Dancers

Ever since I was a kid, I had good feet. When I started dance classes at age seven in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, the girls immediately took to them with affection. They coveted my arches and the narrowing of my toes. I was asked what exercises I did to keep them limber. Had my mother folded them with rubber bands when I was an infant? Did I wear sneakers or flats? Supports, or socks, or nothing at all?

It might have been the feet that bridged the differences between us. At Anna Marie’s School of Dance, I kept a weekly schedule of half-hour classes in jazz, tap, lyrical, and pantomime dedicated to the nine-month development of three-minute dances in time for the year-end recital. There were no other boys. If there were any men at all in this world, they were brothers and fathers dozing off in the waiting room, stuck with the chore of shuttling sisters and daughters to dance class. There was also no talk of sexuality, at least not homosexuality. Even at the nadir of my public humiliation—a 7th grade “phys. ed.” class for which the teacher routinely did not show—the heckling spat across the gymnasium floor by tie-dyed girls with big-sprayed hair only veered obliquely toward anti-gay slurs. We didn’t know what “gay” meant in rural Pennsylvania at that time. It was 1991, 1992; the AIDS crisis in America was at its most visible—die-ins and marches broadcast across the evening news—and only two hours drive west of New York City, I cannot remember a single discussion of it in school or at home. Same for gay people. It was as if we did not exist, not even to ourselves.

I remember the moment I asked my parents if I could take dance classes. We were in the family van, and I was seated behind them, the backs of their two heads bobbing up and down with the topography of the street. I was seven and committed to wearing a lot of hats. I even wore one for the yearbook picture in 2nd grade, a cab driver’s cap, folded over auburn curls, accompanying a tan, suede jacket and a short tie. I wore what was probably a fedora. I claimed it was a cowboy hat. I remember that neither of them turned their heads after I asked, “Can I take dance classes with Kristin?” My sister was already enrolled in a fair share of the recital program. I don’t remember any of what was said, but I felt then that there was something deeply wrong with what I was asking permission to do, and that it had little to do with dancing.

Years later, I was in a summer intensive dance program at LaGuardia High School when I received a phone call from Peter Martins’ assistant telling me I was needed in Saratoga Springs and should take the next bus up. I don’t remember if I understood right away that this meant I was “in.” As an apprentice to New York City Ballet, by force of union rules, if a dancer toured with the company, then he must be offered a full-time contract. Arch Higgins tore his Achilles tendon onstage and they were short a man for “Union Jack,” a monstrously grand homage to the British flag that required nearly every body in the company. In class my first day on the job, Peter, the company’s director, passed me at barre and said between counting steps, “Welcome to the company.” I read in his tone something almost begrudging, and in the self-deprecation that becomes second-nature to most young dancers, convinced myself I had gotten in only on a technicality and not by his invitation. I decided I would have to prove myself worthy.

“Don’t emote,” was the first thing Peter had ever said to me, a few months before I took that bus to Saratoga Springs. As a student at the School of American Ballet (the company’s primary resource for taking in dancers) I was onstage in the Juilliard Theater at Lincoln Center, where the school gives its graduating class performances. I was rehearsing the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s 1972 ballet Symphony in Three Movements when Peter’s disembodied directive launched from an empty house and, amplified over the “god-mike,” echoed throughout the hall. In retrospect, I understand he was trying to say something about modernism, abstraction, and the withdrawal of expressivity. It’s true, I was a bit of a ham. All those recital hall dances were still very much alive in my body (still are). But I read something else in his forceful correction of my movements, an address to what was lodged in those cocky looks and sly smiles, jazz hands, and out-stretched limbs; to what was enacted in the too-limp wrist, the exaggerated epaulement, the quivering lip, arched eyebrow and overextended rib cage, puffed up for dramatic effect. He saw what I had buried deeper than the recital dances. In the repetition of these gestures hidden from view everywhere else and now shamelessly paraded across the stage, my fey gender was exposed. Of course, this effeminate character was already there in Balanchine’s affected choreography. In his Orientalist quotations, his “types,” all those Hungarian dances, the wild divertissements of flicked wrists and fake jumps (no heels), all the agitation he puts his women through, Suzanne Farrell’s splendid hysteria (Gitane, Mozartiana, Stravinsky Violin Concerto), checked by morbid masculinity. If ever there were a play of the masquerade of sexual encounter, it would have been written by Lacan but choreographed by Balanchine, probably for a Hollywood film, with costumes by Chanel. Don’t forget, there were queens all around him—Kirstein, Cadmus, Cocteau. Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Tchletchev. This queer crew communicated in hushed tones, through sublimated pleasures of camp, balletomania, and fussy footwork.

