Anna Halprin: A Moving Legacy

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Anna Halprin: A Moving Legacy

Anna Halprin surrounded by dancers during a performance of <em/>Circle the Earth, circa 1980s. Anna Halprin Papers, The Elyse Eng Dance Collection, Museum of Performance + Design.” width=”636″ height=”650″></p>
<p>Anna Halprin surrounded by dancers during a performance of <em>Circle the Earth</em>, circa 1980s. Anna Halprin Papers, The Elyse Eng Dance Collection, Museum of Performance + Design.</p>
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<p>What’s one myth about her work that Bay Area dance pioneer Anna Halprin would like to dispel? Recalling that New York critics used to tease her for being “touchy-feely,” Halprin answers, “I would like to dismiss the idea that I do therapy. I don’t.” I am sitting with Halprin on her legendary Mount Tamalpais dance deck, on the last day of a week-long workshop she led this summer with guest teachers Daria Halprin, Dohee Lee, and Jahan Khalighi. Offered through the Tamalpa Institute (which Halprin cofounded with her daughter Daria in 1978), the workshop reflects Tamalpa’s expressive and healing arts curriculum: somatic and sensory awareness activities and creative self-inquiry through visual arts, narrative, and movement.</p>
<p>What distinguishes her works from therapy, Halprin reflects, is their value as art <em>experiences</em> that reinvent the forms and functions of dance. Over the course of nearly eight decades, Halprin’s artistic and pedagogical practice has established key concerns of American postmodern and contemporary dance. Sourcing movement from everyday tasks, chance, and improvisation and using scores as her primary compositional frame, Halprin has mined the social and spatial potential for shifting dance beyond the concert stage and traditional choreographic constraints. The turn Halprin took from concert dance to works prioritizing ritual, healing, witness-participants, and community building has been codified via Tamalpa and the “Life/Art Process”: Halprin’s humanist approach to integrating emotional and psychological experience with creative expression. It is informed by her experiential anatomy training with Margaret H’Doubler, her work with Gestalt therapy cofounder Fritz Perls, and her resourcing of alternative healing practices and folk rituals in support of her recovery from cancer in the mid-1970s.</p>
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Anna Halprin shares instructions for a seated movement improvisation on the dance deck, July 26, 2017. Photo by Sophia Wang.

This week, at age ninety-seven, Halprin addresses the workshop group on her feet, her pelvis tucked and her hand curled in imitation of a Michael Jackson crotch grab: “Michael Jackson was using his sacrum when he did this move!” She settles into a director’s chair to survey the thirty of us on hands and knees, flexing our spines through “cat” and “cow,” and points out individuals for whom her assistant should offer adjustments: “She’s letting go of her lumbar region, but not the thoracic region”; “Help her get her butt down.” The group ranges widely in experience, ability, and practice — visual artists, professional dancers, 5Rhythms practitioners, and educators with training in arts therapy and massage. I am one of a handful of non-white participants; a large percentage of the group are travelers from Northern Europe. Over the course of the week, we form a temporary community of co-practitioners of Halprin’s Life/Art Process: sharing reflections on each other’s Cray-Pas oil pastel drawings and movement improvisations, dancing together on the deck, and ending most days in a circle holding hands, acknowledging the vulnerability and generosity on offer.

Halprin guides a workshop participant through an arm swing, July 26, 2017. Photo by Sophia Wang.

Halprin guides a workshop participant through an arm swing, July 26, 2017. Photo by Sophia Wang.

On the last day of the workshop, we enact a Food Score, which transforms a potluck lunch on the deck into a ceremonial occasion. We divide into three groups, each assigned a function: preparing the environment for our meal, plating the food, and designing an opening ritual. I join the group tasked with transforming the deck for our luncheon and with only twenty minutes to work, I suggest we use the rolls of white paper we’ve been given to create a triangular banquet area. One member of the group approves, citing Judy Chicago. Someone else, an architect, disagrees: What about a square for symmetry, since we’ve been working with dualities — men, women; earth, sky; passive, active? “I prefer to move away from binaries,” I counter, “and squares.” “I know,” he says. Another member announces that he’ll be the group’s director; “I don’t think so,” I say flatly. A few of us start rolling out paper to create the triangle’s perimeter; one of us is helping while listing all the reasons this is a bad idea. We’re working and debating, pausing to consider starting over, and time is running out. Someone from the Ritual group hurries over to stop us from scrapping the plan, as they’ve already begun designing their performance for our triangle. We recommit, the scene comes together, and a procession of food, dancers, and percussion inaugurates the lunch.

Ceremonial procession and performance of the Food Score, July 28, 2017. Photo by Sophia Wang.

Ceremonial procession and performance of the Food Score, July 28, 2017. Photo by Sophia Wang.

After a week of gentle facilitation in body awareness, personal reflection, group cohesion, and suspended judgment, those minor conflicts are a welcome expression of the other conditions that undergird collectivity, and which had gone unexamined during our workshop: emergent and latent hierarchies, self-authorized leadership, lack of consensus. Tasked with self-organizing our Food Score, we encounter the messier process of collective creativity and the negotiations Halprin invites through her practice of “scoreography” as opposed to choreography. During lunch, Halprin and I discuss her work’s reception over time. What she hopes to be known for, she tells me, is her use of scores to create dances in a way that is “inclusive rather than hierarchical” and “more in line with our sensibilities about community and democracy.”

When I compare collaborative creation in the arts to horizontal organizing or democratic governance, I look to the facilitator’s role and resources as pressure points: what financial, social, and cultural resources enable these structures, and what forms of distribution (of authorship, for instance) are possible or impossible, given these conditions? Halprin’s biographer Janice Ross emphasizes the genuine, critical standards and expectations Halprin asserts in facilitating her participatory works, which counterbalance the rhetoric of inclusivity and collectivity surrounding many of them. Planetary Dance, Halprin’s most widely presented participatory work, operates at this tension point between individual expression and assimilation into a collective (or singular) body. Halprin’s critical assessment of performers in a Planetary Dance presented near the Muir Woods in 2000 entailed waiting for their “self-expression to burn off” so that the group could seize the “rare opportunity to express ourselves as one person” and to “become one body as Native people do [through dance].”