LOS ANGELES — Dancers stand on a slanted plywood board, pulling on heavy ropes. They wear simple brown pants, functional shoes, and plain t-shirts. They lean back, arms fully extended, dangling almost parallel to the ground. Then they push themselves upright. Sometimes they stand and rest, body tilted. Though it’s only 10 minutes, and the performers look weightless, they exert an enormous amount of strength. It’s like a military exercise
Simone Forti’s self-titled solo exhibition at MOCA presents some of her nine Dance Constructions, made possible with volunteer artists and cultural workers. Four times a day, on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, they defy gravity with the board, idly swing from ropes suspended from the ceiling, and crawl over each other in a group huddle. The show also features videos, drawings, ephemera, and holograms.
Forti is a choreographer, but despite this terminology, used throughout her career and the exhibition, I wouldn’t categorize the works at MOCA purely as dance. Though she also has extensive modern dance performances in her oeuvre, the museum has chosen to present her studies in movement, which forgo the beauty and structure of formal dance. Throughout her works, Forti crawls like a polar bear, writhes with newspapers, and ambulates her reactions to current events.
While Forti’s most famous works are collaborative, she has also performed alone, often as a way of researching a particular subject. A childhood visit to the zoo spurred a lifelong fascination with animals, especially those in confinement. She sought encounters with elephants, bears, and seals, drawing studies of the creatures. In “Solo Number 1” (1976) and “Planet” (1976), she pads across a stage on all fours, moves in circles, and shakes her head vigorously. In these performances, the artist breaks down the line between human and nonhuman animals. All mammals lay on their backs, scratch an itch, and shudder when something irritates their skin.
Many of Forti’s solo performances take place as News Animations, a series inspired by her father’s close attention to world events. After reading reports of Mussolini’s fascism and rise to power, he moved their Jewish family out of Italy, ensuring their safety years before the Holocaust. In “News Animation Improvisation” (1986), Forti uses her whole body to express her fear and anxiety about the growing hostilities within the Reagan and Bush administrations and nations around the Persian Gulf that would eventually lead to the Gulf War. She cowers in a corner, then hits the floor, writhing. She speaks in a stream of consciousness, connecting her father’s prescience of anti-Semitic violence to the media’s anti-Arab rhetoric. In a more recent piece, “Zuma News” (2013), Forti, now white-haired and in her late 70s, rolls in the sand with newspapers and seaweed. She grapples with a lifetime of rage directed at the bleak global events reported in papers. Her reactions are less instructive and more instinctive, as if all her body can do is scream.
While her solo performances are very emotive, Forti’s choreographic work has the objective tone of a science experiment. Dance Constructions (1960–61), perhaps her most famous body of work, requires performers to follow strict instructions and interact with props like ropes and plywood stages. MOCA exhibits three of the nine constructions: “Huddle,” “Slant Board,”and “Hangers.” In each of these performances, the dancers maintain blank expressions, looking past the audience and each other and showing no reaction when they touch.
In “Hangers,” three dancers stand within a loop of sturdy braided rope suspended from the ceiling, like a swing, as other performers walk around them, weaving in and out of their space, constantly bumping them. The suspended performers swing lazily from the inertia. All the dancers in “Huddle” come together in a tight group, then one at a time crawl over the top of the pile and rejoin on the other side. Forti allows her performers to show their exertion. This is the only crack of emotion that crosses their countenance, yet it reveals that seemingly simple gestures are much more labor intensive than they look.
Forti, who now has Parkinsons, had her longtime collaborator, Carmela Hermann Dietrich, choreograph this iteration of Dance Constructions, and most of the performers at MOCA have studied under Forti. Forti is known for bringing people together who come from untraditional dance backgrounds; the artist herself started as a painter (some paintings are on view at MOCA) so it’s only natural that she would transform other artists and cultural workers into dancers. With shared interests, intimate instruction, and rigorous labor, everyone in her orbit becomes folded into a tight community. She crosses beyond performance and into another medium — relational art — which has continued to grow into its own genre, with her influence at the forefront.
Socially engaged artists such as Patrisse Cullors and Emily Johnson/Catalyst channel dance into their practice to connect more deeply with their collaborators. Cullors, an activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, hosted a worldwide electric slide dance party, an act of resistance through the expression of joy. Johnson, a Yup’ik choreographer, folds audiences into her performances through processions, healing ceremonies, or quilting circles that produce set pieces. Dancing is a fun, enthusiastic way to build trust in relationships. All movers become silly and vulnerable, regardless of experience or training.
Choreography can be passed from one teacher to another, like an heirloom. Even as Parkinson’s steals Forti’s mobility, her groundbreaking performances will live on with her students, and beyond. Every gesture is an imprint of her relationship with her community.
Simone Forti continues at MOCA (250 South Grand Avenue, Downtown, Los Angeles) through April 2. The exhibition was curated by associate curators Rebecca Lowery and Alex Sloane, Associate Curator, with Jason Underhill, guest curator, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.