It took a number of years before I understood that “Don’t emote” was less a corrective of my dancing and more an attempt to negate the presence in the choreography itself of something hyperbolically balletic, ballet at its most obscene, ballet playing itself. Ballet as a primal scene for homoerotic desire.

The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.

I was on tour with Suzanne Farrell Ballet in San Francisco when I ran into an older man whom I sort of knew from parties and galas and the like in New York. He was more a fan of ABT than City Ballet, but choreographic allegiances took second place to his interest in male dancers. He was on a business trip and invited me out to dinner after a performance. We ate at Chez Panisse, which thrilled me (I was at that time just getting into whole foods and vegetarianism). He suggested a drink after dinner at the Four Seasons where he was staying. I remember climbing the steep hills above Union Square toward the hotel and then his casual proposal that I spend the night. The company was staying in Berkeley across the bay, and I had no idea how I would make it back there anyway. Like my vegetarianism, being gay was also a novel track then. I often found myself in situations of self-enforced denial, pretending sex wasn’t happening even as its timings played out in front of me. Such are the tenacious grips of the closet; red-faced shame can keep us tirelessly naïve.

When speaking to the front desk, the older man advised against having a cot sent up to the room, claiming the queen-size bed was large enough for each of us to sleep comfortably. “Like father and son,” he said. I acquiesced, but I did not sleep soundly. As soon as we were in bed, he wrapped his heavy arms around me, spooning my backside. I recoiled, hardening my skin, trying to close each individual pore.

He was not attractive to me, but I also did not find him repugnant. At no point did he try to do anything but cuddle—perhaps too strongly to be other than desperate, but this shade of desperation was not unfamiliar to me, either. I couldn’t quite hug him back, nor could I shrug him off, aware as I was of something transmitting across the electrical currents between our two bodies, not exactly sexual, but not empty of sex either. He had a stutter. I saw in him something kindred. I felt fondness for him, a tribal obligation—an affiliation not genetic, but close—and so I stayed. On guard until first light, I didn’t want to seem impolite and draw my body away from his. At dawn, I made like all was normal and headed down to the spa. I remember how flat my enjoyment of the water felt. I was too tired to be present, too confused to find in it any pleasure.

It was on another tour, this one in Edinburgh, when my colleague in the corps pitched the idea of going to a sauna over dinner at a noodle shop. The company had just landed; we were dark that night. At the time, he was sleeping with a principal ballerina. I was reluctant, confused by his proposition and ashamed by my interest in it, but not so dim as to let the opportunity pass. Deciphering maps toward an address, we wound our way to the unassuming building. Inside, we sat side by side on towels in the back of the sauna. He refused to look at anyone in the eye, including me. He told me squarely he wanted to jerk off and sniff poppers when he came. I was only so bold as to gently place my hand on his thigh right before he blew. The room glowed red light all around us. Our skin aflame, we were confused by the foreignness of the situation, its awkwardness. He only ever looked straight ahead or kept his eyes shut. As soon as he was finished, we got up and left and never spoke of it again.

Buildings

The Juilliard Theater

State Theater

St. Mark’s Church

The Martha Graham Studio

Westbeth

Twilo

The Tunnel

Spa on 14th Street and 4th

Peridance on 14th Street and 4th

Steps on Broadway

City Center

The Joyce

The Joyce SoHo

New 42nd Street

New Dance Group

Trisha Brown Studio

DTW

PS122

BAM

B Bar on Tuesday nights

The Performing Arts Library

Riverside Church

A loft on Duane Street

The Met

Centro-Fly

Central Park Bandshell

Chez Bushwick

The Can Factory

Dance New Amsterdam

An old office downtown

The theater at Pace University

Pace Gallery in front of the Chuck Close

Lincoln Center Theater

Dixon Place in Chelsea

Dixon Place on the Bowery

Dixon Place on Chrystie Street

The Slide

The Limelight

Luxx

The Guggenheim Museum

The Whitney Museum

MoMA

Broadway Dance Center

Symphony Space

The backroom at the Cock

A midtown theater whose name I forgot

People in the Streets

I met with my friend Richard a few weeks ago to catch up on one another’s news. Richard is 80-ish, and his hearing is suffering. His back hurts and sometimes that pain migrates to his feet. He tried to get in at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries for the free medical care, but the process was too disorganized and confusing. His union, AGMA or Equity, still provides some services, including the occasional free ticket to a Broadway opening which he labors to attend even though his legs start to give out after a few blocks of walking.

