Tea for Three Plus One: Conversation with Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer
I first saw Simone Forti perform around fifteen years ago, when she presented News Animations (an improvisational composition with newspapers that she developed in the mid-1980s) in what I vaguely remember as a hallway at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California. I saw Yvonne Rainer dance for the first time—other than at a party—in 1999, at Judson Church, in an evening program of variations of Trio A. This was also the first time I watched Steve Paxton dance, as he and Rainer reprised their roles as two-thirds of the trio that premiered the piece in 1966. The third of that original trio, David Gordon, would direct the program PAST/forward, devoted to postmodern dance for the White Oak Dance Project a year later—which was when I first saw Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin’ Lover (1967), after hearing about it for years. Each first live encounter of the work of Paxton, Forti, and Rainer was, for me, an event.
There’s a saying that “dance is hard to see.” Usually this is taken to mean that it is hard “to tell the dancer from the dance”—that it is fleeting and evasive of vision’s grasp. In radically redefining what dance could be in the sixties and seventies, the works of Paxton, Forti, and Rainer, along with their peers Gordon, Deborah Hay, Trisha Brown, and others, conveyed another sense of this idea by testing dance’s limits. But this saying also has a more prosaic meaning: to see dance, you have to be there, in the presence of the dancers. Seeing dance is “being with.” Forti, Paxton, and Rainer finally got together to collaborate with one another after fifty years of friendship and mutual influence. They performed Tea for Three first at The Box, in Los Angeles, in November 2016, and then at Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, in New York, in October 2017. The following conversation took place after the first New York performance of Tea for Three, on October 27, 2017, at Danspace, and has been edited for print.
SIMON LEUNG: First, I want to say why I wanted to do this conversation. I saw Tea for Three at The Box in Los Angeles and thought that—because this was the first time the three of you have collaborated as a trio and there isn’t a published conversation between you—we should record some- thing with you, especially since you’re together again presenting the piece at St. Marks. Even though Tea for Three is your first collaboration as a trio, in a way you’ve rehearsed it for fifty years. Also, I had seen the performative conversation Steve [Paxton] and Simone [Forti] did in the lobby of REDCAT a year earlier, and I wondered if that might have been the origin of Tea for Three. Perhaps this could be the first question: How did this come about?
SIMONE FORTI: Well, Steve, you were going to be in L.A. for some reason.
STEVE PAXTON: I was going to be there for Bound, an old piece of mine. And they asked me if I wanted to do a talk, and I said, yeah, if I can talk to Simone! [Laughs.] So, they arranged for Simone and me to do what ended up being the lobby performance.
FORTI: They had thought that we would sit down and talk to each other, and then so many people came that we decided to do it in the lobby and to use the whole length of the lobby. It was kind of shaped like a bean, with people all along the two edges of the hallway. So, we had that runway, we weren’t going to sit down somewhere and talk. It became performative.
LEUNG: Did that instigate Tea for Three in any way?
FORTI: Was that Mara [McCarthy]’s idea?
YVONNE RAINER: To get me into it? I thought it was your idea.
PAXTON: I thought it was yours as well.
FORTI: Well, maybe it was my idea.
LEUNG: But you and Mara decided to invite Steve and Yvonne to L.A. to do Tea for Three?
RAINER: We didn’t call it that then. Did it have a name?
FORTI: No, it had a name in L.A.
RAINER: What was the name?
FORTI: Tea for Three.
PAXTON: It was Tea for Three in L.A., but it wasn’t called Tea for Three at the time we were invited.
RAINER: You didn’t know whether I was going to come. [Laughs.]
PAXTON: It would have been Tea for Two!
LEUNG: But you all said yes right away?
RAINER: Yeah, although I had no idea what… I hadn’t improvised since 1972 or ’73 with Grand Union. My work has nothing to do with improvisation. So I went out there a blank slate, so to speak.
