Back It Up

Simone Forti & Turtles: Performance review by Benn Widdey

Returning to Los Angeles after a highly respected career as PoMo pioneer in NY dance, choreographer/dancer/writer/educator Simone Forti got together with three friends to improvise for a two week (eight performance) run at the Unknown Theater in Hollywood, October 18-28, 2007. With each show a new opportunity for invention, “Turtles All the Way Down” was a no-frills revelation of the performers, their interests and wherever the moment would take them.

I was able to see Forti, theater artist Luke Johnson, dancer/choreographer Sarah Swenson and composer/trombonist Douglas C. Wadle at one of the final performances in this intimate locale (only fifty seats and a full size stage).

Ms. Forti began by telling us that some of the performance structures had been pre-determined (first a short solo, then a longer one, a duet, etc.), but that the events that would happen within that framework had not yet been decided.

The program listed a collection of literary sources from which each performer would take the stage. The artist began her/his solo by donning glasses and reading aloud from one of these texts. Though some words seemed more personal than others; Johnson referred to travels in India, Swenson to love, Wadle to his musical instrument and to theoretical constructs of life and the director (if we can call Forti this), to her Italian genealogy. Obviously, some subjects may seem more interesting to one person than another, but the group’s goal was to see how these differences can still be linked together through movement, word or sound.

A few props were enlisted to add to these disparate connections–a four foot L-shaped wooden shelf, a trombone, a sheet and some one foot wide brightly colored dots–and an occasional costume modification (the changing colors of Forti’s tops).

There was no prerecorded audio. The sounds we heard were mostly talking. A few interesting drones bellowed out of the deconstructed and then re-constructed brass horn.

In the nakedness of this enterprise, we really could see what each artist could do with few resources and how each responded individually to the environment. Quietly taking his trombone apart and laying the pieces across the stage, Wadle seemed a bit lost. But blowing into the mouthpiece, he was more engaged, looking for a sound that would never cease even if his breath ran out.

Later on, a moment with Swenson reminded me of the Marx Brothers’ “Who’s on First” riff, though much drier and matter-of-fact. Swenson seemed to be running across the stage in search of something in her brain or in her heart. She spoke of amorous disappointments, turned and danced to the other direction, crossed an ankle atop a thigh and swung an arm to sit down gently. Near the end of the hour long piece, she crawled under a big off-white sheet, which evoked the turtles in the show’s title.

Johnson’s narrative excerpts referred to tourism in a third world nation and, unfortunately, his movement choices were basic and almost illustrative. However, Forti, a septuagenarian imp, neatly presented her personal history with appropriate care, concern, vocal inflection and demeanor. She gestured sprightly, her hands belying the facts of her age, and she seemed pleased with her experience on the stage.

In the end, Johnson tells us that despite all the artistic differences between the performers and their narrative subjects, the ensemble has been present with each other. This is a great accomplishment for any group of performers, let alone improvising artists, and it was satisfying to witness. I went home feeling like I just had a good and simple meal; not too much spice, and plenty of nourishment.

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