BY Emily May in Interviews | 13 JUL 23

Simone Forti Just Wants to Move People

The Golden Lion-winning choreographer on continuing to learn from her body

BY Emily May in Interviews | 13 JUL 23

‘I’ll be honest, it frightened me,’ says artist, choreographer and writer Simone Forti. Speaking to me on a Zoom call from Los Angeles, she’s referring to her initial reaction to the news that she would be the recipient of this year’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Dance Biennale, which opens later this week. ‘I knew it would take a lot of energy, and I don’t have much these days,’ she adds, checking that I’m aware she lives with advancing Parkinson’s. After a while, however, Forti realized that it was an important accolade to accept. ‘Each year, somebody becomes the one who carries the recognition of the art form. It’s for the community.’

Simone Forti, Huddle, performance still. Courtesy: the artist and Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Austria; photograph: Lisbeth Kovacic

While Forti refers singularly to her community and art form, her career is marked by her traversal of the worlds of dance and visual art. A key player in numerous influential collectives, such as Judson Dance Theater and fluxus, for the past 60 years she’s presented drawings, paintings and movement compositions alike in gallery and museum contexts. ‘I was never interested in the proscenium arch stage,’ she says.

Forti’s love affair with dance began when she started taking classes with postmodern pioneer Anna Halprin, who she describes as the only movement artist she’s ever learnt anything from. ‘Anna taught us to learn from our bodies,’ she says. During classes, Halprin would lead students through explorations of specific areas of their bodies, first looking at anatomy books before investigating them physically – swinging, bearing weight, articulating limbs – and observing the resulting sensations. ‘The more we used our instrument, the more we got to know it,’ says Forti.

Zoo Mantras and Simone Forti Studio, Sleep Walkers, 2010, performance still. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Jason Underhill

The importance of feeling and embodiment over virtuosity subsequently became a clear feature of Forti’s performative work. Though her work ranges from explorations of the motions of zoo animals (Sleep Walkers, 1968) to ‘News Animations’ (1986), in which she reacted to newspapers arranged on the floor with spoken word and movement, Forti is best known for her 1961 series ‘Dance Constructions’, nine improvisatory pieces that debuted in Yoko Ono’s loft. Featuring groups of dancers engaging with simple tasks, many of the works relate to sculptural elements. Slant Board, for example, sees three or four performers hanging from lengths of rope as they move vertically and horizontally across a tilted wooden ramp. Huddle, however, is the best known and most widely performed: a cyclical piece in which dancers repeatedly climb over and become absorbed into a clump of bodies. Forti was inspired to make it after seeing one of Japanese artist Saburo Murakami’s ‘kami-yaburi’ (1955) paper breakthrough performances. ‘He made a series of wooden frames covered with paper that he walked through,’ she describes. ‘What I found so moving was that it was one action, one idea. It was completely satisfying.’

Simone Forte, Huddle, performance still. Courtesy: the artist and Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, Austria; photograph: Lisbeth Kovacic

In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired all nine of Forti’s ‘Dance Constructions’ to preserve them for future audiences. For many years, Forti secured the longevity of her work through teaching, although she tells me this ‘wasn’t to keep the “Dance Constructions” alive’. Instead, she ‘was more concerned with transmitting the concept of kinaesthetic awareness’. After the acquisition, MoMA filmed Forti teaching each of the ‘Dance Constructions’ and hired a selection of her long-time students and collaborators – including Carmela Hermann Dietrich and Sarah Swenson – to become ‘certified instructors’, using their embodied knowledge to transmit the works to new casts when they’re licensed to museums and galleries around the world.

Simone Forti, Dance Constructions, 1961/2023, performance documentation. Courtesy: MOCA, LA; photograph: Jeff McLane

Forti’s ‘Dance Constructions’ were most recently restaged earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, to coincide with the institution’s major retrospective of her practice. The exhibition featured a wide range of her works on paper, videos, holograms, performance ephemera and documentation from the past 60 years. ‘To see people being touched by it made me very happy,’ says Forti. ‘It made me realize that that’s what it’s about. The work gets to work, and to move people. It was a very important experience.’

In collaboration with the Dance Biennale, MOCA is touring the retrospective to Venice this month to celebrate Forti’s Golden Lion win: there, ‘Dance Constructions’ will be performed by the participants of this year’s Biennale college – a study programme for 16 dancers. Although Forti won’t make it in person, her trusted assistant of 12 years, Jason Underhill, has been running everything by her. ‘I stepped in two times,’ she says. ‘One curator wanted to put a sweet little painting I did of water running in the sink in the first room with the “Dance Constructions”. I didn’t think it belonged there. We would bring it up and disagree about it, then I’d be surprised to see that it was still there. Finally, I said: I want it out,’ she grins cheekily. ‘I put my foot down.’

‘SIMONE FORTI’, 2023, installation view, MOCA Grand Avenue, LA. Courtesy: MOCA, LA; photograph: Jeff McLane

Spanish-Swiss performance artist La Ribot, who won the Golden Lion in 2019, said in a 2020 interview with The Brooklyn Rail: ‘Some people think that, after you achieve a lifetime award, everything stops [] You have to have the desire to keep going.’ Despite her ailing health, Forti has this self-same desire and continues to make work: through the pandemic she created drawings on flattened paper grocery bags, while today she mainly focuses on writing. ‘For one thing, I can reach the notebook to write in!’ she says pragmatically. ‘I think I’m scared when I’m not working on something.’

Venice Dance Biennale will run from 13–29 July.

Main image: Simone Forte, Simone Forti & Friends, 2018, performance documentation. Courtesy: the UC Irvine Department of Art; Photograph: Yubo Dong

Emily May is a writer and editor specializing in dance and performance. She lives in Berlin, Germany.