FORTI: One thing that was very helpful was that Mara got us an Airbnb. We lived together for, what was it, four days, five days? So, it wasn’t that we decided to email each other or sit down together and talk about how to approach this, but it sort of just came up on its own with our coffee cups in the morning.
RAINER: Yeah, drinking our coffee when just waking up, but then gathering props at the gallery, like those buckets and what else? [To Forti:] You had the suitcase and the jacket. What else did we use?
RAINER: Oh, that was Steve’s.
LEUNG: Simone, for your piece Five Dance Constructions and Some Other Things at Yoko Ono’s loft, in 1961, both Yvonne and Steve were in it, along with a few others, including Robert Morris. I also noted other times you performed in each other’s pieces. Yvonne, you were in Steve’s Word Words .
RAINER: And he was in mine…
LEUNG: Yes, he was in Trio A, in 1966.
RAINER: And he was in Terrain, in 1963.
LEUNG: Right, and Steve, you were in Simone’s Two at Once (Slant Board), in 1967. Yvonne, you were in Simone’s See-Saw, in 1960. There’s been a long history of you being in each other’s pieces.
FORTI: I just want to mention that back in, maybe, 1960, Steve and Trisha [Brown] and Dick Levine and I were meeting in some loft and making up rules for improvisation, so we did collaborate in an informal way. It was interesting.
RAINER: And the three of us were in Bob Dunn’s workshop in 1960.
LEUNG: Did you do things together then, or did you do individual pieces?
PAXTON: No, [we] didn’t do things together.
LEUNG: Was that where Steve famously sat down and ate a sandwich for his piece?
RAINER: Yes! Simone, weren’t you in one of my rule games?
FORTI: Very likely.
LEUNG: One thing that’s always struck me is that, Steve, you’re from Arizona, and Simone and Yvonne both grew up in California. But also, Trisha and Merce Cunningham are from Washington State, and John Cage is from L.A….
PAXTON: Barbarians at the gates! [All laugh.]
LEUNG: Yes, so that’s kind of what I want to ask— how did it feel to have all entered the New York dance world, with all of you coming from the West?
PAXTON: Everybody was from out of town. I don’t know of many [native] New York artists. New York was a magnet for out-of-towners. Seems to me that the media sets it up that way, with the majestic New York Times, Dance Magazine, and all the other publications, and the picture books; everything you can find out about dance seems to emanate from New York.
LEUNG: But your first reaction was, “We’re barbarians at the gate!”
PAXTON: I have come to think that lately. I didn’t think that at the time. I consider myself a barbarian—somebody from another culture.
RAINER: Whereas, I was twenty-one when I came to New York, and I was an open book. I didn’t know where I belonged. I came on the coattails of an artist.
LEUNG: And you wanted to be an actress, right?
RAINER: Right. But the instant I set foot in this place I was absorbing everything that came my way. I hardly knew anything about the art world, and it all began there. Oddly enough, I came to New York the same month, the same year, as Nancy Meehan, who had grown up ten blocks from me. Never knew her, we went to different schools. We met at the [Martha] Graham School, and she introduced me to Simone.
FORTI: I took the June Intensive [at the Martha Graham School].
RAINER: Which I had already taken. I was in the intermediate, I think. Then Nancy, Simone, and I began to improvise together that summer, 1960, in a small studio on the West Side.
FORTI: You and Nancy and I, we improvised? I don’t remember.
RAINER: You took pictures, which I’ve published.
FORTI: Oh, really? Well, maybe I’ll get to see them!
LEUNG: Simone, this is a statement from The Five Dance Constructions, from 1961: “The pieces tend towards steady state rather than having an arc of development, and they are meant to be placed in space much as sculptures.” I’ve also heard you describe Huddle  as a type of sculpture made with human bodies, and of course you’ve continued to make artwork—paintings, installations, and videos. Something I’m interested in is how you think across the different things that you do as an artist, and how you compare the dance construction performances to sculptures. Steve, I don’t think you do that, right? I mean, you write and work in dance and movement.
PAXTON: I’ve always had an eye for physical objects.