Richard lives on 53rd Street and 9th Avenue in a rent-controlled studio that he has had since the late 60s when he started performing on Broadway. On this last visit together in the old neighborhood, he asked me if I knew that World Wide Plaza—the unassuming square in front of Bally’s gym on 50th and 8th Avenue where we were sitting and fanning ourselves against the mid-summer heat—had been the location of Madison Square Garden before it moved to 34th Street and after it had moved from Madison Square Park, where it had originated. “It was here, in the underground theater, where Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to John Kennedy,” he explained. The Russian ballet companies used to perform here, too, he remembered, and to further illustrate, walked me across the square into the Starbucks and toward the back of the café where someone had hung a single black and white photograph. Dated 1965, the picture showed the front of the building and a marquee announcing performances by a ballet company I’d never heard of, one of those Soviet fabrications that vanished when the wall came down. In the back of a corporate franchise, where international tourists lined up to use the free toilet, Richard mediated the transmission of local history, conducting the movement of memory from one body to another as gracefully as the Russian dancers portaged their ballerinas across the stage. We stored this secret between us, leaned beside the unlikely prop of the photograph, while transactions of fair-trade caffeine rang out around us in eight-counts. Capitalism carves out such strange and uncanny landscapes.

Richard said, “It seems so complicated.” I knew what he meant. We were now discussing my work and career and this business of making performances that move like objects in a field of visual art but then, at the same time, insisting these so-called objects be seen as subjective, relational, interactive, and human. This was not quite dance anymore, even as it seemed to me so entirely choreographic, so graphically spatial, the organization of various sets of relations. “Don’t you miss clocking in and clocking out, seven shows a week, ‘what time is my call?,’ and then going out for drinks after the show?” How do I explain to an 80 year-old retired dancer whose practical existence was barely thatched together by social security, union pension, and nonprofit healthcare, that his situation of work and retirement represented the golden age of our field of art and that neither the social safety nets nor the jobs that put his situation together any longer existed? I told him that people my age and younger do not even expect jobs. We don’t expect retirement. We don’t believe any systems work—not the government, the museum, non-profit foundations, or the family. Our worldview is in shambles and we are experiencing the blissful dysphoria and hyper-real anxiety of free-fall. Our precarity is so foundational to how we think that it seems to have all but disappeared, camouflaged by news of even more hyperbolic catastrophes. At this point we are dogs floating in space, plastic debris coagulating on the surface of the ocean. We are dead satellites drawn into the gravitational pull of the earth. We are planes shot down over Ukraine carrying cures to menacing diseases in briefcases. We are work-campers stowing books at Amazon warehouses. We are drone attacks on empty villages and government surveillance mites. We are affective producers for Facebook and consumer critics for Yelp. It is very complicated, indeed.

Instead, I shook my head and said, “Yes, it’s a brave new world. And I feel so ungrounded. I really want to just live somewhere, in one place, and stop moving around so much.” Richard, who has lived in the same apartment for close to 50 years, understood. He shook his head and crunched his brow. “You are a dancer,” he said, “you need to find the ground. Without it, you can’t jump.”

I think as a dancer, I think in steps, not about characters or stories or philosophies.

When I turned 13, my mother converted the basement of our Pennsylvania home into a dance studio. She laid down parquet linoleum squares over the cement floor and installed a wooden pole for a ballet barre and a mirror bought at K-mart. I taught myself the barre exercises by following five how-to books, each dedicated to one of the principal foot positions—first, second, fourth, fifth, and the anachronistic third. Each chapter of a book gave you the name of the exercise (“battement tendu,” “dégagé,” “ronds de jambe,” etc…) followed by a detailed description of how it should be executed. “’Plie’ means ‘to bend’ in French. It is performed in first position by gently bending the knees outwards past the toes. Be mindful to maintain external rotation by squeezing tightly in the buttocks. Keep the back long and stretched away from the hips.” I found comfort in its simple order and precision. This was also my introduction to French.

