraped against a mirror, and the other, that of pieces of wood rubbed against a Chinese gong.” http://dancecapsules.mercecunningham.org/overview.cfm?capid=46113

[lxxxii] Ibid.

[lxxxiii] Taken from unused footage of an interview with Simone Forti conducted for Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer, the film by Jack Walsh.

[lxxxiv] Paxton, 61.

[lxxxv] Email to the author, August 27, 2015.

[lxxxvi] Weiss, Jeffrey with Davies, Clare, Robert Morris: Object Sculpture: 1960–1965 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with Castelli Gallery, 2013), 300.

[lxxxvii] Ibid., 33.

[lxxxviii] Kirby, Michael, and Schechner, Richard, “An Interview with John Cage,” Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Winter, 1965), 50.

[lxxxix] Morris, Robert, “A Judson P.S.,” Judson at 50, Artforum.com.

[xc] See Rainer’s description of War in Banes Democracy’s Body, 101, and Morris’ explanation of War in “Judson Dance Theater: 50th Anniversary,” Artforum.com, June 8, 2012, http://www.artforum.com/words/id=31187

[xci] Walsh, Jack.

[xcii] Ibid., 69.

[xciii] Banes, Democracy’s Body.

[xciv] Meehan went on to become a great dancer with the Erick Hawkins.

[xcv] Rainer, Yvonne, Feelings Are Facts, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 195–6.

[xcvi] Ibid., 217.

[xcvii] Rainer, Yvonne, Avalanche 5, Summer 1972, page?.

[xcviii] Oral History transcript, 68

[xcix] Brown, Trisha, Trisha Brown: Early Works 1966–1979, ArtPix Videos.

[c] Forde, 23.

[ci] E-mail to the author, September 21, 2015.

[cii] Forde, 41.

[ciii] Morris, Robert, “Notes on Dance,” Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, Winter, 1965 © The MIT Press, 180.

[civ] Forti, Simone, video interview, Artforum.com, “Judson Dance Theater: 50th Anniversary,” August 2012 http://artforum.com/video/id=36989&mode=large

[cv] Ibid.

[cvi] Breitwieser, 27–28.

[cvii] Forti, Handbook in Motion, 100.

[cviii] Ibid., 103, and author phone conversation with Forti, August 15, 2015.

[cix] Forti, Oh Tongue, 125.

[cx] E-mail to the author, September 23, 2015.

[cxi] Bennington College Judson Project.

[cxii] Forti, Oh Tongue, 133.

[cxiii] Forti, “Animate Dancing,” 54–55.

[cxiv] Forti, Letter to Trisha Brown (1972) reprinted in Trisha Brown’s Notebooks, ed. Susan Rosenberg, October Vol. 140, Spring 2012 (MIT).

[cxv] Forti, Oh Tongue, 13.

[cxvi] Bennington College Judson Project.

[cxvii] Breitwieser, 201.

[cxviii] Forti, Oh Tongue, 113 and 122.

[cxix] Ibid., 116.

[cxx] Goldstein, Jennie, (2014), “Simone Forti in Conversation with Jennie Goldstein,” Critical Correspondence blog, posted July 10, 2014, interview June 2, 2014.

[cxxi] Breitwieser, 34–35.

[cxxii] Forti’s lifetime achievement awards include a Bessie (New York Dance and Performance Award) in 1995, a Lester Horton Award in Los Angeles in 2003, and a Yoko Ono Lennon Award for Courage in the Arts in 2011.

[cxxiii] Seibert, Brian, “Italian Touch, With a Taste of Cognac,” The New York Times, April 16, 2014, C3.

 

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Katherine Dunham: One-Woman Revolution

[I wrote this article for the August, 2000 issue of Dance Magazine. Reprinted with permission.]

All Roads lead to Katherine Dunham. Well, not all. But sometimes it seems to be so. Jazz dance, “fusion” and the search for our cultural heritage all have their antecedents in Dunham’s work as a dancer, choreographer and anthropologist. She was the first American dancer to present indigenous forms on a concert stage, the first to sustain a black dance company, the first black person to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera. She created and performed in works for stage, clubs and Hollywood films; she started a school and a technique that continue to flourish; she fought unstintingly for racial justice. She could have had her own TV show called “Dance Roots.”