LEUNG: You made those frames [in Tea for Three]?
PAXTON: The frames, for instance, yeah. The 9 Evenings (1966) piece I did, Physical Things , [involved] a huge balloon. And I was always bringing objects into performances. [Conceived by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering included works by John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, and Robert Whitman. It took place at the 69th Regiment Armory, New York City, October 13–23, 1966.]
LEUNG: That’s right. But you never defined object making as part of your work as an artist, as far as I know.
FORTI: It was a part of your artwork, it was a part of your dances.
PAXTON: I mean, it could be argued, but I never defined it that way.
LEUNG: Simone, I really want to hear about how you use the word sculpture.
FORTI: Well, of course, I’ve been going for many years, and in different times I’ve focused on different ways to view things. I had a show at The Box in L.A., and I had different things in it—some videos of performances, a sculpture that we made from a note in a 1961 notebook saying I have an idea for a sculpture but I wouldn’t know what to do with it—we made that. We had a painting of mine, and we had some drawings. I was happy that it all worked together as an experience. Lately, one of the shows I’ve seen that made me happy was [Pierre] Huyghe—I saw his show at LACMA [Los Angeles Museum County Museum of Art]—and it was a combination of parts that somehow resonated. But the whole thing didn’t make any statement, didn’t close in on anything, and it was very mysterious that way. I like to think of parts of what I do resonating with each other in an experiential way rather than a logical way.
RAINER: The objects that you had constructed— they’re sculptural, but they’re functional, like Slant Board and See-Saw. They’re not objects made to enter the art market.
LEUNG: Simone, Robert Morris constructed Slant Board for a performance of yours, right? That was an interesting moment, when art and dance intersected.
FORTI: But I must say that I was very influenced at that moment by the Gutai group. I had seen photographs in a magazine that I found at Anna Halprin’s studio. Saburo Murakami had stretched paper on some frames and ran through them, one frame after the other, so that he could run through the whole set of them. Another was Kazuo Shiraga, who did something like wrestling with mud, in Challenging Mud . Those were not proscenium works. I looked through the whole magazine and that just opened up a possibility. I think the dance constructions wouldn’t have happened had I not seen [the Gutai works].
PAXTON: But why does that make them sculptures?
FORTI: ’Cause they [the Gutai group] were sculptors and painters.
FORTI: Kind of like Allan Kaprow, who was painting, then he started making environment painting that you could walk into, and then he started doing actions in them.
LEUNG: Steve, I want to ask you about your long passage about Arizona last night [during the performance], after Yvonne asked, “Steve, what runs in your family?”
RAINER: It began with my trying to bring up something I know Simone is very interested in, which comes from her father, who was in fabric manufacturing. And Simone said, “It runs in the family.” And I started running around, “Ah, it runs in the family. Steve, what runs in your family?”
LEUNG: Yes, you started running and said, “I can run in the family, also! You’re not the only one. Steve, what runs in your family?” And Steve, you went into this passage and finally said, “What runs in my family? Arizona sarcasm! Arizona sarcasm is tougher than cactus. My family lives in Arizona. I don’t live in Arizona. A whole people who sarcaze in Arizona—they sarcaze at each other. They don’t want to say simple things.”
RAINER: Is that true?
LEUNG: Can I tell you how I interpret that? When you were talking, the first thing I asked was what DO we know about Arizona? In the last few years, Arizona has been this politically volatile state we associate with a macho masculinity, perhaps at this moment embodied by its two current senators [John McCain and Jeff Flake]. So, when you said you don’t live in Arizona, meaning you left, that said to me that you’d grown up with a particular model of masculinity and how men behaved and you leaving suggests a refusal of that type of sarcasm and that model of masculinity.
PAXTON: That’s simplistic but true.
LEUNG: So it’s simplistic and true.
PAXTON: Yes. I mean it’s simplistic because you have to take in the factor of water. When I found my current home, I stayed there because of an abundance of flowing water. I lived for swimming pools.