Years later, when first arriving to art school in Los Angeles, I remember having no idea what to do with my studio. After years of rehearsing in nearly every dance studio in New York, I’d grown accustomed to some basic principles—a relatively quiet space, general cleanliness if also disorder, a sprung floor, or at least a wooden one. This was a concrete cube, 12-feet square, with walls that did not extend all the way up to the ceiling. Beside me was a painter, and her turpentine fumes permeated the air. Down the hall was the metal shop which provided searing acoustical accompaniment. The room was covered with a thick and persistent layer of dust. This all added to the ambience of “art school.”

With no specific intentions of how to use it, I built a floor out of cheap plywood to cover the concrete and installed a friend’s discarded sculpture—a long copper pole, hung horizontally on the wall in front of a mirror. The dance studio restored.

You see, all I am is a dancer.

My collaborator Brennan Gerard and I were recently part of an exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles that included the work of artist Harry Dodge. As part of his contribution, Dodge produced a chapbook titled The River of the Mother of God (v.2), which was freely distributed in the exhibition space. I grabbed it before I left L.A. and found myself quickly obsessed with its contents once I began reading it back in New York. In this pamphlet Dodge ruminates on the question, “Is what made from where?” Sharing notes on recent theoretical texts and bits and pieces of his own writing and personal correspondence, Dodge maps out the above question, crossing received notions that subjectivity is formed in relation to others with thoughts on the two-pronged paradigm of contemporary experience—surveillance and location-awareness.

In this wandering text, Dodge poetically works through notions of intersubjectivity to remember that people are “irremediably social, loving, profuse, unruly, irrational, contaminated, on the move,” and as such, always involved in processes of making and un-making one another, impacted by their encounters and the choreography of lived experience. At the same time, he also acknowledges that the increasing management of that choreography, by systems of surveillance, location-awareness, and mapping, is literally leading us to lose our senses, to “heed the machine” with more faith than we do our own bodies.

Dodge is a techno-skeptic. He reports on meandering nature hikes sniffed out by intuition and sense-memory with no help from the “disembodied and remote-controlled gaze” of Google Maps. He ruminates on the new normal—to be able to always know where you are. Is this liberating or oppressive? And what does it mean about who we will become?

Dodge cites Hito Steyerl, another artist, who recently published an essay, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective.” In this paper, Steyerl enacts an historical critique on linear perspective—the basis of painting since the Renaissance, and what she claims to be the foundation of post-Enlightenment thought. Steyerl argues that the idea of the horizon is constructed, an abstraction of the earth’s actual curvature into a flat line. This “horizon” was arrived at by consensus to serve the purposes of seafarers’ orientation as colonial pursuits and trade advanced. “…[I]t computes a mathematical, continuous, and homogenous space, and declares it to be a reality,” she writes. The vanishing point of the horizon mirrors the viewer’s own position, giving the observer a sense of h/er body and an orientation, understood to be objective, scientifically determined, and real. In other words, Steyerl is linking the invention of the horizon and linear perspective to the construction—now thoroughly critiqued—of the Cartesian subject, the fixed individual entity at the center of the universe from whom all other things emanate.

Steyerl demonstrates that linear perspective has been sufficiently attacked by new visual perspectives deployed in entertainment, information and military industries. New technologies of surveillance, like tracking and targeting, and vertiginous departures from photographic indexicality, like 3-D cinema and multi-screen projection, have established a visual paradigm that privileges the y-axis of verticality. This view from above has constructed new subjectivities, relations and populations, and not all necessarily in the service of a counter-politics. If the old regime of linear perspective established the false sense of a unified subject at the center of the universe, then this god’s eye view establishes “a new subjectivity safely folded into surveillance technology and screen-based distraction.”