Rara Tonga (1940)

Dunham, 91, lives in Manhattan, where she is working on an autobiography, Minefield, while undergoing physical therapy for her surgically replaced knees. Surrounded by former dancers, friends and a bright-eyed two-and-a-half-year-old goddaughter, she regales them with stories, songs, and warm-hearted joking.

The young Katherine Dunham studied ballet with Mark Turbyfill of the Chicago Opera and the Russian dancer Ludmilla Speranzeva. When she was only 21, with Turbyfill’s help, she formed the short-lived Ballet Nègre. Soon after, she started the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, which was based in Chicago during the early years. Carmencita Romero, who danced with Dunham from 1933 to 1941, said the company performed a mix of cultures even then: “We did Russian folk dances with full skirts, Spanish dances influenced by La Argentinita and Carmen Amaya, and plantation dances like Bre’r Rabbit an’ de Tah Baby.”

In 1935, Dunham, under the aegis of a Rosenwald fellowship, traveled to the Caribbean to research African-based dances. She returned in 1936, having passed rigorous initiation rites to become a mambo—a vaudun priestess. She soon choreographed pieces that reflect Haitian movements, for instance, the Yanvalou, in which the spine undulates like the snake god, Damballa. But more than that, she absorbed the idea of dance as religious ritual. She has said, “In vaudun we sacrifice to the gods, but the top sacrifice is dance.” Shango (1945), which depicts such a sacrifice, hypnotized audiences during the Alvin Alley American Dance Theater’s celebration of Dunham, The Magic of Katherine Dunham, in 1987.

Barrelhouse Blues (1940)

Dunham also focused on American dance forms: “I was running around getting all these exotic things from the Caribbean and Africa when the real development lay in Harlem and black Americans,” she says. “So I developed more things in jazz.” Her revue, “Le Jazz Hot” (1940), included vernacular forms like the shimmy, black bottom, shorty george and the cakewalk. That same year, Dunham worked with George Balanchine on the choreography of the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. She recalls, “He took an Arab song and taught it to me for a belly dance.” About their collaboration, she confesses, “He was a help, but I was pretty adamant about what I wanted to do. We had a wonderful time together.”

One of the few works of hers that was filmed was Carnival of Rhythm (1941). In this clip she is seen dancing with Archie Savage, who had danced with Hemsley Winfield.

In 1943, the international impresario Sol Hurok presented Dunham’s company in “Tropical Revue” at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway, adding Dixieland jazz musicians to boost its commercial appeal. The show became a hit, enjoying a six-week run, unusual for such a revue. Dunham was a glamorous performer, and it is rumored that Hurok had insured her legs for a million dollars. In an interview with biographer Ruth Beckford, Dunham demurred, saying the amount was a mere quarter million.

Dunham opened a school in Manhattan in 1945. Dana McBroom-Manno, who was a student there and later danced with Dunham, describes the Dunham technique as modern with an African base. “You use the floor as earth, the pelvis as center, holding torso and legs together. You work for fluidity, moving like a goddess, undulations like water, like the ocean. High leaps for the men. You elongate the muscles, creating a hidden strength. We use both parallel and turned out, so it’s easy to go from Dunham into any other technique. The isolations of the hips, ribs, shoulders that you see in all jazz classes were brought to us from the Caribbean by Miss Dunham. Also, she [talked about] Indian chakra points (in yoga, points of physical or spiritual energy in the body).” Romero, who has taught dance history at The Ailey School emphasizes the spirit. “In Africa, all dance is based on animals, plants, the elements of the universe. The Dunham technique gives you a feeling of release and exhilaration by letting the body go.”

The Dunham school, Eartha Kitt in foreground, James Dean at right

Syvilla Fort correcting James Dean

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dunham school, in the Times Square area, thrived for ten years. Its thirty teachers offered classes in ballet, modern (José Limón was one of the modern teachers), “primitive,” acting, martial arts and more. Among its students were James Dean, Arthur Mitchell, Butterfly McQueen and Doris Duke. Donald Saddler, recently reminiscing, said Marlon Brando would come and play drams. Sometimes jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus would come with a group of his musicians and play for classes.

Out of the school came a student group, directed by the legendary Syvilla Fort, that included Julie Belafonte, Walter Nicks, and Peter Gennaro. This group performed at schools and benefits. Belafonte—who met her husband, Harry, though one of these performances—recalls: “We were taught the rhythms of the movements with drums and with song in other languages; for instance, Portuguese and Haitian patois. In class anyone could break into song at any time.”

