Notes from Simone Forti and Steve Paxton in Conversation
(before a performance of Paxton’s Bound, 1982, danced by Jurij Konjar, 11 May 2016 @ redcat)*
SP: This is Simone.
SF: This is Steve, my compost master.
SP: We met in New York. Last century. And after a kind of rough acquaintanceship…
SP: I had a rough time. You intimidated me, pretty… pretty much.
SF: I was just ten years old!
SP: We became friends. And Simone suggested that we write a book together.
SF: An encyclopaedia.
SP: An encyclopaedia of everything we know for sure.
SF: And no research.
SP: And just write it.
SF: And just write it.
SP: Yeah. Anyway, we’ve been dancers together now for… huh, we must have met in the early ’sixties? Around 1960, let’s say for easy…
SF: Yeah, 1960. And let’s call this 2015.
SP: Do the math.
SF: Do the math.
SP: Do the math.
SF: Do the math.
(Dear lord I love a cold open, but perhaps it’s helpful to know that SP and SF were never seated, the public conversation taking off in the midst of a conversation they were already having, just standing around talking to themselves and others as the audience assembled around them — some tech person turning up the volume on their body mics to signal the official start. These notes abandon almost everything other than trying to trace some of their words, but the visuals to keep in mind are SP and SF walking, walking side-by-side, walking away from one another, walking and talking, standing, standing and talking, leaning into one another and talking, looking at one another silently, looking at one another while one moved, both moving, walking side-by-side again, as if down a street, and talking, one continuing out a glass door, turning around and still talking, audible (mic’d), through the glass, opening the door and walking back in, crawling, crawling and talking, lying on the ground, leaping, leaping and talking, baring claws and teeth, laughing, sighing, walking side-by-side, facing each other closely then turning around, back-to-back, walking, friends for such a long time walking and talking.)
SF: The minute I saw this arrangement, I thought, Oh, good, I’m going to get to go on the floor. Which I couldn’t really do when I come to performances here. It’s a nice floor.
SP: The first time I saw Simone doing that it was at the Merce Cunningham studio, after a class. She was the only Merce Cunningham student to finish off the technique class by crawling, on the floor.
SF: I remember I couldn’t even see what people were doing, I mean perceive what we were supposed to do, let alone do it.
SP: Didn’t you say that you had trouble with left and right in the technique class because Cunningham would be your teacher and he would say (facing SF): Okay, now, on the right side (SP lifts his left arm)…he was talking to your right and your right side was supposed to mirror him. But you realized that he was lifting his left arm.
SF: But you know, there are people in Australia who don’t use left and right, have no concept of left and right. They have north, south…
SP: So your arm would be your north arm?
SF: Right now it would be my west arm. Of course, you’re from out of town.
SP: And then Simone told the story about how looking in a mirror the same thing was happening — that the body was reversed. It’s something that nobody else questioned. Simone not only questioned it, but she asked, If he reverses right or left…
SF: Why don’t we reverse top and bottom?
SP: We don’t know. This is more material for our book?
SF: Will there be discourses in our book or just… just…
SP: But I don’t think at our ages, that the book should be only questions.
SF: You mean we have something to say.
SP: I mean… some… conclusions.
SF: Conclusions? I’m less… more far from conclusions now than I was then. I like really open, I like open form. I like when it’s not too… You know when you can’t remember dreams…
SF walks to one of the farthest reaches of corridor-like space. (“I’m going to go over to these kids over here.”)
SP: Simone was once my nearest neighbor.
SF: Once when I was living in an abandoned chicken coop. With a bunch of people. Steve showed up and put down a wooden floor for us.
SP: Simone showed me where to pick mint. Which I picked and dried. And took with me on my trip. To Montreal. Coming… from Montreal back into Vermont I was stopped at the border. I was taken off a Greyhound bus. The bus was made to wait. While the border men went through my bed roll, my backpack, my bag… and they found the mint. And they said, Aha! And they took it into the office. And I couldn’t believe what was happening because I realized I was about to be detained for mint. I think the border patrol had been told to watch out for marijuana and they didn’t know, at that time, in this State, what it was.
SF: Things are heavier now. Somebody was taken off of an airplane for writing mathematical… what do you call those?
SF: Formulae. And the passenger next to him thought it looked suspicious.
SP: I think all of this should go into the book.
SF: One of the things that should go into the book is that you don’t take a nap on the compost.
SP: Why not?
SF: Because you mash it down and it won’t aerate properly.
SP: It can be fluffed.
SF: Oh, well…! You gave me a balling out for taking a nap on the compost.
SP: I knew I was going to have to fluff it.
SP: I like compost a lot. It seems like something you can do… that’s gonna happen anyway.
