Photo by Isabelle Meister

In her opener — one of two improvisations titled “Animation” — at Highways Performance Space on December 11 and 12, Simone Forti showed interest in the idea of “reaching backward to my future.” At that moment, in that small space, she recalled a red spider crawling up her arm, and the yellow of dandelions, and she was honest about her wish to turn off the music that had accidentally been left playing in the lobby.

She didn't stop the show, but incorporated the disturbance. How she spun a whole piece out of private remembrance and such spontaneous incidents — and made it interesting — was the miracle. Her manner was relaxed, lenient, instinctual, gentle, flowing. Her dance was not an exercise: It was living.

By being herself, wearing no makeup and letting her gray hair show, Forti inspired respect for what is real. Days after the performance, she continued to make me believe that the sound of the cars outside my window and the play of light across my keyboard are — if I am really attentive, honest and awake — a legitimate influence on what I write about her right now. She made me sense, strongly, that “performance” can be “not performance.” There wasn't a start and a stop to her dance, but one long continuum that will continue to mean a lot to me until I get too lazy and return to the habit of compartmentalizing experience.

Just how brave and difficult it is to pull off improvisation that compels an audience to hang on every move became apparent when the younger Carmela Hermann joined Forti for “The Plant People.” Right from the start, you could see the difference that a lean, hard body made. But Hermann was incapable of communicating subtle change. Or maybe a better way to put it is that her physical instrument held no secrets. The transformation of ideas into moving action blared out of her, announcing, “This is what I am going to do next.”

Hermann returned to the stage again and again to drape herself over Forti and push the older dancer down to the floor. Now Forti struggled to speak, where before she had so easily purred words while dancing. Both dancers seemed stuck in ideas that could not find a natural form of action. The result was a self-conscious piece with erotic overtones, devolving into a simplistic impersonation of plants the two women recalled having seen at UCLA's Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden.

Forti concluded the program (aptly called “logomotion”) with two solos, “Jackdaw Songs” and a virtuosic second “Animation.” Both underscored Forti's ongoing concern for the Earth, ecology, animals, nature. “Jackdaw Songs” was plain old sweet, the kind that probably only someone such as Forti can get away with, because she has studied everything hard and subscribes to the belief that simple is never simple enough. And her voice is so ethereal, strange, unpredictable, tender. She chirped in imitation of the jackdaw: “You can do it!” “I'm hungry!” “It's time to go home!” and other lines both enthusiastic and dreary, encapsulating in short order the ups and downs of a bird's day. It was delightful.

For the other “Animation,” Forti continued the warbling by blowing tones through three fat bamboo poles she had carried onto the stage. Then she surprised us — and herself, apparently — by talking about the impeachment hearings. (“I'm doing just the thing I said I wasn't going to do,” she announced.) By this time, she was balancing on the three poles placed on the floor in a triangle formation, trying to stabilize her spine on top of one while lifting her hands off the ground to test her balance. “I don't like that they trapped him,” she said, “but he fell in.” She could easily have fallen herself, and the juxtaposition made a special claim on our interest. It was right, well-placed and close to what many of us had been thinking about during our day, which meant that Forti had again acknowledged reality. And it drew laughs.

I came in cold to Kim Itoh + the Glorious Future. The majority of the sparse audience at the Japan America Theater probably did too, as this was Itoh's U.S. debut. About all we had to go on was the information that he had trained in a butoh troupe in his native Japan, won a big award in France, and that a critic from the Japan Times had called him a “one-man tornado.” Words, facts, film clips cannot begin to touch what Itoh is. You have to see him.

After the November 21 performance here of “3 Sex” and “Dead and Alive,” the people at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center sent Itoh out on tour — to the Dance Theater Workshop in Manhattan and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis — so they definitely had something at stake here, a relationship that looked beyond the one-night stand in L.A., indicating that they, too, must love the work, and have faith in its power to speak. Why, then, wasn't there more publicity for Itoh's Little Tokyo performance? And why did the JACCC house staff allow people to be noisy and disruptive in the lobby during the performance of “3 Sex”? They had to have known that the piece begins in silence.

Although “3 Sex” got off to a rocky start, it soon became abundantly clear that Itoh takes full responsibility for making original movement: He could stand up in the Court of Art and justify every action in his choreography. Half the fun of “3 Sex” was the impossibility of discerning the structure he had in mind until, at the final curtain, three dancers (Mari Saeki, Mayu Sasajima and Itoh) raced to the front of the stage, striking standup poses, as if they had just told a filthy joke at a Catskills resort. There was something very Liza Minnelli­ish in their posture, too: You could almost see legs and cleavage, which was magical, because all three were actually petite and wearing white underwear. The music that cleared the air sounded like a Japanese heavy-metal rendition of Curtis Mayfield's Superfly. It was also reminiscent of Cafe Tacuba: “3 Sex” made you want to jump into the mosh pit.

By contrast, “Dead and Alive” took you to a cool, clean, ominous place that might not have survived in broad daylight — and that was its beauty. I can't tell you how extraordinary Itoh's sense of gesture is, how he made his body heavy and light at the same time, how painted his male nude dancers were, as though lifted from the great canvases while never losing a sense of having been made of brush strokes.

“Dead and Alive” was beyond words, and that is not a cop-out. You'd better hope Itoh comes back.

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