Monday, July 22, 2019

Sarah Rosenthal and Valerie Witte on Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti

Dancer Mothers // Poet Daughters: A Conversation, Part 1

In their collaborative chapbook The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (Operating System, 2019) poets Sarah Rosenthal and Valerie Witte engage with the work of dancer-choreographers Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer. Through research into these innovative women’s dances, ideas, and lives, Rosenthal and Witte use language from and about the choreographers to create a series of co-written sonnets that are interwoven with letters between the two poets. The letters describe the process of composing the poems and branch into discussions of dance, poetics, gender, transgression, the unfolding disaster of the current political scene, and much else, in the associative weave that epistolary form enacts. Together, the poems and letters construct an environment of reflection, intimacy, and vulnerability, one that is both challenging and invitational.

Below is the first of a two-part conversation between Rosenthal and Witte about their subject matter and creative process.

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Valerie: Sarah, you generated the idea of focusing our project on postmodern choreographers. Can you talk about what drew you to this topic?

Sarah: A number of preoccupations converged for me. One is my increasing focus, in recent years, on somatic awareness. It’s hard to measure, but I sense that the benefits of it––feeling more grounded and self-aware––are seeping into every aspect of my reality, from dealing more effectively with practicalities to clearer thinking, greater access to the imagination, and more satisfying interpersonal dynamics. Dance requires and generates somatic awareness, of course. And my growing interest in somatic knowledge has led me to reflect on the fact that I have a lot of positive associations with dance––even as a pre-teen I discovered the joy of moving in sync with various musical genres, from Motown to Bulgarian line dances. As an adult I’ve taken many dance classes and attended many performances.

Yet at the same time, there were huge gaps in my knowledge. For example, I had never really studied the rich history of postmodern dance or the ideas informing it. Rainer, Forti, and their crowd were little more than names to me, yet I knew they were the dance equivalent of some of the postmodern poets whose work influenced me, including the New York School and Language Poets. The confluence of my intimacy with dance and my relative ignorance about this important strand of contemporary dance compelled me.

It was also a feminist issue. The chapbook Eternal Apprentice by Michael Newton and Emmalea Russo, which became our starting point for figuring out our project’s contours, incorporates material about John Cage and Merce Cunningham. I found myself thinking, these men are so famous yet relatively few of us, including me, know much about the generation of female choreographers they mentored. I wanted to help right that wrong.

Plus I was alert to the fact that in recent years, investigating and investing myself in a subject matter helps me create work in a sustained way. I did that with my research on the city of Manhattan for my book Manhatten and lizards for my book Lizard (such innovative titles!) and I’d been looking around for another subject that would engross me and feed my writing in a similar way. I hoped that dance would hold us in its toned yet flexible grasp. It has.

But that all sounds premeditated, and it was way more intuitive. You kept saying, Sarah, we gotta get started! And I kept saying, Yeah, you’re right!––while thinking, what the hell are we going to do, I don’t have a single idea in my head. Then I was at the Double Cross table at the AWP bookfair flipping through that chapbook, which is a collaborative piece, an intimate, vibrant conversation. It energized me, and I thought, great, I can suggest this to Valerie as a starting point and she’ll see that I did come through with something! She won’t jump ship! One thing led to another. Or as Forti taught Rainer, “One thing follows another.”

What amazed me is that you responded with alacrity to the idea, while at the same time sharing that you’d had a mostly traumatic history with dance. I was impressed that you’d be willing to dive into a topic that you’d have every reason to avoid. Can you tell me how that worked for you, and whether that’s a familiar pattern in your creative life?