SF: I find it so magical when the compost heats up. I very seldom have that happen, but when it does and you put your arm down through the compost and it’s hot in there, it’s like, it’s come to life — it practically can speak to you. And then when it’s all composted, it’s the fluffiest, most delicate soil! It’s perfect. You can see how rich it is, how creamy it is.
SF: Have we — we’ve hardly ever danced together, have we, Steve? Well, I don’t dance, really.
SP: Are you inviting me to dance?
SF: Well, I don’t know, I’m inviting you, but then I don’t think I can dance. How do you do it anyway? (She does a beautiful grand jeté toward him.)
SP: Can you do that twice? If you can do it twice, you have structure.
SF does several different movements, questioningly.
SP: That Merce Cunningham training is still… it’s still showing.
SP: What made you want to dance? You have perfectly good other art forms to play with.
SF: I think… I think… I think it was meeting Anna Halprin just at that moment when she was starting to go into a whole new phase of her work. She was young and into it and excited about it and passionate about it — and smart. I think any wonderful teacher I would have met when I was 21, I would have gone into that form.
SP: Did you see her this week?
SF: No, but I talked to her on the phone.
SP: Did you study with Cheng Man-ch’ing?
SF: I studied with Marshall Ho’o.
SP: Was he a Cheng Man-ch’ing student?
SF: No… The style is related. Cheng Man-ch’ing was a great master. Marshall Ho’o was a very good teacher. Marshall Ho’o had been a boxer… but he knew how to teach a posture that was more correct than his own, which is interesting.
SP: More correct than his own?
SF: Why did you get into dance?
SP: I was a little bit interested in microbiology. But at university the microbiology teacher was a shitty teacher. In fact, the whole freshman program there was a shitty program, the University of Arizona at Tucson. It was, like, two blocks from my house. It was the only university I knew. I thought going to university was going to be like… getting on a really good train that was going really fast, and I got to this university and it was, What time is the train showing up? We don’t know when the train’s coming. Then the few cars that came by, you know, little half-trains, and they were going really slow. My English teacher was an asshole. All I remember him saying was that he and his friends were very particular about who they made friends with.
SF: About what?
SP: Very particular about who they made friends with. This was a lecture that would end the class. I felt like he was teaching Snobbism 101, and he didn’t give good remarks about papers. Anyway, the only thing left in my life at that point that I had enjoyed was a couple of years of Graham technique, in Tucson. So I decided to see what the American Dance Festival at New London was like. Graham was there. And also Cunningham was there. And Limón was there. And Pearl Lang was there. Doris Humphrey was there, at that time. It was like going to get a close-up view of all of these people whose photographs I had admired.
SF: But more than that…
SP: Well, it turned out to be more than that.
SF: Was there one of them you especially connected with?
SP: Well, the biggest mystery was Cunningham, and it’s still the mystery that he provides us with today, which is: why? Why would anybody make dance that way? After that first summer and encounter, I studied with Cunningham that summer, and that was my question. All this talk about chance procedures that was around me. Around the work. He tried to explain the work to people like me, who had just come from Arizona, and walked in and saw this manifestation. I loved the company.
SF: The people.
SP: The people. I was actually staying in the same dorm that they were housed in and a few of us interns were there too. They were fantastic. They were so happy. I think it was the first summer that they had been invited into the central dancing area of modern dance at that time. They were there, and they were very happy, and they were dancing beautifully, and they were dancing beautiful dances. They were causing a consternation. Because the modern dance establishment was holding other ideas. So it was that moment in art forms where ideas clash… Modern dance was very human-based. It was about our emotions and our histories and our sagas and our myths, psychology. There were a few people who weren’t into that. Nikolais was sort of an outlier — he was sort of a science-fiction modern dancer. He designed all his own costumes and music and dance and sets, and he had a theater of his own. The others were on tour most of the time, for their dancing, so the work had to be portable and, generally, the impact of it was emotional. Oh, you know, sagas of different kinds were enacted in dance.
SF: And the characters were bigger than life.
SP: Characters were heroic, mythic… There were some things that weren’t like that: I mean, The Life of the Bees! Doris Humphrey made a dance called The Life of the Bees, which…
SF: Who did that?
SP: Doris Humphrey. It was a vision of much of beehive life, the queen. When it was first done it didn’t have music. It was done in silence, which was pretty radical. I liked the radical side of dance. Cunningham was more radical. I went away, I got a job. I worked for, like, six months, and I suddenly had this revelation that it doesn’t matter how the dance is made: the most important thing is how it’s danced. And it has to be danced somehow. The style of Cunningham…was very conservative — formally radical but technically conservative. He had been very much affected by ballet and Graham. He arrived from Washington, where, basically, he had been a tap dancer.
SF: I didn’t know that.
