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Flipping to a new chapter

Simone Forti isn't as moved by dancing as she once was. Now the performer who boldly linked movement to words is busy with exercises that stretch the written form.

July 16, 2006|Susan Josephs | Special to The Times

AT 71, Simone Forti can still turn a mean backward somersault. She knows just the right way to crawl around the floor while discoursing on slavery. Better than most people, she can simultaneously wave her legs in the air and launch into a riff about the Milky Way.

The time has come, she says, for a greater artistic challenge.

Forti first made a name for herself in New York in the 1960s with her Minimalist dance constructions and associations with Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay and other members of the revolutionary Judson Dance Theater. More recently, she has spent 20-odd years -- the last eight in Los Angeles -- mining the connections between movement and language.

But now this pioneer of postmodern and improvisational dance says she is heading "more and more toward writing. I've reached a plateau, moving- and speaking-wise. There is something about literature that demands something of me in a way that moving and speaking does not."

Though Forti has previously published two books, her new effort, "Unbuttoned Sleeves," points to the more central role writing has assumed in her artistic life.

"I've always been ambitious, but I guess now you could say I've really gone linguistic," she says. "Knock on wood, I have a good 15, maybe 17 years to make a whole new body of work, and at this point in my life, I'm just really interested in what literature is about."

Published by Venice-based Beyond Baroque Books, "Unbuttoned Sleeves" is a collection of poetry, improvised writing, journal-like reflections and transcriptions of rehearsals for Forti's last two performance projects. Both the first of those, also called "Unbuttoned Sleeves" and performed last year at REDCAT, and "101," which played last month at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, involved improvised movement, spoken word and the collaboration of choreographer Sarah Swenson, theater artist Terrence Luke Johnson and composer and trombonist Douglas Wadle. Directed by Forti, the foursome worked with ideas from a provocative mix of texts, including observations by Thoreau, "The Federalist Papers" and Sun Tzu's "The Art of War."

The book, which Forti edited but which lists those collaborators as co-authors, is "a major step forward in terms of experimental writing," says Fred Dewey, executive director of Beyond Baroque.

"I'm not just publishing some legendary choreographer who wrote a book," he says. "Simone has come up with a new model that's not just about self-expression or the vision of one person. In book form, she has found a way to bring together different people with different visions in a democratic, pluralistic way."

"The idea was that we are four flawed people like anybody else, exploring our beliefs and speculations," Forti said recently at her apartment near UCLA, where she's part of the adjunct faculty in the world arts and cultures department. "I feel that I don't have a great understanding of the world at the moment, that our civilization is full of confusion and it's hard to know what to think. But if you put four people together and weave their interests and beliefs, that says something."

Working with Forti has been "endlessly fascinating" for Swenson, who also runs her own local company, Vox Dance Theatre. "Simone is still evolving as an artist," she says. "Working with her, there is always so much discovery involved about yourself and how you relate to others."


Exploring dance

BORN in 1935 to Italian Jewish parents, Forti fled Fascist Italy at the age of 4, a circumstance that figures prominently in her recent writing and performances. The family settled in Los Angeles, and she took her first modern dance class while a student at Fairfax High. Briefly, she attended Reed College in Portland, Ore., where she met her first husband, artist Robert Morris. The couple moved to San Francisco, and Forti initially pursued painting. Just for fun, though, she started studying dance improvisation with Anna Halprin. An early postmodernist, Halprin taught in an outdoor studio and purposely distanced herself from the New York dance establishment.

"It was the first time a teacher had really captured my imagination and the first time I knew I would always do a lot of dancing," Forti wrote in "Handbook in Motion."

Over ginger ale and blueberries at her kitchen table, Forti comes across as essentially the same graceful and centered person who rolled around the Highways stage for the "101" performances. Small and compact with flowing gray hair, she has a strikingly unpretentious manner and frequently breaks into impish grins. Her voice has an airy, ethereal quality, even when discussing weighty life-and-death matters. Something about her suggests an enlightened fairy or some other sprightly being whom Harry Potter or Frodo might happen upon in an enchanted forest.

Forti prefers the term "the king's fool."

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