This is a five paragraph essay about the five positions • This essay will explain something • in particular how dancer-choreographer Simone Forti inserted the personal in her work but filtered so it came across as a ghostlike trace • and why • and how this resonates with a person with a history • and doesn’t • It’s complicated • as they say in the dating profiles these days • but not complicated as in relationships • although fundamentally you could say so much is about relationships • Take attachment theory • John Bowlby • Mary Ainsworth • Mary Main • their gang • their gang’s explanation of how a person is formed • The way the parent makes or fails to make themself available to the infant affects how the infant is attached • e.g. insecurely securely and so forth • And that shapes their whole life • Even if they do a lot of healing they are marked by that profound experience • I think Simone Forti was securely attached • She speaks glowingly of her parents • her childhood • She even forgives her father for being patriarchal • She claims it worked out because her mother had her own sphere of influence • the household • And her father said Simone could do whatever she wanted • She does • always has • more than most people • She’s a conceptualist • a word that scares me • But her concepts are anchored in her body • She never leaves her body • She learned about kinaesthetic awareness • the awareness of one’s body as it moves through space • in the 1950s from Anna Halprin at the latter’s open-air studio in the Bay Area at the base of Mount Tam • Forti and her husband Robert Morris dropped out of Reed • Sign of privilege • to feel safe dropping out of an excellent school • to know they’d be able to make their way • to the Bay • where they found Halprin • You could say Halprin imprinted Forti • As long as I’ve raised attachment theory • “imprinting” is a term proposed by Konrad Lorenz • The Father of Modern Ethology • whom Bowlby et al considered their forerunner • Lorenz used the term to describe how the first creature whom baby geese see becomes their mother • even if it’s Konrad Lorenz • They will follow that creature to the ends of the earth • But Forti is not a goose • Forti was deeply influenced by Halprin but later pushed away • like a teenager rebelling • as she put it “pushing mommy away” • When Forti did that she was not biologically a teenager • but art has its own arc • From Halprin • Forti learned the term “kinaesthetic awareness” • and even though so much happened in her life • Multiple marriages • Robert Morris • Bob Whitman • Peter Van Riper • and I gather lots of other relationships and casual hookups too • multiple locations • Italy which her family left when she was four to escape Mussolini and where she returned for a time in her 20s • the aforementioned Reed • the aforementioned Bay Area • New York • hippy commune existence in the Woodstock area after Woodstock • Vermont • Los Angeles • multiple art forms • dance • drawing • writing • singing • performance art • sculpture • she never lost track of kinaesthetic awareness • Kinaesthetic awareness was her basis • always • I try to feel my feet on the earth • when I walk from here to there • I try to tune into my center • Forti does • That’s probably what allows her to have these diverse experiences • and not get chewed up • Some of that 1969–70 Woodstock period sounds pretty dicey • Hand-to-mouth and quasi-homeless • But Forti is always home • She feels safe in the world • A sense of safety I attribute in part to privilege • She would agree • “I really have had a lot of privilege” • But my gut says there’s still value in what her sense of safety allows her to explore • What’s interesting is that as a woman it seems from the outside like she’s been screwed in ways • she refutes • Her interviewers seem uncomfortable on her behalf • politely pointing out how she gave up her art to support Whitman’s for several years • But she doesn’t frame it that way • “I’m not so against paternalism” • What can anyone say • She’s Forti • Not just a person or persona but a personage • at this point • for those who are into her work • like me •
A lot of the edgier 60s art challenged the traditional notion of self • Cage the Buddhist influenced multiple genres • For a long time art historians focused more on the influence of Duchamp on these young artists • his concept of the readymade • But more recently Cage emerges • in the foreground • Forti’s first mentor was Halprin • from whom she learned “kinaesthetic awareness”(Meridith Morse) plus improvisation and a task-like approach • Then she pushed mommy away • as she put it • But note how profound the word mommy • You can push all you want but you’ve been imprinted • She moved with Morris to New York • where she got into Cage’s concepts via Robert Dunn • learned to create procedures • that generate a piece of art • but kept the beating heart • of Halprin • No one quite knew how to deal with her work’s powerful affective dimension • for example folk songs and various vocalizations • so they kind of just ignored that part • focused on aspects that aligned with more acceptable • at that time • elements • like Minimalism • Only more recently • for example with the publication of Meredith Morse’s book Soft Is Fast • is the intense affect • these ghostlike traces of the personal • in Forti’s work • celebrated • Part of me can really relate to the ghost-remainder approach • It so accords with what I learned from my graduate school poetry writing teacher • She’d speak in hushed tones • of work by • for example • Paul Celan • whose poetry • can be seen as an oblique daily journal • of grapplings • with traumatic memory • and its ongoing grip on his brain • A question I ask daily is • How can you use traumatic memory • and not be used by it • This is something artists • who traffic in trauma • must do • must learn how to do • Interestingly Forti and Celan were both marked by anti-Semitism • Forti’s family having escaped Mussolini when she was four • but Forti overall led a much more protected life • as mentioned • Sometimes the traumatic traces • in her pieces • have more to do with things like breakups • For example one of what she called • her ”elevation tunes” • where she created a musical score • using all her vertical locations • a building’s sixth floor • the subway and so on • over two weeks • as notes • to be whistled by her friend • composer La Monte Young • It just so happens • during this two weeks • she was sick in bed a lot • ending a relationship with Morris • starting one with Whitman • A lot going on • And it so happens • the next time she made such a tune • was five years later • on the verge of breaking up with Whitman • These aren’t traumas on the order of what Celan experienced • losing his parents to the Nazis • forced to haul stones in a camp • displaced • And some of Forti’s ghostlike traces aren’t traumatic at all • like “Face Tunes” • melodies derived from outlines of people’s faces • Yet Forti and Celan and so many others shared this aesthetic • It was in the air • a sense of being sickened by the small self following its predictable myopic narrative arc • like the caged animals • Forti communes with • in her “Zoo Mantras” • She paces • pads • and swings • We were meant for wide-open spaces • We survive our conditions as best we can • until we can’t • Dear reader • do you wonder • what all this has to do with the five positions • Do you think of ballet • how it is based on the five positions • ”the” • as if there are only five • positions • the body must learn to hold • What other associations do you have • Do you love to watch ballet dancers twirl and leap • arch and split • Do you love dying swans • secretly strong as oxes • lifted by muscled men • Do you stumble across information about grueling routines • Brutal competition • ‘“You test them,” Mr. Martins said • “What are they made of? Am I wrong, am I right? You throw little bones to them and see how they react”’ • Do you think of foot bones • encased in their little torture chambers • Is this old news • Or maybe you never bought the fantasy • I did •
Kinaesthetic awareness • guided Forti’s every move • When she relocated to New York she signed up for classes with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham • but couldn’t and wouldn’t • suck in her tummy like Graham • couldn’t and wouldn’t • grasp the lightning-fast motions of Cunningham feet • For all of these two giants’ success in moving dance past the tired balletic body • They imposed their own physical constraints • constraints • Forti refused • So what a breath of fresh air • Dunn’s workshop • where an adventurous set of young dancers and artists • came together to do task-based exercises • based on chance operations and time structures and scores • an approach Dunn had learned from Cage • Cage got the idea of chance operations from throwing the I-Ching • Many assume chance operations involve relinquishing control of outcomes • But Forti points out that’s not true • Rather • you’re choosing • “the distance between the point of control and the final movement performed” • She became interested in taking • as she says • “precise readings of what points of control I was using, and wanted to use, and to what effect” • Kinaesthetically speaking • whenever I read that sentence • the rigorous logic of it • the core of me from throat to abdomen • tightens • A wave of nausea • washes over me • A cold heat • spreads down my arms • Just last week I learned the term “affective filter” • Stephen Krashen • a leading bilingual education advocate • invented it to describe what can happen to second language learners • A screen descends between them and the words they want to learn • The screen might include anxiety • low self-confidence • low motivation • When I saw this term I thought • That term explains what happens when I read or try to think about certain kinds of matter • for example the notion of making conceptual art • when making art becomes a matter of solving for X • and if you get it wrong • the reader will scratch their head • or worse • scrawl a bad grade on your paper • I was a gender of my generation • good at math till I hit adolescence • Had grown up taking ballet classes from Dinah Cody • She’d been a real ballerina • Had a corner on the market in my neighborhood • The older girls got to go en pointe • Who didn’t want to • be a dying swan • Some didn’t • But I • still wanted that in the interval during which I entered adolescence • just before I went to the alternative high school • and second wave feminism hit • I signed up at a real ballet school • downtown • Must have been on Wabash • Near