The Dunham company was an incubator for many well-known performers, including Eartha Kitt, Talley Beatty, Janet Collins, and Vanoye Aikens. In the 1940s and ’50s, its heaviest touring years, the company visited an astounding fifty-seven countries. Audience response was heady. Dr. Glory Van Scott, who danced with the company in 1959 and 1960, says, “Everywhere we went, audiences went crazy. In Paris, we’d do our show, and then we’d go dancing half the night at the Samba Club. The audience loved us so much, they would follow us there. It was unreal.”

Dunham dancers, 1940s or’50s

But the company encountered racism at home, and Dunham responded with defiance. In 1944, while touring in segregated Lexington, Kentucky, she found a “For Blacks Only” sign on a bus and pinned it to her dress onstage. Afterwards, she declared to the audience that she wouldn’t come back to a place that forbade blacks to sit next to whites.

Southland, with Julie Belafonte at right

In Dunham’s Southland (1951), an impassioned response to the lynchings of blacks, Julie Belafonte played a white woman whose false accusation of rape leads to a black man’s murder. “It was very, very difficult for me,” Belafonte recalls. “I had to transpose my hatred of the character … it was an acting problem. I had to overcome it in myself.” Audience reaction was strong. Says Belafonte, “Everyone in the audience cried when we did it.”

The company premiered Southland in Santiago, Chile, despite warnings from the State Department, which wanted U.S. cultural exports to project only positive images of America. Possibly as a result, Dunham did not win support from the department, which funded tours by Martha Graham, José Limón and Paul Taylor. (In the days before the National Endowment for the Arts, this was the only program that sponsored international dance touring.) But another possible reason is that the State Department’s dance panel called her work “torrid.”

Dunham has lived her credo that “all artists are humanists.” Her home in Haiti, Habitation Leclerc, served as a medical clinic—as well as a tourist attraction, with its nightly drumming and dancing—for many years. Having given injections of vitamin B and penicillin to ailing dancers, she administered first aid for parasites and joint diseases. Once a week, local doctors helped her to diagnose and treat patients in exchange for the medications that she could get them from New York.

Dunham moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, during the racial troubles of the 1960s. Despite death threats and bomb scares, she helped a group of black youths by giving them classes in martial arts, drumming, and dance. During that period, the police were picking up young black men as a matter of course. On one occasion, Dunham railed against this racial profiling, getting herself thrown in jail.

While in her 80s, the choreographer made national headlines by going on a hunger strike to protest the U.S. government’s policy of returning Haitian refugees to face starvation and repression in their native land. She was supported in this effort by comedian Dick Gregory, filmmaker Jonathan Demme and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, along with hundreds of other Americans. It was only at the coaxing of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the deposed and later reinstated president of Haiti, that she ended her fast after forty-seven days.

Asked about her courageous stand, Dunham says simply, “You can’t learn or acquire these things; I think they’re just put in you from the beginning.”

She feels it is an extension of her destiny to teach–“My guiding voices tell me I should teach, and that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life.” The Dunham technique is being taught all over the country. McBroom-Manno, who has taught Dunham technique at Adelphi University, The Ailey School, and now at the 92nd Street Y DanceCenter in New York, says, “I teach Dunham technique as a way of life. Nutrition, African-based religions and social conscience are all part of it.” Walter Nicks and Romero keep the Dunham technique alive in Europe, while McBroom-Manno passes it along in the United States.

“Everybody is an anthropologist,” Dunham says.

Dunham, 1940s, (Courtesy Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale)

“My objective is to see that different cultures get to know each other.” McBroom-Manno relates how, as a scholarship student getting free lunch at the school, she was required to learn the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. “We would be squirming and carrying on, but she wanted us to learn the serenity and silence of that tradition.” In preparing for Aida (1963), McBroom-Manno and the rest of the cast, dancers from both Dunham’s group and the Metropolitan Opera ballet company, studied karate at the Dunham school to perfect a processional before the African king.

Dunham’s influence is global. She helped to train the Senegalese National Ballet, and her performances inspired the start of many national groups, such as Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. Her numerous awards include a 1968 Dance Magazine Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, the American Dance Festival Scripps Award, the Albert Schweitzer Award and, just this spring, the Duke Ellington Award.

She is still concerned about Haiti. During a May 25 interview, she was gratified to hear that very day that Haiti had held free elections without incident.

