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Dance pioneer Anna Halprin, ...

Posted Jul 13 2010 3:08pm
Dance pioneer Anna Halprin, nearing 90, still breaks barriers
By MOLLY GLENTZER Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle


When Anna Halprin says, "Enter your body through your hand," what looks like an ecstatic experience happens: her students reach forward, open-palmed, and awe washes over their faces. It's one of many revelatory scenes in Breath Made Visible, Ruedi Gerber's poetic documentary about a dance legend who's spent more than 70 years breaking boundaries — and is still spry enough to spring a few more surprises.

Halprin's name may be familiar, but her work - until now - has been little known outside the performance and healing arts worlds. Although she danced in New York in the 1930s, she left that scene long before some of her famous students — including iconic choreographers Tricia Brown, Meredith Monk and Yvonne Rainer — discovered her San Francisco Dancer's Workshop and rocked the art world with their postmodern concepts.

"I danced for the fun of it. I danced to rebel. I danced with my children. I danced for social justice," Halprin says in the film. "We broke as many barriers as we possibly could."

Her work sounds radical but embraces concepts far more ancient than "traditional" dance, based on the ritualistic urge to move. It evolved in the rarefied air of Marin County, California, on a floating deck designed by her husband, the landscape architect Lawrence (Larry) Halprin, who died in October 2009.

Breath Made Visible comes to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, next weekend. July 11 is Halprin's 90th birthday, but forget whatever notions that suggests: In a phone interview, she spoke with extreme energy and clarity. Our discussion is condensed here.

Q: How has the film impacted you?

A: It's as if I've suddenly been discovered, which is sort of an odd experience. I'm not even sure how to react to it. I'm hoping it will open up new possibilities for ways in which dance can apply to our life. I hope that will be the legacy I leave behind: how there is such a thing as life-art process, and dance is not just conceptual art for a few classically trained, conventional people. If the movie opens up that possibility, that'll be very satisfying to me.

Q: How will you celebrate your birthday?

A: That's a good question. There've been a lot of little events going on, and the family is going to get together. I'm now a great-grandmother. I'll probably celebrate it at the Sea Ranch, a very special place that my husband designed.

Q: Your relationship with your husband was so special.

A: He was an amazing man. We were married 70 years, and we collaborated all that time together on various projects. It was really hard to separate our work. I think the most important thing I learned from him is that in dance, there's a tendency for the dancer to become an object in space, because our bodies are our instruments. But you're really just part of your environment.

The moment I stepped onto that dance deck that he made - which is not a rectangle - I had to ask myself, where is center? And I realized center is anywhere you go.

Q: Did you say "I need a deck," or did you say, "I need a space," and he came up with a deck?

A: That's interesting because when I had my two girls, I kept saying, I don't want to have to go to a studio and leave them behind. We have a very beautiful site here; we have five acres of wooded area. So he said, "I'll make you a deck." Because we couldn't afford an indoor studio. It just floats in that space and meanders around the trees. Then about three years later, we built a bridge leading to an indoor studio.

Q: What was your most recent performance?

A: In Larry's site at Stern Grove (a San Francisco park), I did a piece called Spirit of Place. We gave three performances; and it didn't rain before or after- just during the performances. I thought, my god, that is such a magical moment. I did it for Larry because he was slowly becoming more ill with dementia, and I knew I had to do something fast. It was the last piece he saw.

Q: How has your outlook about mortality evolved? When you were much younger and had cancer, you could have died - but you fought it.

A: That's a hard one to answer. I'm still teaching. I'm still thinking, what's the next dance going to be? But family is my main focus now. I want to resolve whatever feels unresolved, so there's as few regrets as possible and so that we can really enjoy the love we feel for one another.

Q: Your movement style is spry and doesn't look controlled yet you don't ever lose your balance. And your hands are amazing.

A: When I was studying dance, the traditional way was, you studied modern dance, for example, with a modern dancer who was very dynamic - like Martha Graham. So you would learn her way of moving. And that eventually felt wrong to me. I'm not Martha Graham. I don't have her body; I don't have her long, silky hair. So why am I spending all my time learning to move like Martha Graham? It becomes such a rigid style it's no different than ballet. You have bare feet and work differently with the spine, but the philosophy is the same.

When I came out here to live it gave me an opportunity to re-evaluate: So what is movement? It's basic to all human bodies. I did human dissection for a year just to understand how the body works. My movement approach evolved out of anatomy and kinesiology. Even to this day, I'll talk about flexion of the spine or extension or hyper-extension or rotation - I even use anatomical words so I can be absolutely free of imposing my way of moving on other peoples' bodies.

Q: Your mid-career work looks hard-core '60s, so uninhibited.

A: In New York, they used to call me the touchy-feely dancer from California. Then when we did Parades and Changes (in which dancers disrobe and move with huge swaths of brown paper to Petula Clark's song Downtown), that just blew their minds. It was so different than what they were doing, but introducing total theater. We talked; we sang. We used every aspect of the human being. And it really changed the world for them.

Q: I love Lawrence's squiggly portrait of you on the home page of your website. That's a hurricane in the center. Do you consider yourself a storm force?

A: People thought I was crazy, putting that on the website. But that's absolutely my life.


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