Valerie: Sarah, no one is more surprised than I am that I’m immersed in a project focusing on dance. The idea was simultaneously horrifying, hilarious, and intriguing: As you note, my experience with dance throughout my life has not been particularly positive, generally ranging from indifference to low-key despair; often a source of insecurity, rarely joy. So diving into the topic certainly held a sense of dread. At the same time, I’ve appreciated the sheer humor of it, the puzzled and surprised reactions of friends when I tell them about the project, as they know dance is not a realm I’ve ever really connected with—the befuddlement/amusement they display elicits a kind of joy. And overall the idea intrigued me—I liked the tension inherent in addressing what would surely be a challenging topic for me, and appreciated the possibility it could afford me to explore aspects of myself that would otherwise remain untapped.

Although I do not have a deep well of experience to draw from, my memories and associations related to dance have made indelible impressions on me. Also given that I still engage in activities that require a degree of kinesthetic intelligence (Pilates, taiko drumming), these are ideas that I still think about, that are ever in the air around me whether I want to actively engage with them or not.

That this is not a direction I would ever have chosen myself is, to me, a huge benefit of collaboration—being compelled by someone/something outside myself to engage creatively in a way I wouldn’t if left to my own devices. It is a departure to some extent—I’m not typically someone who veers far out of my comfort zone. But I was lucky to find in Simone Forti an artist whose work and way of talking about it resonated deeply with me. In my readings, I was continually struck by her use of language in her work (speech is often featured prominently), the way she describes her work (often quite poetically), and how she views her abilities as a dancer (definitely not as a virtuoso).

While I found Forti a particularly relatable subject for my nondancer self, you selected Yvonne Rainer to study. How do you see her as an influence/mother/mentor? How did your perception of her and your connection to her work evolve over the course of the project?

Sarah: I picked Rainer knowing very little about her or her work. It was another rushed moment when I was just trying to help move things along. Then, when I started investigating her oeuvre, I initially felt distant from it, and intimidated. She’s very conceptual and comes across as emotionally cool to the touch. To be honest, I felt a little envious of your match-up with the more intuitive, kinaesthetically oriented Forti––who’s hardly less of an intellectual or creative force than Rainer, but whose vibe seemed easier to connect with. But I also felt committed. And I trusted that someone as obviously innovative and brilliant as Rainer would have a great deal to offer if I stuck with her. So I did, except for when you and I dipped into the work of the other’s chosen choreographer.

And this has panned out for me. I’ve become engrossed in––and awestruck by––Rainer’s innovations, stances, and projects spanning more than half a century. Since the time she got involved in dance and choreography in the 60s, she has demonstrated an unceasing need to challenge herself, to create new forms that embody her evolving ideas and preoccupations. She even dropped dance entirely for a few decades and made experimental films, returning to choreography in 2000. Her current dance opus, Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? investigates the aging process, among other themes.

The more I learned about Rainer, the more common ground I discovered. I hope I’m not putting Rainer in any boxes she wouldn’t want to be in by identifying these perceived similarities: We both came to art late-ish––she started dancing late in her 20s; I attended MFA school in my mid-30s, a decade or more older than most of my fellow grad students. We’re both psychologically oriented and have done lots of therapy, and we’re both shamelessly open about that and allow or invite psychological investigation to inform our respective relationships to art. I wrote recently that Rainer can come across as vulnerable, and a fellow writer strongly disagreed. But I stand by it. Rainer exhibits a refreshing lack of what the shrinks call “false front,” which I think is at least partly due to a lifetime of self-investigation. She seems to know and accept herself to a remarkable degree. There’s a lot of power in that for an artist. It replaces an icky kind of power grounded in self-inflation.

And although I described her and her work as feeling initially remote, it’s also true that from the get-go it has felt in a certain way deeply familiar. Which makes sense––her generation of postmodern artists and writers experimented with techniques such as collage and disjunction, combinations of chance and intention, disruptions of narrative, and much more that have provided a kind of toolkit for subsequent generations, including you and me. 

You say you felt Forti was particularly relatable for you. Taking that further, I’d love to hear whether you feel your engagement with Forti’s work has stretched or shifted your own poetics or practice, and if so, how.

