As she inches her way across the wood-paneled wall of her dance studio to the sounds of Meredith Monk singing “Gotham Lullaby,” 96-year-old Anna Halprin appears to be mourning her losses. Her face expresses despair; her torso and long arms curve inward or tenaciously unwind. But there are also joyful moments during this four-minute video when she pauses with uplifted arms and rises on her forefeet as if in elation, before gently falling back against the wall, clinging to and leaning against it as she continues to inch along, her fragile, gingerly steps reflecting her life journey. The clip ends with several seconds of her standing still, eyes closed, at peace.
Such was the grace and brilliance of Halprin that she was able to convey both the sweetness and the pathos of life in this remarkable footage filmed five years ago at her Mountain Home Studio, in Kentfield, California. The iconoclastic dancer, choreographer, educator, and movement philosopher, who died in May at the age of 100 at her nearby home, created more than 150 works during her 70-plus-year career, and her artistic journey was often the subject of negative assessments by dance critics and the dance establishment. But despite this, she earned the respect of artists and nonartists who studied and worked with her, and today her legacy is deservedly celebrated.
Halprin’s pioneering body of work, recognized as a major influence on what became known as postmodern dance, was uniquely Californian, confronting vexing issues with a creativity that could only have blossomed beyond the reach of dance’s traditional institutions.
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
I first heard about Halprin (she was known as Ann until she changed her first name to Anna in 1972, after surviving cancer) from the visual artist Charles Ross almost 55 years ago. I had just moved to New York City after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. Set on launching my professional life in dance, I supported myself by teaching children’s dance classes and joined the last choreography workshop led by musician Robert Dunn at Judson Memorial Church, in Greenwich Village. Dunn’s workshops, which had started at Merce Cunningham’s studio in 1960, moved to the church in 1962, when the pastors there offered to house them free of charge. Importantly, the offer included space to present concerts of experiments developed in the workshops, also at no cost to the participants. For poor artists like me, Judson’s support was crucial to New York’s becoming, during the period of 1962 to 1966, the East Coast seat of postmodern dance. Known as the Judson Dance Theater, these workshops were the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2018–19.
Like Ross, who had been creating sets in collaborations with Halprin in California before coming to New York in 1963, many of Judson’s dancers had worked with Halprin in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Their choreographic inventiveness underlined for me the positive effects of her influence. But I think it was mostly Ross’s description of Halprin’s dance deck, jutting out over a Marin County forest of redwoods, that beckoned me to California. Created by her husband, architect Lawrence Halprin, with the scenic designer Arch Lauterer, it had been built from the wood of madrone and coast redwood trees in 1954. The deck was located down a steeply graded stairway from the Halprins’ modernist home. It had been constructed after the birth of their second daughter, Rana.
There was no question that I would find a way to experience Halprin’s teaching once I learned that she held summer workshops. The opportunity to dance outdoors under an open California sky, surrounded by forest, sun, and wind instead of enduring a sweaty Manhattan summer and taking classes confined within studio boxes, was irresistible. An added attraction was visiting the Golden State, where my sister and brother-in-law were UC Berkeley graduate students, for the first time. I even accepted the offer of a $35 nonstop, three-day cross-country automobile ride with a group of college boys—previously strangers to me—to get there. The summer proved to be a wonderful gift. The example of Ann Halprin’s ongoing search for new ideas and her generosity, encouraging everyone to explore their own ways, strengthened my resolve to move on from my early training. Generations of international performance, music, literary, and design artists would in turn decide to make this journey.
A DANCER’S STEPS
Born Hannah Dorothy Schuman in 1920 and raised on Chicago’s North Shore, in Wilmette, Halprin was a natural dancer. Her training began with ballet lessons at the age of four. Ballet didn’t work for her, but as a six-year-old she enjoyed classes based on the practice of everyday motor skills: walking, running, skipping, hopping, jumping—the basic technical vocabulary of Isadora Duncan, a founding mother of modern dance. Duncan said that “the finest inheritance you can give a child is to allow it to make its own way, completely on its own feet.”
As a young adult dancer taking classes that emphasized the techniques associated with pioneers like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm, Halprin encountered a glaring inconsistency in the traditional modern dance philosophy. Modern dance is supposed to be about each individual’s expression; if you view classes in most studios, where lines of dancers stare into a mirror while imitating a teacher or following their directions, you quickly spot the contradiction.