the Capezio store • where you bought your regulation black leotard • regulation pale pink tights • regulation pink slippers • regulation pink toe shoes • These • you were told to clomp around in • break them in • while getting used to the whole idea • of going en pointe • although being restricted to clomping • reinforced the point that you were still an ugly duckling • First you must master • the five positions • and various routines based on them • We stood at the barre • A trim and grim maestro with a European accent • I forget which • maybe Russian • maybe French • called out terse orders • The girls complied • My affective filter descended • thick with messages • You are ugly • You are awkward • You have the wrong body • The wrong mind • You will never master the routines • barked by the strict man • Believe it or not • That wasn’t the trauma • The trauma was an event too good to be true • in the sense that the symbolism of it • now looking back • points to what’s wrong with ballet classes for adolescent girls • and in a larger sense • the whole ballet machine • the worldview it’s based on • but at the time • the symbolism pointed to • what was wrong with me • I can’t categorize the trauma • It wasn’t genocide • or the experience of second language learners many of whom cross the border without papers out of desperation or necessity • It wasn’t a breakup • Or an illness • though some were still framing it that way •
Of her piece “Face Tunes” Forti writes • “I’ve never let the audience know they were listening to patterns derived from faces” • “I had faith that, since the awareness of variations among similar events is so basic a life process,” • “when they heard ‘Face Tunes’ • they would unconsciously sense a familiar kind of order.” • I can relate to that • It reminds me of the aforementioned poetry teacher’s reverent tones • quoting Celan • and so many others • She couldn’t stand the tired trope of confession • confessional poetry • She’d been influenced by Language poets • who • like Forti and her ilk • reacted against the petty bourgeois self • that dominated art mid-century and later • keeping us distracted from inconveniences like Vietnam • These young artists coming up in the 60s and 70s • were ripping the scales off our eyes • The self is a lie • served up by late capitalism • to get you to buy • the notion that you’re a “consumer” • not a “citizen” • It’s a bill of goods • I got it • How liberating • to be relieved of the burden of self • Besides I was going to meditation retreats • I’m not a Buddhist but I act like one • Self is a construction • Anyone can know that • So Forti’s approach makes all kinds of sense to me • to the small self • rather • that is trying to communicate in language • a kind of prose • which makes avoidance of the terms “I” and “my” and “me” difficult • But that’s OK • We all know language is an imperfect vehicle • But another part • of this small self • clings to the personal narrative • the narrative arc • Maybe I read too much Plath • in my adolescence • Panzer-man and all that • In 1976 • a few years after I attended that ballet class • my parents attended a concert • on Michigan Avenue • They came home bemused • describing a piece by Cage • a Native American alone on a stage banging a drum • as white audience members gathered their furs and purses and streamed out • My parents were hip enough to stay • They didn’t get it • but they sensed something interesting going on • It must have been “Apartment House 1776” • representing the four religious traditions practiced at the U.S.’s founding • The piece included • a voice solo by Swift Eagle • from the Apache and Santo Domingo Pueblo tribes • and there were drums involved • Either my parents’ description or my memory is muddy • But I think this was the piece • By then I’d abandoned ballet • Was enamored of modern dance • which was already over as far as Cage, Forti, and their crowd were concerned • Cunningham • Cage’s partner • being The Father of Postmodern Dance • But modern was and still is going strong • As is ballet for that matter • Girls still sign up to deform their feet • get thrown bones • by the likes of Peter Martins • My parents’ bemused openness to art they didn’t understand • their willingness to hang in there while droves of season ticket holders stomped angrily past them out into the night • made a big impression • you could say imprinted me • primed me for that LangPo-inflected approach to poetry • So why can’t I relinquish the personal entirely • Why these “I”’s and “my”’s and “me”’s • infiltrating this piece • like signals of a diagnosis • Narcissistic Personality Disorder • Well • besides that poetry teacher • my other main graduate school instructor • was a founder of New Narrative • a prose form developed to represent selves and stories • primarily queer and working class but inclusive of other marginalities too • that had been excluded from the master narrative • influenced by Language poetry • LangPo as it’s referred to • derisively • affectionately • or just economically • but rejecting the latter’s purist stance regarding the “I” • the “my” • the “me” • claiming story • but telling it slant • Not blinded by the construct of self • but inhabiting self • in a slippery way • That made as much sense to me • as my poetry teacher’s rejection of pronouns • though given the aforementioned • affective filter • which made it hard to read or write freely • I could only intermittently execute either model •