Valerie: Sarah, I understand and appreciate your initial resistance to Rainer—Forti does seem easy to connect with, as you say. But in my readings on Rainer, I found her to be compelling too, in different ways—her more directly feminist stance, her very intentional transition to working in film, and so on. And your deepening connection to her and her work has been so evident in the project—YES. Although Forti and Rainer had a lot of the same influences and danced in the same circles, so to speak, their contrasting natures and approaches served as effective counterpoints (counterparts?) for us to study. So I am glad you stuck with Rainer and discovered the common ground you share.

Among the commonalities I found with Forti was the way she incorporated language into her work. For example, her News Animations heavily feature speech; while moving through a space somewhat extemporaneously, she draws themes from stories in the news and free-associates based on that theme, creating a sort of stream-of-consciousness collage. As a dancer (or movement artist, as she typically identifies herself) making such use of language and speech, she effectively demonstrates how to break down the barriers of form, testing the limits of these categories, whether dance, writing, visual art, or anything else. Her pieces serve as examples of ways to take a form and seamlessly blend it with elements of a different form, in the process creating something entirely new.

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of this project is how it has opened up the possibilities of performance; through Forti’s example of infusing movement with language, I can now see how I might do the inverse, i.e., incorporate movement into work that is predominantly text-based. In writing the chapbook, I have found that experiencing dance through the lens of experimental writing is particularly fruitful—and this interplay in my work has only just begun. I’ve discovered, to my surprise, that dance as a form based on kinesthetic awareness and bodily movement is a perfect pairing with the language and form of writing; the combination creates interesting overlays and points of convergence, something I hope to explore further in future projects.

I have long been interested in pushing beyond the expectations of a typical poetry reading and have sometimes brought in audio-visual components to complement the text. But prior to this project, I never considered incorporating movement into a performance. Yet now I wonder: could I? As someone with a virtually lifelong resistance to and discomfort with dance, why do I think this might work? It comes back to my serendipitous pairing with Forti, who lacked the technical mastery of some of her contemporaries, a fact she actively discussed. She said of Merce Cunningham’s choreography that all she would see was a blur of feet, that she wouldn’t know what had happened and she just couldn’t do it. Yet she never sounds self-pitying or insecure in her self-assessment, focusing instead on her unique strengths and what she singularly contributes to the field. Unlike the virtuosity of Cunningham and others, what she had to offer was closer to a “generalized response of infants.” I returned to this notion for comfort again and again throughout this project, as it allowed me to acknowledge what I can contribute in this (dance/experimental theater/performance art) realm even while I approach it primarily as a writer and not a movement artist. This makes me feel as if, despite my physical limitations, I could at least in theory incorporate movement into performance with some success. This would no doubt be a challenge due to my insecurities and lack of experience, but the idea of pushing out of my comfort zone intrigues me, and this sort of boundary-blurring now seems possible in a way I had never previously imagined.

Yvonne Rainer photo credit: Nathalie Magnan

Sarah Rosenthal is the author of several books and chapbooks including The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow(The Operating System, 2019; a collaboration with Valerie Witte) Lizard (Chax, 2016), and Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009). She edited A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Poets of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction pieces have appeared in numerous journals and are 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). She has done grant-supported writing residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Soul Mountain, Ragdale, New York Mills, Hambidge, and This Will Take Time, and has been a Headlands Center Affiliate Artist. 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

Valerie Witte is the author of a game of correspondence (Black Radish Books, 2015) and three chapbooks, most recently The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (The Operating System, 2019), a collaboration with Sarah Rosenthal. Artist books and an installation based on her manuscripts “Flood Diary” and “A Rupture in the Interiors,” created in collaboration with Chicago-based artist Jennifer Yorke, have been exhibited in Berkeley and Chicago. She has been a recipient of residencies from Ragdale Foundation, Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and La Porte Peinte in Noyers, France. She is a founding member of the Bay Area Correspondence School, and for eight years, she helped produce many innovative books by women as a member of Kelsey Street Press. In her daytime hours, she edits education books in Portland, OR. Read more at

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