SP: He had a tap dancing teacher, a teacher I remember him talking about. After meeting Graham in Seattle, he went to New York, and he got there in the early autumn, and by late autumn he was on Broadway in her company. He had this incredible — he shoots his hand, followed by his forearm at the same angle, into a rapidly slanted ascent — to a very special place. Then I think he had to look around and figure out what to do. Graham sent him to ballet classes, saying that her choreography wouldn’t develop his legs, and he was definitely somebody who was a jumper.
SF: He was very… thin. Kinda like a Giacometti.
SF: So then you were in the company at one point?
SP: Yeah, a couple of years later. That was… a shock. I loved that company. I loved watching it dance. Once I got in it, I couldn’t see it dance anymore. Of my dance pleasures, deep pleasures, joining that company removed one of the deepest. Although it was another and not unpleasant experience to be had.
SF: I’m thinking of certain photographs I’ve seen of Cunningham himself. I think that maybe he trained his dancers “I’m not here,” but when he danced, he was there.
SP: He was there. Certainly in photographs he was there. But it’s his work. He could do it. It was not my work.
SF: It’s hard to have dancers do one’s work.
SP: You were the other great teacher of that. When you did your first solo evening. Well, it wasn’t a solo evening…
SF: You mean Planet?
SP: Planet? Is that the name of it? Really?
SF: Where everybody was crawling and standing up and falling?
SP: No. I mean the one at Yoko’s loft.
SF: Oh, Dance Constructions.
SP: Dance Constructions. You said, Don’t interpret my work. I worked very hard on my ideas and I don’t want anybody else’s ideas. But it’s impossible not to have ideas! But you and Cunningham were asking people to stop a life process. Like… Do not breathe while you’re dancing my work.
SF: Well, it’s changed a little bit, but not really. Now what’s hard is when we do those pieces, if I do it with dancers, they’ve gone through all this somatic stuff. So everything is: “Now I’ll touch, now I’m touching…”
SP: So we didn’t know that we were touching in the way they do now?
SF: Well, we did, but it was like you pick up a glass of water to have a drink of water, you don’t like… (SF enacts ponderously, pretentiously, encountering a glass of water.) “Oooh…!”
SF: I forget which Tai Chi teacher, maybe it was Cheng Man-ch’ing, said your whole body is your hand.
SP: Oh, wow. What does that mean?
SP: So why martial art?
SF: Why martial art?
SP: Why is all this wisdom encapsulated in a martial art?
SF: Because everything’s got teeth and claws. In some way or another. Some of us are more the teeth-and-claws part of the community, and there’s enjoyment in it.
SP: I mean, everything’s got teeth and claws, okay. It’s also, everything’s got skin and fur. Everything’s got guts and organs. Everything’s got water. If it’s that variety, why is it martial that is the encapsulation of the wisdom?
SF: Well, martial is just one thing among so many others.
SP: But that’s my point!
SF: Yes, but I like it. So much.
SP: Is it the stimulation?
SF: No, it’s thoughts about what starts tribal and ends up global. When it’s tribal it’s one thing and then… it slowly makes a mess. But when it’s tribal, you’re living on a… Oh, never mind.
SP: If it’s tribal it’s like this… (SP demonstrates some inclusive zone by positioning himself next to/nearby SF.) And martial is this… (SP demonstrates a confrontational stance by facing her, mano a mano.)
SF: Yes, within the tribe, it’s like this… (SF demonstrates.) But the territory can only sustain so many rabbits and so many moves. At some point, you send one of the young martial artists out. Who might come back and might not.
SP: Why do you do that?
SF: You do that because somebody’s been taking too much water out of the stream.
SP: I liked one thing about the sixties.
SP: Which is that there was a general proposal to end war. It was seriously proposed. A serious proposal for love and peace. And then the seventies, and the backlash…
SF: All I dare to hope for is as much mercy as possible.
SF: I have a 1998 car.
SP: I have a 1939 body.
(If it was about anything other than life as dance at its most encompassing and precise, however beyond verbal articulation — hands rubbing knees, crouching becoming a gesture of adoration, Tai Chi as a method to honey the palpitation of Parkinson’s — it was “about” teaching, listening, and learning, never not learning, from each other, from some long gone, in solitude but never quite alone. It was “about” space, a demonstration of bodies in space and space carved, tweaked, stroked by bodies. [More sculptural, more about sculpture [it was, of course, a prologue to Bound], than anything Koons and almost all of his so-called peers and epigones have managed in a long, long time.] Fifty-five years and what that looks like in action, in process. Some negotiation of the edge between meaning and non-sense and skin as one version of that edge. If compost was the opening metaphor, our hands were deep in the heat of the fluffiest yet butteriest soil, and it was speaking. I took some pictures and their inadequacy, cement-booted, remains in inverse relation to the lightness of being so generously on offer. The moving confluences, improvised contact, point-blank, full of flow, and no contrivance. A lesson in the benefits of not instrumentalizing — given the state of things, I almost want to say weaponizing — a career. An object lesson in suppleness.)