But her thoughts linger on the art of dance. “Dance has been the stepchild of the arts for a long time. I think now it’s time for it to take its place among the other arts.”

It is also time for Katherine Dunham to be honored as one of the great innovators in the field of dance and one of the great humanitarian artists in history.

Dunham, seated with Melony McGant, and friends, Boule Blanche, Riverside Church, c. 2004. From left: Reginald Yates, me,
Louis Johnson, Mary Hinkson, Terry Carter, Micki Grant, Stanley Strohman, Glory Van Scott, Ruby Streate, Madeline Preston, and Congressman Charles Rangel.

 

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Are Women Dancers Still Discriminated Against?

I co-wrote the article below forty years ago. Since the issue has come up again (actually it never went away) I decided to post it. This diatribe was useful back in 2000 when a group of choreographers called the Gender Project got together to address discrimination against women in dance. Reading this article from 1976, they were appalled at how familiar it sounded.

 Although I basically stand by what we said and the data we gathered, I now feel some distance from the strident tone. During the ’80s and ’90s, AIDS devastated the dance community. So many of my male colleagues were dying that I dropped all my anger about how hard it was for women to get a gig. At least we were alive. We were dancing, we were having babies. I’ve written about this change of heart in my book, Through the Eyes of a Dancer.

Back in the 1970s, Stephanie Woodard and I were collaborating on choreographic projects, and our rehearsal-break conversations led to a desire to expose the discrimination against women. Because we were both teaching at Trinity College in Hartford, we had ample opportunity to observe the difference in male and female student behavior. (At that time there were only two genders, nothing in between.) Stephanie, a dance ethnologist, knew about ballet history, so all the references to Taglioni et al are hers. Sorry for the lousy reproduction of the chart here; it’s from a xerox of a xerox. The chart is based on data we gathered, but I can’t vouch for the sources, because I just don’t remember. 

Reading this over so many years later, I don’t completely agree with all our statements. So, in the manner of Yvonne Rainer’s “A Manifesto Reconsidered,” I am inserting my current reactions and updates in double brackets.

∞∞ When a Woman Dances, Nobody Cares ∞∞

Co-written by Wendy Perron and Stephanie Woodard
Village Voice, March 1, 1976

“When a woman dances nobody cares. All women can dance. But when a man dances, now that’s something.” —a high school dance teacher in California in 1963

In the dance business, men are in the minority. But not the usual sort of minority. Instead of being abused and ridiculed in their attempts to be accepted, they are praised and encouraged. [[Whoa! Of course, male dancers were abused and ridiculed routinely by other boys when they were students.]]

Dancers and critics alike are proud of the ever-increasing numbers of men in dance because their presence has legitimized it. No art is recognized as an art until men do it, from cooking to medicine to dance. And then it becomes dignified, arduous, skilled.

From an artistic point of view, American modern dance is the achievement of women. Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller discovered it, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey explored it, and the excitement of it unfolds today through women like Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp. Over the years women have pushed back the boundaries of dance, extending the movement vocabulary, creating new modes of performance, revolutionizing concepts of composition.

Dance critic Marcia B. Siegel recently wrote: “With the exception of [Charles] Weidman and [Ted] Shawn [[those are huge exceptions!]], men didn’t begin making significant choreographic efforts outside classical ballet [[what about tap?]] until the mid-1930s, when modern dance had attained artistic recognition, built its own audience, and begun training future dancers. Now that there is something to be won, more men are entering the field and taking over.” [[That’s a bit harsh—and I don’t agree with the sentiment.]]

Ballet has allowed women as well as men to hold influential positions as performers and choreographers. It is popular today to show disdain for ballet in the nineteenth century, when women were its focus. Contemporary critics are impatient with the contrived plots and the affected acting and are embarrassed to think that male dancers had only secondary roles and were called “porteurs” or “carriers.” Walter Terry, renowned ballet critic, lectured at Harvard Summer School Dance Center last year [[I was teaching there that summer]], extolling the ascendancy of men in dance—to a lukewarm student audience of a hundred women and eight men.

However, the technique of ballet, with its feather-light leaps, its long balances, its mercurial changes of quality from one kind of step to another, was developed by women largely to appear ethereal. Of course, it was sexism—ranging from a desire to idealize women as fairies and nymphs to a desire to watch women’s bodies—which allowed the ballerinas center stage. But once there, women, with their more pliant bodies, gave ballet its fleet, supple style.