When the ground gives way, we fall. The presumed stability of linearity has been ruptured by advancements in the technology of sight. Will this radical shift in perspective lead to freedom or more oppression? Do we find ourselves caught in a helpless tumble toward totalitarianism or busting out into a new order of expanded democracy, information access, and representational freedom? Dodge and Steyerl both seem skeptical, dedicated to the old ways of seeing and being in the world. They think like dancers, planting naked feet in the soil. Getting their bearings. Standing upright against the force of gravity and locking eyes with a distant horizon that has structured reality for centuries. But both realize that change is at play, change is not all bad, and the fall is as undeniable as it is breath-taking, shocking, terrorizing, and blissful. Let loose, our boundaries are unclear, and we may not sense the difference between people and things, subjects and objects, the real and the virtual. Groundless, new relations take hold, and we suddenly find ourselves next to the most improbable companions, screaming at the top of our lungs, hands enjoined, not sure if we are falling or floating or flying.

I’m not interested in dancers who want to show ‘soul.’ Soul is very difficult to see.

Last night at 8 p.m., at the border of boroughs, I set out in many wrong directions by car, to seek out food from the grocery store. My smart phone had warned of flash floods, and the sky was an awesome black monochrome stretched across a canvas of Manhattan, the East River, now Brooklyn, and soon Queens. Everybody on the street jumped with archaic reflexes to burrow away or run for cover. Instead, I advanced, gambling that others’ skittishness would be my return, perhaps a shorter line at Trader Joe’s. I did not make it home without getting doused in rain.

There were moments on the journey in which incomprehensible fear gripped me. I jumped at the sound of thunder and the sudden flash of headlights, only to laugh at my own inchoate terror. I paid $118 for four bags of groceries, discarded the receipt, then dashed through the parking lot in the rain, lucky to find a parking spot close to the apartment then unlucky when the third of four bags collapsed, water-drenched, in the foyer of the building and a jar of orange marmalade rolled down the stairs. To my surprise, the jar did not shatter. I picked it up and stumbled home.

Back inside, I tracked the fast movements of the sky. My mind landed on the memory of a video I had watched on YouTube a year or so ago, an interview with a man who had leapt from a tin can space shuttle, high up in the stratosphere, falling 40,000 feet, taller than airplanes fly.  It took seven minutes of falling before the parachute opened and when his velocity broke the speed of sound, his body erupted into spasm.  He reported that he was sure at one point he was about to lose consciousness and the cord would not trigger, the parachute not pop, and he would be dead.  The army of dark clouds outside my window seemed an ominous opponent for even this daredevil. I wondered if he felt he was the same person after his jump.

Lately, I have been hammered with turbulent feelings. I have felt, when enduring one of these squalls, that my soul loosened itself to hover a few feet above my head, looking down at a paralyzed body. Dislodged from its container, soul stares at terrestrial limbs, mildly curious but mostly disinterested. Body processes slow. Heart rate settles to a didactic pulse, beating just enough to telegraph aliveness to other organs. The pace of blood flow settles to near stasis. Muscles go limp, feeling both used and unusable.

It is said that in prolonged space travel, subject to the conditions of zero gravity, the bones begin to soften. Many factors contribute—depleted oxygen, limited exercise, diminished density of the air, no pressure. I wonder if loneliness might also be a factor. In advanced forms of capitalism, alienation is the silent killer. Torture, state terrorism, forced migration, and incarceration are some of its louder analogues. Folded into the algorithms of virtual life, we can almost believe we are in touch, but behind the network connection, we know our real distance is painfully choreographed. Building and re-building identity can feel like a slow orbit around a fast-moving earth, its most unpleasant passages like summer storms.

Human beings are not yet suited for a space age. The wind rocked the open window, and I felt a sudden flash of vertigo. The question surfaced like a dead body in a swimming pool, face down, fact inverted, “What’s the matter?” As if that mattered, my mind defended. Soul cocks its headless head back and scoffs. Body wilts. A gust of wind, then nothing. The world groans, “Go on.”

God creates. I assemble.

I went to Dia:Beacon this summer to see the Carl Andre show, organized by Yasmil Raymond. I gasped after pulling open the door. I’d forgotten the size of Dia’s galleries. My eyes danced across the room, apprehending the permutated formations of wood blocks. In this setting, I was not only observing the relations among objects within a singular work but also watching how those objects interacted across pieces positioned throughout the long rectangular plane of the bisected gallery.

