A Force of Nature
May 6, 2007

It’s a brilliantly clear morning on a Sunday in early March, and Anna Halprin is seated at the kitchen table across from her husband, Lawrence, in the glass-walled dining room of the weekend home he designed on the rugged northern California coast. They are discussing the day’s activities: Halprin says she will plan her dance classes for the coming week and do tai chi on the beach with a friend before driving her husband back down the coast to their home in Marin County that afternoon.


It sounds like a typical busy weekend for a dance teacher, and it is, with a couple of exceptions—Halprin is 86, her distinguished urban designer husband is 90, and after a marriage of 67 years, the two represent one of the 20th century’s longest and most stimulating artistic partnerships. Beginning with their first visit in the early 1940s to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin East center in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the couple has always given central importance to the arts, the environment and teaching in their collaborations. In the mid-1960s, the couple team-taught a series of path-breaking workshops for architects and dancers that spawned new models of collective creativity, bringing together artists and students in diverse disciplines to explore movement and engineer solutions to social issues.


This work, in turn, has been the genesis of some of the most radical re-imagining of dance in the 20th century. Several of the young artists who studied or worked with Halprin in her early ’60s workshops—Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, Robert Morris, La Monte Young—became leaders in postmodern dance and minimalist music and visual art. Lawrence’s work and his methods of engaging communities paved the way for the new field of urban design. The overlap between the Halprins’ disciplines and aesthetics is exemplified by the massively scaled 1972 City Dance, a 12-hour performance throughout San Francisco. In this audience-participation event, passersby were invited to join Halprin and her dancers as they winded their way through miles of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, tracing with their bodies an architectural vision of the flow of urban life through a metropolis.


The environment—both urban and natural—has long been both a frame and an inspiration for Halprin, who has spent 50 years making dances and performing outdoors. “One reason I’m attached to the natural environment is it emphasizes for me my whole environment,” she says. “Dancing outdoors brings me into direct contact with my personal body in relation to my collective body—my body as part of the total environment. I collaborate with my environments because I have a strong attitude about the body not being an object. It is part of a total environment in space. That is influenced by Larry’s work.” While her husband studied the natural formations of the rugged Sierras as models for formal arrangements of land, rock and water, Halprin regarded nature as an exemplar of a larger order and structure for movement.


As Halprin reflects on her longevity in dance on this sunny morning, she returns to teaching as the critical element that has sustained her as an artist. “I’ve always felt that teaching was just as important to me as performing,” the trim, agile and strikingly youthful Halprin says. “Sometimes it was more important and sometimes it was less important, but it was always a part of my work because of the way I teach. I’m always focusing on how to generate creativity in others. And that gives me a palette. It provides ideas, resources for me to recycle and use in ways other than just in the classroom.”


This is a rare admission for a dancer, particularly one of Halprin’s generation, many of whom taught out of necessity to train performers for their choreography. Halprin instead teaches with the same exuberant spirit of inquiry that prompts a scientist to go into a lab—to create problems she will be compelled to answer and to discover what she doesn’t know about dance. Indeed, it is precisely this thirst for knowledge that has allowed Halprin to steadily support the development of her students’ as well as her own growth as an artist for the past 65 years.


“Teaching has been a part of my life ever since I can remember,” she says, referring to her beginnings in Winnetka, Illinois, the suburb of Chicago where she was born and raised. “As a matter of fact, I started when I was in grammar school. I would get the children in the neighborhood together. And then later on I taught my mother’s friends, when I was in elementary school. So my interest in teaching started at a very young age.”
In her last year of high school, in 1938, Halprin was invited by the distinguished modern dancer Doris Humphrey to join her company, but her parents insisted on college. Halprin complied, applying to the only two colleges in the U.S. at the time with dance programs—Bennington College and University of Wisconsin–Madison. Bennington, like many American colleges and universities in the 1930s, limited the number of Jewish students it accepted (prospective students had to list their religion on their applications) and turned Halprin down. Disappointed, she accepted UWM’s offer and found herself in a dance program remarkable for its time. Her formal apprenticeship as a dance teacher had begun.


For the next four years Halprin studied with the founder of UWM’s dance program (the nation’s first in higher education), dance education pioneer Margaret H’Doubler. With her wildly curly red hair and buoyant personality, Halprin quickly became H’Doubler’s protégée, creating Jewish-themed dances for the campus Hillel program and becoming the university’s most celebrated dance major. H’Doubler was a most unusual dance teacher because she had never danced herself and, in fact, never even demonstrated for her students. Yet Halprin and the other students found her inspirational simply by virtue of the purity and simplicity of the movement exercises and investigations she led in her classes.


“I always respected teaching, from the time I was a little girl,” Halprin says. “That was my special calling. And then when I went to the University of Wisconsin, Margaret H’Doubler gave me a strong foundation so that my teaching could have validation and insight.” Indeed, H’Doubler viewed teaching as a higher calling than performing and, in the early years of her program, she communicated this belief to her students. From the beginning of the dance major she created at UWM, H’Doubler’s graduates were in great demand as dance educators throughout the U.S.
Today Halprin echoes her roots as a H’Doubler student by, for example, insisting on always having a life-sized model of a skeleton in her studio. At UWM, all dance majors were required to take anatomy class with cadavers. “I did a year of human dissection so I could learn how the body works,” she explains.