In 1938, as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Halprin was introduced to the theories of Margaret H’Doubler, a kinesiologist and the director of the dance major program. She gave Halprin a key to changing how she analyzed movement, different from the motor skills lessons she’d absorbed as a young child. Instead of leading a series of warm-up exercises at the beginning of Halprin’s first technique class on campus, H’Doubler asked the students to gather around a suspended human skeleton. Halprin went on to study physiology and even spent a year dissecting cadavers. This experience provided the basis for an anatomical approach to movement throughout her career as a teacher and a performer, during which she routinely referred to a skeleton and charts of musculature. (Later in Halprin’s professional life, when her primary focus shifted from trained dancers to people of all ages and medical conditions, H’Doubler’s influence would become ever more essential. The curriculum of Tamalpa Institute, the nonprofit educational and research center Halprin founded with her daughter Daria in 1978, includes anatomy and kinesiology.)
Halprin—then Ann Schuman—met horticulture graduate student Larry Halprin in 1939 through their association with the University of Wisconsin’s Hillel Foundation. They married in 1940. A visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearby estate, Taliesin, inspired Larry to change his career path to architecture; the couple decided he should enter Harvard’s design program while Halprin completed her senior year in Wisconsin. When she joined him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for his last three years, she audited lectures, and they both found inspiration in the transplanted Bauhaus philosophies being taught there. Halprin’s ability to teach children’s dance classes proved doubly useful, as a means of support and as a challenging way to test her fledgling ideas about dance.
Larry enlisted in the navy in December 1943 and, after completing his degree, was shipped out to the Pacific. Meanwhile, Halprin decided to navigate New York City as a professional dancer. Her performances included a Broadway show, Sing Out, Sweet Land, starring Burl Ives and with choreography by Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. After Larry was almost killed by a torpedo attack on his ship, USS Morris VII, he was sent to San Francisco on survivor’s leave. When he was discharged there in 1945, Ann joined him. She excitedly wrote to a college friend:
I’m glad I’m going to California—I want to be left alone, live a normal resourceful life with a connection to the soil and to the common pulse of ordinary people. I’m not interested in acclaim—I’m only interested in creating out of the soil and the people a healthy fresh dance that is alive and vital. I’m getting sick and tired of New York dance—it’s neurotic, eccentric, and in many cases stale and in most cases uninspired. I’m not being smug—I don’t say I can do better—but I do say New York itself breeds a warped kind of dance.
She commented very differently after she arrived: “Compared to New York it was like coming into the boons. I thought my career was ended.”
HOME ON THE MOUNTAIN
Upon arrival on the West Coast, Halprin continued working within traditional modern dance styles, forming a partnership with dancer Welland Lathrop in 1946. They presented joint concerts and formed the Halprin-Lathrop School, offering classes for children and adults. Ten years later, during a trip to New York to participate in the American National Theatre and Academy’s American Season of Dance, Halprin felt tremendously disconnected from the works being shown by the modern dance establishment. After returning to California, she dissolved her partnership with Lathrop and resolved to transform her creative process. Improvisation and the dance deck her husband had built in the woods below their home, later named the Mountain Home Studio, became her gateways to discovering new material. Besides experimenting with her dancers and students, she sought out visual artists, architects, writers, actors, filmmakers, designers, physiologists, and, later, psychologists in an effort to resist old habits and remain open to new ideas.
Meanwhile, back in New York City, the studio training I received in the 1950s and ’60s, including Merce Cunningham’s and Alwin Nikolais’s modern techniques, had indeed evolved into set and predictable rituals. I understood why Halprin wanted to release herself from habits formed by these schools of dance as well as those who had revolted against them—to find her own ways to move.
Initially, Halprin’s improvisations were not set, but after a while, she felt the need to devise a structure or guidelines, which she called a score, to be followed similarly to the way musicians read a music score. A dance score might consist of tasks, might be like a recipe or a map to follow or drawings to interpret. And when her improvisations became repetitious, she developed a more focused process she called dance explorations.
The premiere of Birds of America or Garden Without Walls (1960) gave her a chance to test this idea. The performers in the piece—dancer A.A. Leath and actor John Graham (both now deceased); Halprin’s two daughters, Daria and Rana; and her company, the Dancers’ Workshop—would become her longtime collaborators. Before the performance, Halprin passed out 10-foot bamboo poles, nearly twice as tall as everyone, and told the performers to execute the work’s score as rehearsed, except to always keep the poles in hand. I remember being blown away by the extraordinarily powerful photographs documenting that work, which she shared during one of the summer workshops I attended.