LEUNG: You were a water-seeking animal.
PAXTON: I was, and I found it.
FORTI: That brings up a story I tell about you. When you started working with what came to be called contact improvisation, you were doing a lot of sailing and a lot of aikido.
PAXTON: Sailing I had only done for a brief time, in ’67, I believe. I loved it, and I considered spending my years sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter, and giving up on dance altogether. And Bob Ashley gave me a big frown when I said that to him; he said that artists were important and that I had to stick to art.
LEUNG: Robert Ashley said that to you?
PAXTON: Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve ever told anybody. He thought of art as holy orders, and I thought of it as secondary to sailing and skiing. I started in ’64 studying aikido and did contact improvisation in ’72. Aikido was probably one of the most important things I did, although there were a number of other things that also were foundational.
LEUNG: I remember in one lecture, or maybe an interview, you talked about how the extremity of the limbs in aikido was different from how it was in Western dance.
PAXTON: Similar. I mean, the whole Western dance thing is built on extension—you train hopefully for years during development to get this, and aikido has the same principle although it isn’t as extreme and isn’t performative, but its foundation is extending.
FORTI: Is aikido stretching but in a curve?
PAXTON: Yes, but so is dance, often. I’m not saying they’re related—I’m saying the same principle applies.
LEUNG: I remember in contact improvisation you talk about the sphere and how the sphere was a principle.
PAXTON: I would say that comes directly from aikido.
LEUNG: Yvonne, at one point in the performance, you said, “If women aren’t invited to the table, they end up on the menu.” Without missing a beat, Simone, you said, “I know some men who ended up on the menu as well!” I wonder if you want to address gender?
RAINER: I didn’t invent that quote; I don’t know where I got it. But certainly what is happening now in the newspaper almost every day, how women are now coming out and talking about gender abuses in terms of men’s relationships to women—that’s what the feminist movement has been all about, and it’s why I call myself a feminist. There have been these implicit and explicit relationships of domination and marginalization and power that’s part and parcel of patriarchy. I feel very much a part of this and it doesn’t always come out in my work; it comes out sometimes in my writing. Dance was a place that was very accepting of women and women as choreographers from [Martha] Graham and [Isadora] Duncan to [Doris] Humphrey — the great modernists.
LEUNG: Simone, I want to read back to you something you said in Santa Barbara in January , which I think is an interesting way to address political questions. You said, “Because I start from movement, I can access that which has not been organized with thoughts in my mind… What you feel in your bones and how you interact with the conventions of how your community interacts with other communities.” It occurs to me that while you are performing, you sometimes create movements or images that I can see as political allegories, but they often begin as a sort of formless mass, like you writhing on the floor with the jacket over you. Or, I can think of another moment during the performance at The Box when Yvonne or Steve was reading something about the way fascism can begin, and you had the bucket on your back, crawling away like a turtle. The reason I’m bringing this up is that to my mind these are different models of getting at the political.
FORTI: We have different models of thinking, yeah, and I won’t speak to what model… [Pauses.] See, already that’s for me part of the problem! The package of a kind of thought that already asks you to enter into a ping pong game that has certain rules or that has certain assumptions! Okay, what do I have to say? Well, back to gender, yes, of course, in the world, women are very often mistreated. And what I see in my life and couples I’ve seen, often in a relationship there’s some kind of abuse that goes on, and sometimes it’s heavier coming from the man and sometimes it’s heavier coming from the woman. I don’t see in any of the people that I know a pattern of the husband or the boyfriend abusing the girlfriend. So it’s hard for me in an immediate way to feel that.
RAINER: But you have felt it, just last night over dinner you described a relationship of your own—
FORTI: With [Robert] Whitman. On the other hand, Morris was terrifically supportive and with Peter [Van Riper], I was the star and he was kind of the sidekick, even though we were doing equal work, and wherever we went I would say, “It’s a collaboration,” and they would put up “Simone Forti.”
