Before moving to New York in 1959, choreographer Simone Forti spent four heady, formative years in San Francisco. There, she trained with the postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin, who rejected the stylistic constraints of ballet and modern dance. On Halprin’s outdoor dance deck in wooded Marin County, Forti explored improvisation, her motions guided by a keen alertness to the body’s anatomy. She also organized open-work sessions with her then husband, the Minimalist artist Robert Morris, gathering artists for communal, multidisciplinary explorations of movement, objects, sound, and light.
At the end of the decade, Forti and Morris moved east. In New York, she began developing the pieces she eventually called Dance Constructions: dances based around ordinary movement, chance, and simple objects like rope and plywood boards. First performed in 1960 at the Reuben Gallery in Soho, and then in Yoko Ono’s loft the following year, they marked “a watershed moment when the relationship between bodies and objects, movement and sculpture, was being fundamentally rethought,” says Stuart Comer, Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art. Dancers balanced on seesaws, embraced in a huddle of bodies, and stood still in hanging loops of rope. They needed only to abide Forti’s “rule games” but were otherwise free to improvise gestures as they negotiated the object before them. Per Forti’s principles, these gestures were “pedestrian,” lacking the arch stylization and technical finesse of traditional dance forms. In doing so, as Morris later noted, these pieces “attacked the notion of dance as a format that required the trained body of the dancer.”
Over the past half-century, Forti’s seven Dance Constructions have been performed by dancers around the world. (They’re currently being presented at Vleeshal, a contemporary arts organization in Middleburg, The Netherlands, through April 3. Athena Christa Holbrook, the Department’s Collection Specialist, spent several days documenting the rehearsals—watch a clip of Hangers below—and she’ll be posting about her experience soon.) In mid-December the dances were formally added to MoMA’s collection. “It’s important to stress that there is no one model for collecting performance—it really is case-by-case,” says Comer. In Forti’s case, the Museum acquired the rights to perform the dances and a set of instructions, which Forti and Ana Janevski, Associate Curator, developed over the course of two years. The resulting constellation of materials—ranging from teaching videos to sketches, historical photos, notebooks, and recorded interviews—extensively document previously performed versions and, crucially, offer precise instructions for future dancers. In addition, Forti and the curators plan to work closely with groups of dancers and teachers to continue annual workshops that communicate the dances to new generations of performers and participants. “We’re particularly interested in the idea of body-to-body transmission,” says Comer, “so we’ve been developing a new model of workshops with the organization Danspace Project to ensure that this work continues to inhabit the dance community and the new generations who will carry it forward.”
In the following video clip, excerpted from a recent oral history interview, conducted at MoMA in December 2015 by Janevski, Forti shares her own thoughts on the nature of MoMA’s responsibilities towards the Dance Constructions. MoMA is not merely acquiring the rights to the dances, she says, but more specifically “the ability to have these pieces continue their life past when I do mine.”
Below, we highlight a few of these dances, including Platforms, a favorite of Forti’s that she describes as “a love duet . . . . Kind of a nighttime piece.” We share commentary from Forti and Comer, as well as illustrations and some of the documentary materials that will help ensure “that they’re performed—and performed right.”
Quotes have been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Forti: “Hangers is a meditative piece. There are three ropes attached to the ceiling in a triangle—they hang down and loop. And there are seven performers: three stand in that loop of rope and four people walk between the hangers. I sometimes almost think of it as a wind chime in terms of the kind of walking through.
In a way it’s one of the more difficult pieces to perform because there’s so little to do, especially for the hangers. But [it’s also difficult] for the walkers. The ropes are close enough that the walkers brush the hangers, and the hangers are rocking; the walkers also brush each other. The whole thing is moving. It’s breathing.
I have to be careful that the performers’ eyes stay open, and that they keep seeing. That their gaze doesn’t turn inwards. I call that the zombie look. Say a performer who is used to doing very technical things now is being asked to just stand there in the rope while walkers brush across them. Such a performer is likely to get a zombie look, because what is this anyway? It’s the job of the teacher to get them excited about the piece, and that the piece has its own interest and beauty. And then they start to get with it. They do. It takes a little time.”
Roller Boxes. 1960
Forti: “Some of the [Dance Constructions] are more meditational, [but] some are quite wild, like Roller Boxes, which consists of two or three boxes on rollers, depending on the size of the space. The boxes each have two ropes attached. There’s one person sitting in each box and two people on the ropes [who] send the boxes careening around the space. The performers in the boxes are singing out a tone—a pitch—and it gets quite wild. [It] takes the right performer who can handle it and not get scared.
[In] 1960, I was invited to participate in a Christmas concert at the Reuben Gallery [in Soho]. I shared the concert with Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine, and I did two pieces. At that time, I hadn’t come up with the term ‘Dance Constructions’ yet. [For] Roller Boxes, we just had two boxes because it was a teeny little gallery, and that was the only time that the audience pulled the ropes. And they just went crazy with it. Patti—at that time called Patti Oldenburg—was in one of the boxes, and I was in one of the boxes, and we were supposed to be singing single tones. We ended up screaming. It was very exciting.”
Slant Board. 1961
Forti: “Slant Board consists of [a] 45-degree angle usually made out of two [plywood] boards with rope along the top. Two or three performers [move] from side to side and up and down the inclined plane in a very task-oriented way.”
Comer: “Slant Board suggests the playground and this idea of climbing or turning the sculptural object into a kind of architectural structure in which the participation with that structure is absolutely central to the work. Sculpture was no longer a static, remote form to be contemplated, but one to be actively negotiated.”
Forti: “Huddle consists of a group of anywhere from five to, I’d say, nine people who stand very close together in forming a solid little mountain and take turns climbing over the top, coming down the other side, and then another one climbs over the top and down the other side. We’ve done it in sculpture gardens, we’ve done it in galleries. . . . We’ve done it here at MoMA’s Sculpture Garden, in the reflecting pool where we were standing with the water halfway to our knees.”
Comer: “Huddle has maybe become the best known Dance Construction. It’s highly participatory and suggests the way that notions of community were being rethought during the 1960s. It parallels developments like Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy or some of Yayoi Kusama’s Happenings—but at a moment where collective action had become central to political life of the United States. Huddle was a way of encouraging reflection on what happens when a group of people come together and how they negotiate each other.”
Forti: “One of my favorite pieces is Platforms. It consists of two boxes with an open bottom, big enough for a person to be in the box with the box set down over them. The two performers—each one in one of the boxes—whistle. A relaxed, good in-breath. Then on the out-breath, a tone. Then an in-breath. And then the next tone might be higher or lower. And then an in-breath.
There are moments of silence if they’re both breathing in at the same time. Sometimes, there’s overlap. Sometimes it sounds like they’re answering each other. That, too, came out of a kind of a need, or kind of a feeling. I see it as a love duet. Where it’s like when you’re sleeping next to someone you love, and you’re in another place. The two of you are not in the same place, you’re each in your own dreams. And yet, you hear each other breathe. There’s that awareness of each other. It’s kind of a nighttime piece.”
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