Until this point, I had largely steered clear of Andre. His name was haunted for me by the death of his wife Ana Mendieta in 1985, for which he was put on trial a handful of times. In the wake of these events, it had always been difficult to see the work, despite Andre’s choreographic affinity. I knew that his primary tactic was an arrangement of repeated units in space so as to produce time. The time it took to enact the system (one block, two blocks, three blocks, four…) and then the double time of the viewer trying to decipher it. I watched as person after person pointed his finger to account for the blocks’ accumulations and aggregations throughout space. Counting as a way of making sense of the world establishes in early childhood before the entry into language takes hold. Feminist critic Juliet Mitchell has called this numerical meaning-making “the law of the mother” which sets out the conjunction of siblings—“this is your brother but not you,” and “one and one makes two.” Imagine the child’s game of “duck-duck-goose” and the horizontal movement along the curved line of the circle, shifting from one playmate to the next and then to another. This horizontality of meaning precedes the verticality of language, the semiotic law of one thing (a word) standing in for another thing (an idea). In psychoanalysis, this verticality falls into place as the child moves from counting to naming and into the discursive framework of “the father.”

It surprised me to discover these thick questions of psychoanalysis and subjective development while looking at Andre. And I’m not hypothesizing that he had any of these ideas in mind as he built his systematic sculptures, but looking at them again, in the space of Dia, I wondered about Harry Dodge’s question, “does where make what?” In Dodge’s chapbook, he exemplifies this query with a diagram straight out of a science textbook. Look at these three atoms. In this triangular arrangement it makes a certain molecule. But if you rearrange the same three atoms into a straight line, they make another molecule altogether. Looking at the Andre sculptures stretched across the room, I thought a similar game was at play. These same several wood blocks, of more or less the same quantity, arrange them like this, in a line, and it makes one work. But take the same sized wood blocks, of more or less the same quantity, and arrange them like this, like a staircase, and now you have a second work. Yet another arrangement makes a third, and so on. There is nothing constitutively different about the blocks; only their arrangement in space has changed. Atoms reorganized to make a new molecule. Where making what.

For Dodge, this presents a viewpoint on thinking about identity. We are where we are, not what we are. It is an anti-essentialist argument; we are formed always in relation to others, to history, to location, to time, context, and the environment. Identity is contingent. It is not a thing, a fixed entity, but more an effect, the consequence of a given arrangement and the sum of so many performative gestures and interpersonal encounters. Identity assembles choreographically. As I looked at the Andre sculptures throughout the gallery, I imagined another exhibition that might unearth or make visible some of this buried performativity. What if there was only a single set of the several wood block units in the space? What if what I saw was not the outcome of a choreographic process, its record, but the process, itself? I stood awhile imagining ten busy people, arranging the blocks following a set of instructions, no doubt close to what happened when the curators and art handlers installed the show.

Where makes what. There is a choreography to what we think of as identity. I was not born a dancer despite the feet. My arrangement next to or far from specific others—lovers, strangers, bosses, friends—has made me contingently and temporarily who I am. Our relations make us, contingently and temporarily, a couple, a group, a field, or a movement, variously arranged in proximities to, and distances from, events, moments in time, uprisings, wars, assassinations, acts of terror, protests, marches, parades and changes, gatherings of tribe, performances, vows, punishments, refusals, flirtations, declarations of love, and brushes with destiny.

There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.

Early this fall while on a brief return trip to Los Angeles, I paid a visit to Simone Forti. Simone had been a teacher of mine at UCLA. While in school, Brennan and I were part of a group that recreated her seminal works from the 1960s for a gallery show in Chinatown. He went on to perform with Simone and Luke Johnson in an ongoing project of hers called “News Animations,” in which the trio responded in words and movements to the news.

Simone was part of a generation of artists that included Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Deborah Hay, Robert Rauschenberg, and others, who are referred to as Judson Dance Theater. As with any attempt at identification, the lumping together leaves out the details. One such detail was Forti’s own reflection in her 1974 Handbook in Motion, a collection of personal essays, scores, and poems, that does a lot to capture the energy of late ‘60s art and dance. Forti writes of her attempts at dance classes at Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham’s studios, “I didn’t like to hold my stomach in.” Unlike Rainer’s trenchant dedication to daily dance class and to achieving a level of command over her body’s movements, Forti made little attempt at conventional skilling. Perhaps she was too caught up in the hippie movement of the time or too easily bored (as she claims) but this made for striking differences in the work of each artist.