RAINER: You were lucky you found that.
FORTI: I wasn’t so lucky because it wasn’t good for our relationship.
RAINER: We have not gone into it in depth, but you work from a very intimate core of experience, and to extrapolate that onto the world is very unnecessary and unappealing to you; and I am always taking what’s… how can I describe my process? Yes, I work with my body, almost every day, I’m aware as a dancer of this vehicle and how I inhabit it, and it has no immediate social repercussions or implications. But, as a young woman, it did. I think the privilege of aging—which is so great for us—is we are not molested, we are respected in our professions and in the world. But as young women, I can describe situations, Simone, which were just as repressive as what you’ve described with Whitman—
FORTI: Yes, but that gets into something else, because… I hesitate to say it out loud…
FORTI: What’s the ancient Chinese sage who says the family and the father is protector?
FORTI: Confucius! I’m kind of Confucian in that I feel we’re in an era where that doesn’t work but over the large picture of eons—
RAINER: But we don’t live in eons, we live now.
FORTI: Well, now is what I see, and I don’t personally see that one gender oppresses the other. I never was messed with. I participated in free love very happily and widely, but I don’t consider that… [Trailing off.]
RAINER: I didn’t claim to be oppressed. I am very privileged, and everyday I’m aware of that—my privilege. I read about the Rwandans and the South Sudanese and Myanmar, and people who are in just the most abysmal situations, being killed and raped, and I am very privileged, even as this fucking moron and his cohorts are decimating our public life. I myself so far have not been affected by this, but I can’t help but feel it in my bones. Maybe I’m just a news junkie, Simone. I feel more upset by what is going on in the world right now than any time in my whole life.
FORTI: So do I.
RAINER: Then what’s our beef? What’s your beef with the way I’ve described myself?
FORTI: Well, let’s let the man say something.
PAXTON: I don’t think you have a beef, I think you’re two very radically different people who are so privileged to know each other.
RAINER: I feel that, yeah. And I love you, Simone!
FORTI: Well, I love you, Yvonne!
PAXTON: Well, I love you. [Laughs.]
RAINER: That’s a conversation stopper!
PAXTON: Well, what I was going to say was that gender is going through the deepest scrutiny I have ever imagined. I never imagined that we’d be getting to where we are now in the public discourse. What was happening before was oppression—just commonly done by everyone, to each other. Gender is in my estimation proving to be this incredibly fluid state. As I was raised, it was binary. Solid. I heard about gays, homos, queers, and they were oppressed. They were oppressed with the same kind of tools of oppression as women, or as weaker men, or as other races. That is, if you are an oppressor, it is to your self-advantage, or the worth of your self-image, not to consider yourself cruel, not to consider yourself taking advantage [of others]. You want your self-image to remain what you consider a worthy person. Inside of that, there is an incredible thoughtless complexity of mood and habit and action that can work to oppress almost anybody, and it is a finessed tool in certain hands. It was to this that I was speaking about the sarcasm of Arizona—the unfairness of it. The way it always worked to make somebody the goat, and somebody else not the goat.
Since the rise of the women’s movement and, since the seventies, the rise of the gay movement and a certain amount of standing up to oppression, I think things on the one hand have gotten clearer. We’re still fighting the same battles that we tried to fight in the sixties; we thought we were fighting to win, but they’re still going on. The means of fight- ing seem not to have progressed so far; the oppressors are still to be convinced that they are oppressing anybody, the victims are louder than ever about being oppressed, so you still have an insight or two to achieve in this. I don’t think it would take more than that. I don’t think it would take more than one really convincing charismatic person to say just the right thing to get us past where we are now.
RAINER: Where to look?
PAXTON: Yeah, I don’t think that person is available right now, but there has been. There have been moments like that. But I do sense that in gender we’re speeding along in the most incredible way. I don’t think in my whole life before the last five years that I know anybody who switched genders, and now I know several, and they’re the most surprising people. I’m thinking of one woman who transed to a man and one man who transed to a woman, and they’re both in new realms, in their new gender realms. I’m going through a transition myself of learning to accept and to think in these new terms. I feel a little bit sorry for somebody like [Donald] Trump, as I said last night, this guy who has been propelled to the position he’s in, and he’s stumbling.