In the 1960s, Halprin would link this biological knowledge of the human body with an emotional one, gleaned from working with the founder of gestalt therapy, Frederick “Fritz” Perls. “Because everything lives in the body, if you have an emotional experience that has not been processed, muscular tension can release emotions,” she says, explaining the theory. “Before I studied gestalt therapy and worked with Fritz Perls, I did not know how to handle the emotional responses I might get from students when they started moving. So I had to develop some tools.”


The skills Halprin developed as a result of her work with Perls led directly into her groundbreaking dance works of the 1960s, including Apartment Six (1965), The Bath (1966), Ten Myths (1967–68) and the celebrated Parades and Changes (1965). In Parades and Changes, arguably Halprin’s most famous piece, the dancers perform a series of tasks, carrying, climbing, walking and undressing and dressing. (This last task, which introduced full nudity onto the American dance stage, provoked the threat of censorship when Halprin’s Dancers Workshop troupe, a group she created in the mid-1950s, performed it at Hunter College in New York.)


Halprin now laughs about the controversy over  Parades and Changes and the anxiety about the body it revealed. “I’m not distressed by anything anybody does,” she says of her philosophy about art and censorship. “If they want to do it, then it’s serving some purpose in their life. What other people do may not interest me, but it doesn’t distress me.”


In the 1970s, Halprin survived cancer and its recurrence, and turned to dance as a means of confronting her fear and anger. This led to a decade of movement exploration with populations struggling with cancer and AIDS, as well as large community dances such as Circle The Earth (ongoing from 1986) and Planetary Dance and Earth Run (ongoing from 1987). “When I was stricken with cancer, the idea of using imagery became very dominating, very powerful in my work,” Halprin says of her frequent use of drawing as a precursor to dance. “It’s been a constant sense of opening one door that leads you to another.”


Most recently Halprin has been working with seniors at the Redwood Retirement Center in Mill Valley, CA, once again mirroring through dance her own place in life. “I’m aging; my body is not the same as a 20-year-old’s,” she says. “But I think an aged body has its own configurations of beauty.” Working in this spirit at the Redwood Retirement Center in the fall of 2005, she met weekly with 50 dancers ranging in age from early 60s to late 90s to create a choreography of aging. The community donated 69 rocking chairs, and Halprin fashioned a dance out of basic rocking movements—pushing off with the ball of the feet and rolling back down through the heels. “When I worked with seniors, I had to find a whole new set of physical skills that could be carried over into a dance,” she explains.


While she makes the formula seem simple, it is Halprin’s mastery at helping individuals discover the potential dancer and dances within them that is at the root of her enduring fascination for students, dancers and audiences. Diane Frank, a dance teacher for 31 years, began taking classes with Halprin recently, and she was captivated by the profound simplicity of Halprin’s approach. “Every class she teaches is a fresh exploration that neutralizes issues about style,” Frank says. “She conveys this idea of expression as residing deep in the body, not just as a layer put on top.”
Sue Heinemann, a professional editor who has studied with Halprin for seven years, cites Halprin’s remarkable ability to “be present, in the moment,” as part of her magnetism in the classroom. “She never repeats herself, even when she reuses an exercise,” Heinemann says. “She presents it in a new way so that you experience it differently.”


Halprin, in turn, is recharged as a teacher by virtue of witnessing these awakenings in her students. “What really keeps me going at the age of 86 is how much life it gives me to witness how the power of dance can enhance people’s lives and enlighten and illuminate them. And that illuminates mine.”


Her weekly classes at her Mountain Home Studio (the indoor and outdoor studio complex in Kentfield, CA, initially designed by her husband with theater designer Arch Lauterer in 1955), are filled with a mix of people just discovering her and others who have studied with her for years. “My pleasure in dance has always been working with other people,” Halprin says, echoing the steady dynamic between her work as a teacher fueling her work as an artist. “I like seeing how dance generates such unexpected beauty. And by beauty I don’t mean that something has to be lyrical; it just needs to be honest.”


That quest for honesty has led to the remarkable portraits of aging she has spent the last decade drafting through a series of autobiographical dances. There is a special poignancy to speaking honestly about aging in dance, since it is an artform that highlights so aggressively the opposite—the glories of youth, like speed, stamina, power and the resilience of the vigorous body. “When I was young I used life to inform my dance,” Halprin is fond of saying, “and now that I am older, I use dance to inform my life.”


There is deep wisdom in this observation, and echoes of the same pioneering spirit that initially led Halprin into using dance as a medium for social commentary and personal change decades earlier. For her, there has always been an enduring belief in the basic intelligence of the body, its capacity to register and reflect, to understand pain and potential, and the possibilities for transcendence through dance. DT


Janice Ross, a professor at Stanford University, is the author of the first major book on Halprin, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, published this year by UC Press. Emily Hite assisted with research for this article.


Photo by Rick Chapman

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