Today an increasing dance audience goes hand in hand with increasing commercial success for men. Male dancers are getting hired and male choreographers are getting grants way out of proportion to their numbers.

In the chart that accompanies this article, we compiled data on 1,900 students, scholarship students, and company members of six major New York City modern dance and ballet companies with affiliated schools (almost all asked not to be named). In addition we obtained data on 316 grants given by the National Endowment for the Arts (1974–1975) and the New York State Council on the Arts (1971–1974). We included only companies that depend on the choreographic influence of a single man or a woman, for example, the New York City Ballet or Dan Wagoner and Dancers. Grants to companies that featured several choreographers, e.g., American Ballet Theatre, or collaborative choreography, e.g., Grand Union, were omitted. The resulting data show a clear relationship between gender and success in dance.

Success in dance

Behind these figures lies a wealth of stories, like that of the dancer who counted only two women choreographers out of the fifteen he had worked with during his four years with the Joffrey Ballet. Or the woman who could run down a list of auditions where she’d been good enough but not man enough for the job.

We interviewed fifteen young professional dancers and choreographers to find out how this situation affects their careers, what happens when a man or a woman tries to get a performing or teaching job, how men and women are treated in class, whether there are separate standards for men and women, and whether both women and men contribute to the problem. Because of the sensitive nature of their disclosures, the interviews quoted below are pseudonymous.

Most dance companies are equally composed of men and women, which gives the impression that dance is one of those rare places where equality and fairness are the order of the day. But as the chart shows, many more women than men are competing for about the same numbers of places. At a typical audition ten times more women than men will appear. For example, at Rudy Perez’s recent audition, six men and fifty-five women tried out. All six men, but only fifteen (or less than one third) of the women, were called back. [[This was when Perez still lived in NYC, before he moved to Los Angeles. I was dancing with him a couple years before writing this article.]] 

Untrained men with a modicum of athletic ability tend to have a physical assertiveness that passes for performing skill. Such men are often accepted with barely a passing thought as to how they actually dance. One Connecticut dance company, whose women each had seven to twenty years of training, was forced to accept men with two or three years of training each because a female guest choreographer refused to do a large-scale piece only for women. We know of a young athlete, who, during one of his first dance classes in the Midwest, was spotted by a renowned choreographer and invited to dance with his New York company…Another was picked up at a discothèque. [[But there is something to be said for outsider dancers. Larry Keigwin was a club dancer before becoming a postmodern dancer.]]

The growing number of men has increased competition among them somewhat. An administrator in the school of one of New York’s leading ballet companies said, “Four years ago we would have given a scholarship to any boy who walked in the door.” He went on to say that nowadays they could be more selective, but were nevertheless still supporting boys with less training than their female scholarship students.

Now that we have men in dance, we have dance in the colleges, too. And college administrators are eager to preserve this connection, making sure that dance at their schools doesn’t slip back into being “women’s work.” “When are you girls going to hire a man?” the dance department chairwoman of a prestigious New England college was asked by a dean. [[This was at Trinity College, where Stephanie and I were both teaching; it was said to the director of the department in our presence.]]

Another dance department chairwoman felt obliged, since she had an all-woman faculty, to hire men to give master classes. She thought this would please the administration by making dance look more serious, and hoped it would attract more male students. One teacher, in telling a dean that dance enrollments were up, was asked, “But how many of them are boys?”

“Amy,” a charismatic performer and teacher who applied for a guest position in a college summer program, was rejected and then asked if she could suggest a good man. She says, “I tried to think of one who was available, but all the men I knew were knee-deep in jobs. They finally found someone. He’d been dancing half as many years as I had.”

Things look different through a man’s eyes. Every male dancer we spoke to vehemently defended the work he had put into his success. Ballet dancers point out that because present-day technique is heavily influenced by the characteristics of women’s bodies, they have a hard time mastering it. (Although men can generally jump higher, are stronger and have straighter torsos, women have the crucial advantage of being freer in the hips and upper back and having suppler feet.) [[This parenthetical statement may be irrefutable, but the generalizations still make me cringe.]] Also women have more often danced since childhood, giving them a head start in their technique. This may account for the feeling among many male dancers that they are victims in a “woman’s world.”