By the time I got to Simone in 2010, I was ready to let my stomach go, too. It had been a circuitous journey from ballet to the Cunningham studio (where I dallied with becoming an understudy in another well-oiled machine) to auditions in Europe that led to contracts in provincial cities turned down in favor of stranger projects in more cosmopolitan capitals. More projects and aller-retour plane tickets before a mind-shifting encounter with cultural theory and a long drive across the continent to art school. Simone was a thick piece of thread that would help me weave together these disparate parts into a story that made sense to myself.

“There you are,” she called out when opening the door to her home on Veteran Avenue in Los Angeles. She said she had phoned twenty minutes earlier to see if I was still coming, but I hadn’t picked up. It was about five; she suggested we walk over to the Hammer Museum for a glass of wine on the terrace. We set out on Veteran then hung a right onto Wilshire where we walked the short distance to the museum with the sun on our backs.

We talked about her retrospective in Salzburg at the Museum der Moderne. I was disappointed to hear there were no plans for the show to travel to the U.S., but she seemed somewhat relieved. I started running through my internalized Rolodex, coming up with schemes for the work’s continued circulation, when Simone stopped me in my tracks. We ordered two glasses of happy hour Pinot Grigio, and she changed the subject to Vermont.

Simone and I share a love for the Northeast Kingdom. Every summer when she is able, Simone travels there to spend some time with her friend Steve Paxton. She gardens, chops wood (until she is bored), and listens for bears. Every summer I am able, I head to a Radical Faerie gathering on the side of a mountain in Vermont, some distance south of Paxton’s retreat. We share much of the same revelry of nature and the pleasure of being blissfully disconnected from the world of art and culture. This time, the trip seemed to really take its grip on her. She nearly stayed. But in the end, she decided to return to L.A., because this is her place and this is where she lives.

Her statements made an impression on me. I admitted to Simone that I’ve lately had a lot of trouble coming to terms with where I live. After school, I moved back to New York and found a city even more paranoid and hysterical than the one I’d left. Flush with money, everyone seems to be working harder and living less. I started dreaming of hippie retreats and communal houses almost as soon as I set foot back in Brooklyn. I re-read Handbook in Motion and connected my struggle to Simone’s forty years earlier.

“I can’t seem to figure out where I should go, if I should stay in New York or come back here to the West Coast,” I confessed. “All my friends are leaving the city, heading upstate or further afield, or moving to Los Angeles. It’s confusing. Nobody knows where to be anymore.” Simone looked at me awhile. I could almost sense the computation happening across generational difference. There was no SoHo loft purchased for pennies that I could short sell if in a pinch. There were no easy part-time jobs to bundle into a self-subsidy to continue working. Shame colored my face. I doubted there was anything of her reality to relate to my own.

Simone got up from the table and stood in front of me. Serious but with a wide-open smile, she said, “I learned this from a Tai Chi master in the park across from my house. Do this and this.” Simone then demonstrated a lunging movement to her right side with the accompanying arm extending then drawing down sharply in front of her face; she repeated this movement to the left.) “And then make a decision.” I couldn’t help but smile as she returned to her seat and a half-empty glass. “OK,” I said, “I will incorporate this into my daily practice. I’ll do the steps and contemplate where to live.”

“No,” she said, “That’s not what I meant. Do this once. Then, make a decision. You already know in your body which way to go.”

In the future, when gravity has given up and all the cities are held in escrow, there will still be dancers. We will gossip and chat, if only by fingers and not with lips, and break records as quickly as they are made. When the buildings have grown too tall and the streets below are empty of people, we will dance in space ships that orbit the earth faster than search engines search. Feet floating above groundless ground, we will learn to see—and to live—differently.

References:

  1. All quotes throughout the text are by George Balanchine. By George Balanchine, San Marco Press, New York: 1984.
  2. “Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010,” organized by Yasmil Raymond, on view at Dia:Beacon until May 2015.
  3. “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” Hito Steyerl, e-flux journal #24, April 2011.
  4. River of the Mother of God: Notes on Indeterminacy (v.2), Harry Dodge, produced in conjunction with the exhibition “Made in L.A. 2014,” Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.
  5. Siblings, Juliet Mitchell, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK: 2003.
  6. Handbook in Motion: An Account of an Ongoing Personal Discourse and its manifestations in Dance, Simone Forti, The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design: 1974.