Forti does not consider herself a feminist • She says things like • “I’m not so against paternalism” • Regardless • reducing the personal to a ghostlike trace • creates space for women • who have been trapped by the narrative of ballet • For that matter • the way she and others blew apart genre distinctions • also created a space • where no one knew what was what • which arguably made it easier for women to step in • and make dances • or whatever you want to call them • Forti’s own work • operates at a juncture between many forms • although most often she’s called something like • dancer- choreographer • a shorthand • inadequate as pronouns • to describe the flux and flow of reality Forti works with • a project • impossible to do justice to here • But to give you just a taste • here’s part of her description of a piece called “Day Night” • “Some years ago, a few hours before having to perform, I was afraid that I had forgotten how to dance” • “I couldn’t imagine dancing” • “I was standing outside the performance hall when, crouching slightly,” • “I set my right foot forward and opened my hands to my sides” • “‘Is this how?’ I asked myself” • “I begin ‘Day Night’ with this movement”• Forti’s work is deeply personal • But she doesn’t broadcast it • She prefers for the audience to feel the ghostlike traces • Her work is informed • by rigorous concepts • that cause an affective filter • to clamp down on my mind • But I realize • this is one of those “aha moments” • her concepts • are grounded in kinaesthetic awareness • Her ideas • rise up out of her body • don’t slam down on it like a screen clanging down blocking her from life • I realize • I’m avoiding saying why I developed this affective filter in the first place • a filter filled with messages • like • You are ugly • You are lazy• You are clumsy • You are stupid • If you can’t do it right the first time don’t do it at all • Unhelpful messages like that • It’s another thing I just can’t do justice to here • Dear reader • you’re going to have to trust me on this one • I can give a smattering • For example my father’s family were Jews who fled Nazi Germany • except for all the ones who didn’t make it out • But that doesn’t really explain • why he abused his children • nor • why my mom tolerated it • We all know lots of families propel and propound such abuse • generation after generation • It’s a larger cultural story • a true story • the small self gets trapped in • Western adolescence is tough enough • without being told what a failure you are • as a daughter • thinker • doer • human • I tried to escape through various means • Engaged in a lot of magical thinking • one example of which was my short stint in classical ballet • “Ballet will reshape my body” • “I will become a graceful swan” • A few classes into my new plan • during a demi-plié •I glanced down • to see • two ruby half moons on my inner thighs • where regulation pink tights • met regulation black crotch • In a panic • I motioned to the accompanist • who • as you might expect • wore a beehive • cat glasses • a cigarette holder • Speech • unless you were the maestro • was verboten • So was leaving • But the cat eyed beehived accompanist motioned me out the door • I ran • to the dressing room • The older girls • lounged leggily on benches • or did limbering stretches • en pointe • One I knew vaguely • I asked her for a pad • She only had • a tampon • which in those days • created pain localized yet radiating • I felt faint • another item on the long long list of things that seemed wrong with me • I doubt I returned to that class • But my memory • may be blotted • by two bloody half moons • which • looking back • seem the perfect symbol • for what’s wrong with traditional ballet • its diminishment of female sexuality • such that the appearance of menstrual blood • would cause such pure shame • Looking back • those ruby moons seem beautiful • spreading larger by the second • a process • Forti might celebrate • given her commitment to the flow • of time • the nature • of the animal body • yours • Dear reader • and mine • not mediated • here • right now •
Sarah Rosenthal is the author of The Grass Is Greener when the Sun Is Yellow (The Operating System, 2019; collaboration with Valerie Witte), Lizard (Chax, 2016), Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009), and several chapbooks. She edited A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction writing has appeared in numerous journals and is anthologized in Kindergarde: Avant-garde Poems, Plays, and Stories for Children (Black Radish, 2013), Building is a Process / Light is an Element: essays and excursions for Myung Mi Kim (P-Queue, 2008), and Bay Poetics (Faux, 2006). Her short film We Agree on the Sun, which uses poetry and movement to explore the intersection of postmodern dance, somatic knowledge, and houselessness, premiered at the 2019 &Now Festival in Bothel, WA; the trailer at https://vimeo.com/weagreeonthesunmovie. She lives in San Francisco where she works as a Life & Professional Coach, develops curricula for the Center for the Collaborative Classroom, and serves on the California Book Awards jury. More at sarahrosenthal.net.