Mornings in those summer sessions typically began with Halprin’s warm-up ritual that included standing and floor exercises. After that, we worked on individual or group improvisation assignments that varied every day. At the end of each session, Halprin gave participants a booklet of scores by everyone in the workshop. During the 1964 summer session, I was fortunate enough to be present while Halprin was working on the score of Parades and Changes, one of her most well-known performance works. In her 2007 biography, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, Janice Ross related my recollection of participating in rehearsals of two units of a score that eventually consisted of six improvised units: “Ann divided the dancers into two groups and asked one to travel around the circumference of the room on a small ledge three or four feet off the ground. The other group, which Blank performed with, walked parallel lines on an imaginary grid on the floor of the studio, with instructions to change lines only at the beginning or end of each imaginary parallel line. As they traveled they could pick up or discard objects or clothing within their reach. In the process, Blank said, they went through moments of nudity.” In another unit of the piece, the performers tore mountainous sheets of butcher paper, only to gather them up and disappear from the audience’s view.
Parades and Changes continued to be reinvented in each location where it was performed, including Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Stockholm, and Tel Aviv, from 1965 to 2015. The onstage nudity caused a scandal, and the ensuing court cases, according to Charles L. Reinhart, director emeritus of the American Dance Festival, eventually resulted in the repeal of New York State’s blue laws.
In late 1964 or early 1965, after I’d returned to New York City from my first summer experience on Halprin’s dance deck in Kentfield, a friend suggested I join her in trying out for a modern dance company that was to tour the country. The audition judges included such luminaries of the dance establishment as Lucas Hoving, Anna Sokolow, May O’Donnell, and Donald McKayle—all stellar inheritors of the Graham, Humphrey, and Weidman schools of classical modern dance.
The judges’ choreography was to be performed by this company. At the audition’s start, all the dancers were asked to walk across the open space. I quickly stood up and proceeded to walk my most straightforward personal, everyday walk. I was the only person to do so. As I looked around, I could see that every other dancer had chosen to perform the “dancer’s walk,” a modern dance convention that requires the legs to move from a full turnout in the hips, with a pointed toe-ball-heel, heel-ball-toe action of the foot, while the arms alternate a lift through the center of the body to overhead and then are lowered to the side within four-count measures.
Although I had been well schooled in the dancer’s walk and had become completely competent in its execution, it no longer occurred to me that this particular walk defined what a walk was. That was how much I had changed.
AN RSVP WITH CHANGE
In 1963, Halprin started renting a training and rehearsal space she named the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop—her translation of the German bauhaus, or “workhouse”—located adjacent to the city’s Haight-Ashbury district. Soon, her husband pushed her to acknowledge the social issues and turmoil taking place right outside her new studio. In 1968, after Larry saw the excessive emphasis critics and audiences put on the nudity in his wife’s work, he shared his plan for a feedback loop—a formula he was working on to help realize design projects. Named RSVP Cycles, it involved “four components: assessment of resources (R), the formulation of a plan or score (S), an evaluation (V) and a performance (P).”
From 1968 onward, Halprin’s focus shifted toward performance works conceived with a healing or social mission related to individuals, communities, or the environment. She continued to apply the RSVP Cycles to develop new scores and make revisions after analyzing audience reactions.
Ceremony of Us, a 1969 collaboration choreographed and performed by Halprin with the all-white San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop and Los Angeles’s all-black Studio Watts School of the Arts, confronted issues of race. Another piece, White Placard Dance, was inspired by 1970s protests. Performers paraded through city streets carrying empty white placards, and viewers were asked what causes they would like written on the placards. Their requests were read at the end of the march.
Many of this period’s communal events, rooted in Halprin’s research and observations of community ritual traditions throughout the world, consumed much of the rest of her life. Her long-standing bond with the Pomo nation, her neighbors near her family’s second home at Sea Ranch, gave her an opportunity to invite some members to participate in her work. (Her husband was central to the development and design, in 1963, of the planned community on the Sonoma County coastline. During the second workshop I attended, Halprin used the undeveloped site as a place for us to explore the possibilities of a different environment. This practice continued during the years she led Tamalpa Institute trainings.)
In the early 1970s, Halprin experienced a eureka moment through a process of visualization in the form of two self-portraits. In the first, she drew a circular gray mass in her pelvic area. That drawing coincided with a diagnosis of cancer. Surgery and chemo treatments left her feeling weak and depleted, and when it seemed as if the cancer had returned, she drew another self-portrait expressing her rage. After creating a dance in response to this image and performing it before a private audience of family and friends, she came to believe that she had healed herself because her cancer went into remission.