LEUNG: Back to Tea for Three. One thing that I noticed—and it’s something I talked about with the art historian Elise Archias after seeing the performance in L.A.— is that each of you in this piece tends to become a little bit more of what we think of as what each of you do. Steve, in all three of the performances I’ve seen thus far, Yvonne is trying to get you to do something, and you’re standing there, refusing.
RAINER: Do you agree with that?
PAXTON: When I refuse to do things with you, it’s when you’re interrupting Simone.
RAINER: I’m not aware of that.
PAXTON: I know you’re not aware of that.
LEUNG: So, Steve, your refusing has to do with you being aware of and paying attention to what Simone is doing when Yvonne is trying to get you to do something else?
PAXTON: Yvonne wants to start a new stream, and I don’t want to go until I’ve identified what Simone is doing. Remember the finger at The Box? You were laying it at my feet and went, “Psssst!”
RAINER: Yeah, trying to get your attention.
PAXTON: You were trying to get my attention, and I was putting you off with the finger because Simone was trying to start something.
RAINER: I see.
FORTI: I think we should just go ahead and be ourselves and do what each of us do.
RAINER: But if this is a pattern of trying to re-direct what’s going on…
PAXTON: It’s a moment of control need that also happened last night when you said, “Don’t leave me out here alone by myself” and Simone, meanwhile, had the radio on, about to start.
RAINER: Yeah, I’ll be more aware of that. Yeah, that’s a criticism.
PAXTON: But we all agreed that we should all be doing whatever we want at any time, so it’s a criticism of me as well.
LEUNG: But what’s interesting about Steve refusing to engage is that you ended up performing an unyieldingness, and that’s interesting. It’s interesting that Steve refuses.
PAXTON: It is interesting.
FORTI: I think we should just follow our impulses and, if you interrupt me, go ahead! Because I haven’t felt interrupted.
LEUNG: May I say something from the audience’s point of view? I see each of you is contributing something very different, and part of what I observe in Steve’s not moving when pressed upon is heightened by what I see Simone doing off on her own at the same time, which is often very evocative but quite abstract, like rolling around on the floor, or intensely listening for something; and sometimes I also see Simone making a translation of what just happened after these interchanges. These are all different registers of attention.
PAXTON: It’s an element of the dynamic.
RAINER: It is somewhat of a mystery, at least to me, what happens in these performances. Certainly, we can’t predict. Steve is much more sensitive than I when it comes to being aware of the overall dynamic at any given moment. I’m more like a bull in a china shop, and when that gets pointed out, I feel very guilty. It’s hard to forgive myself for my tendency to “direct.” But, as has been noticed, not only by Steve, that’s what makes the whole thing interesting.
Simone Forti is a dancer, artist and writer based in Los Angeles. Her early Dance Constructions were influential in the reinventing of dance that took place in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Over the years, Forti has developed movement vocabularies based on studies of animals movements, of the dynamics of circling, and of the synergy between moving and speaking, as in her improvisational News Animations.
Simon Leung is Professor and Associate Chair of Graduate Studies in the Department of Art at the University of California, Irvine. He learned to dance Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A a decade ago, and has since performed it publicly several times. He hopes to do it one more time someday.
Steve Paxton “I live in the civilized country in Vermont, and visit cities as infrequently as possible. I remember being a dancer, and sometimes dream of dancing, being a more flexible and stronger dancer than I ever was.”
Yvonne Rainer is a performer, choreographer, writer, and erstwhile filmmaker. She danced and choreographed from 1961 to 1973, directed films from 1972 to 1996, wrote poetry for the next four years, and returned to dance in 2000. Her latest dance is The Concept of Dust: Continuous Project—Altered Annually.