Despite this no one can deny that men have more opportunities. “Don,” a talented and vibrant modern dancer, admitted, “I couldn’t be where I am professionally if I weren’t a man.” He started dancing three years ago at the suggestion of a dramatic coach. With a little army discipline behind him and a natural ease of movement, he was asked to dance professionally after eight months. He quickly saw that there was more room for him in dance than in theatre. Much attention came his way in dance classes and although he knew the reason was simply a dearth of men, he made the most of it. “I get offered a lot of jobs,” he says. “I always take the one I can learn the most from.” He is fed up with women saying, “Oh, you’re a man, that’s different,” because he feels he chose his goal wisely and worked to make it happen.

Men are becoming a top attraction because they sell at the box office and they sell on stage. The Martha Graham Dance Company, whose repertoire traditionally features female protagonists, has begun to take in male dancers who have never even studied the technique. This is quite a change from the days when the Graham technique was sacred and a dancer was profane until she or he had spent years getting it under the belt.

Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, 1920s or '30s

Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, 1920s or ’30s

And if a man sells, an undiluted flock of them sells better. The American prototype is Ted Shawn’s muscular, spectacular all-male company of the 1930s. Today’s counterpart is Pilobolus, a group of gymnasts whose debut in 1972 as an all-male dance company was greeted with near-hysterical acclaim.

All-male groups are praised for their virility, whereas all-female groups are seen as somehow deficient. The insinuation, whether vocalized or not, is “Couldn’t they find a man?” [[I think this has changed. It seems to me that all-woman groups and works often attain some measure of acclaim.]]

Panorama (1935), choreographed by Martha Graham

Panorama (1935), choreographed by Martha Graham

Women have undeniably contributed to this syndrome. If resistance to women’s success did not exist, women would probably create it. “Sheila,” a beautifully sharp-featured woman who has danced for several well-known choreographers, has rarely chosen to dance for a woman. Looking back, she analyses it this way: “Women like having a man around…it’s like choosing a doctor. You want to be led by a man, get the attention of a man. Deep down inside, you think he knows something and you don’t.” [[Arrrgggghhhh.]]

Asked why success in dance comes more easily for men than women, one woman answered, “Both men and women have doubts. Women let their doubts stop them, and men don’t.”

We have both taught beginning dance classes. Time and time again, we’ve seen that, in a new and possibly intimidating situation, men will be generally more aggressive, physically and personally. As a dance teacher, you see the whole problem embodied before your eyes.

“Scott,” a contemporary danseur noble, has guested with several international ballet companies. He readily claims that women ballet dancers are, hands down, technically superior in almost every company. “Scott” resents the low standards expected of men. “They can always throw a man out there to hold a woman up and he’ll look good, but he can’t dance.”

“Scott” himself loves partnering women; he takes pride in being the catalyst, the gallant guy who assists her to new heights. But, as he says, “When you lift all day long, you tighten up—not just your arm muscles, but your legs and back also. When I don’t have to lift, I become freer in my musculature.” (A more bitter young dancer complains that he is being used as a professional weight lifter rather than an artist.)

After working with many choreographers of both sexes, “Scott” reached a conclusion that surprised even him. “I get the feeling that when women do something it’s almost like fighting…fighting for women’s rights. It’s do or die. Total involvement. We (men) have been conditioned to be the breadwinners and they have to fight to show they can do it. It’s more intense.”

What women dancers have been able to do all along is to be spectacular and subtle at the same time. The exquisite feats that audiences marvel at are accomplished not by strength alone, but with sensitivity and skill. From Camargo to Taglioni to Cynthia Gregory, and from Duncan to the best of our contemporary dancers—Sara Rudner [[who is still a terrific dancer]], Jennifer Muller [[she no longer dances but her company has been going since 1974]], Carolyn Lord [[a ballet dancer turned downtown choreographer who now runs the Construction Company space]]—women have achieved a formidable mastery of the art and a range any performer would aspire to.

However, the quality of the dancing isn’t always what catches the audience’s fancy. Sometimes it’s the (undeniable) sexuality of the dancers. In the right cultural milieu—and this is it—men can become sex objects as easily as women. As Siegel says, “The featuring of men in ballet has created a new theatrical meat market.”

The only way to remove dance from the realm of sex-objectism is to become more familiar with it, so that we are comfortable watching the dancers, and their sexuality is not the overriding concern, eclipsing all other pleasures. [[I wish we’d come up with a more activist ending. If you think of something, please write it in the comments box below.]]

Photo of Martha Graham on homepage by Imogen Cunningham.

 

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