The collaborations with Indigenous people and Black dancers, her community actions, and her battle with cancer were central to the last phase of her career, when she resolved to make “transformative rituals” rather than performances. In a 2000 documentary video, Artists in Exile, she explained her change of heart: “We’ve opened up all these boundaries, we’ve redefine,kd—I had at least, and it had some influence—the body, redefined who dances, redefined how we can dance, redefined what is theater. But for what?
“It became very vital to me that we deal with people’s feelings, [that] we deal with the differences that we have. And that started this whole idea for me of healing…. I wasn’t willing to continue devoting my life and using my energy unless it was going to be useful.”
For Halprin, this meant that each piece had to have a purpose, and it had to be inclusive, meaning that anybody could perform it. “I started questioning what dance could be about and I started making dances that had to do with my life and the lives of the people who dance them.”
Over the next 40 years, Halprin’s career became a quest to answer her own questions about how dance could heal anyone, serve the environment, or promote peace in our country and among nations. Many of her works involved participatory events, where observers often functioned as witnesses instead of being passive viewers.
In and on the Mountain (1981), a two-day performance work that would evolve into Planetary Dance starting in 1987, was created in the wake of the unsolved murders of seven women on Mount Tamalpais, also the site of the Halprins’ Kentfield home. In response to the crimes, the mountain’s trails had been closed for two years. Dancers from Tamalpa Institute—the core performers—joined witnesses at the College of Marin.
Overnight, performers and witnesses slept in a circle with their feet positioned toward the center in a mandala-like formation. The next morning, performers and witnesses participated in a walk on some of the mountain trails, starting with a sunrise ceremony. Along the way, offerings were left at the site of each murder. Soon after the performance occurred, the killer was apprehended and brought to justice.
Never claiming that his arrest had resulted from their event, Halprin felt it was most relevant for its effect on the participants. She said, “When enough people move together in a common pulse with a common purpose, an amazing force takes over—a power that can renew, inspire, teach, create and heal.”
Circle the Earth: Dancing with Life on the Line (1989-) started as a communal mythmaking healing ritual centered on the theme of life and death and was first performed in Marin County in 1985 as Circle the Mountain. Undergirding this work was Halprin’s belief in the power of myths, whose original meaning, she said, embodied “a personal or collective vision of how we experience ourselves and the world.” The piece was developed in workshops by a core group of 100 participants, some of whom had AIDS, cancer, or another life-threatening illness, along with their caregivers and friends, facilitators, and Tamalpa dancers. Halprin then shaped the performance score to follow “Five Stages of Healing: identification, confrontation, release and restoration, change, and assimilation.” Subsequent performances were staged in New York City’s United Nations Plaza and Central Park, Los Angeles, San Diego, and several international locations. The people involved at each site re-create the score in their own way, based on their own myths.
A MOST BEAUTIFUL DANCE
Halprin and I continued to cross paths over the years. The last times I visited with her were in Kentfield in 2010, when we were interviewed together on the dance deck for The Space in Back of You, Richard Rutkowski and Robert Wilson’s film about the late Japanese choreographer Suzushi Hanayagi, and in 2012, for a get-together to honor Meredith Monk on the occasion of one of her Bay Area performances. (Hanayagi and Monk also attended Halprin’s summer workshops in the early 1960s. This was how I met Hanayagi, and upon our return to New York, we began a lifelong collaboration. Monk, my friend since college days, joined the 1965 workshop after listening to my stories about experiences there.)
Every advance in the arts is infiltrated by traditionalists who wish to maintain the status quo, and often these are former leaders of the avant-garde themselves. So the question remains: Will the systems Halprin developed succumb to this cycle? Will people simply follow the detailed instructions Halprin left and re-create her work, or will Halprin’s instructions become launchpads for reinterpretations and reinventions?
Regardless of the answer, one enduring contribution to the world of dance is Halprin’s steadfast belief that “everyday movement can take on an awareness of a dance if you bring your consciousness and awareness to your experience and into your body: the body moving becomes a dance expression.”
Throughout her long career, Halprin never forgot her paternal grandfather ecstatically dancing in prayer at an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. He was a driving inspiration behind her artistic journey. The sight of this Yiddish-speaking immigrant, a tailor from outside Odessa, Russia, with his head thrown back, uplifted arms, and a flowing white beard, made her believe that he “was God and that God was a dancer.”
In 2019, close to the end of her life, Anna Halprin opened the introduction to her last book, Making Dances That Matter: Resources for Community Creativity, by recalling childhood memories of her grandfather. She wrote, “I [could] never live like him, or do his dance with the kind of authenticity and devotion, but I have been driven to find a dance that moves me and the communities I work with as much as his dance moved him.”•