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[whitespace] Anna Halprin
Photograph by Michael Amsler

Dancing Solo

Far from the center of the dance world, Anna Halprin exerts a subtle influence

By Marina Wolf

IN THE RIGHT LIGHT, every movement has possibilities for dance. In Anna Halprin's studio in Kentfield, the right light touches everything, including the 80-year-old dancer/choreographer, who is carefully pulling a folded director's chair to the center of the empty room. In one corner dangles a human skeleton; along the southern wall are a few stacks of brightly colored cushions.

The floor, burnished by 45 years of use, glows gold in the morning sun.

Halprin grins as she eases her slight frame down into the canvas.

"Isn't this a funny award to give, a chair?" she says, twisting forward and around to squint at the embroidery on the back. "Chair for distinguished teaching," it reads, all cursive and dignified in spite of the obvious irony of a chair serving as an award to a dancer.

Halprin turns back around and drapes her thin arms over the armrests. "I got it at the American Dance Festival a few years ago [in 1996]," she says. "And then the next year, much to my surprise, I got the award for distinguished dance artist. Which was really unusual, because I'm very isolated here."

Her isolation has been extreme by any measure, and it comes by choice.

Like so many dancers before her, Halprin tried her hand in New York City, the heart of the modern dance scene in the mid-1900s. At that time, Martha Graham reigned supreme, while other modern choreographers such as Doris Humphreys were creating popular works and Broadway musicals.

Halprin danced in a musical for a short while, but the promise of a big-city dance career could not make up for what Halprin describes as "the barrage of noise, smells, and cement of New York City."

In 1945 she moved out west, to the hillside home that her husband, architect Lawrence Halprin, had designed and built in Kentfield.

The studio and shaded dance deck came later, in 1955, and eventually attracted dancers from around the country for study and collaboration.

Occasionally Halprin would venture out with whatever dance company she was working with, or with her own troupe, the San Francisco Dance Workshop.

Her "scores," loose scripts that she crafted to get participants moving and interacting with each other, audiences, and the environment, ranged from intimate improv on- stage to citywide dance happenings. Yet still she lived in exile from the dance world, at a distance that was more philosophical than physical.

"You won't believe this, but when I first started working in this new way, the fact that I was acknowledging emotional material was considered therapy, not dance," Halprin says, shaking her frizzy halo of graying curls with disbelief.

"You could interpret emotion, but to actually have your own, to express the truth of your own personal mythology and experiences, this was not considered dance art."

HALPRIN drew her philosophy of movement from the intersection of two disciplines: anatomy and psychology. Through her participation in Gestalt therapy work, Halprin learned to break down the barriers between person and artist and move into a world of vibrant emotion-states. And in anatomy and kinesiology, which had been important aspects of her college dance studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Halprin found a vocabulary of individual, yet objective, movements.

Her classes, whether for children, trained dancers, or cancer patients, always have incorporated an intense study of the body (hence the skeleton in the corner). But hers was not abstraction of body movement à la choreographer Merce Cunningham, separate from the human spirit. For Halprin, movement became a way to reconnect to one's emotions, not as therapy, but as the most powerful material that any artist could choose to work with.

Participants in Halprin's workshops, which she still conducts from the studio, may at first not know they harbor this material, but the stuff is there, waiting for movement to let it out.

"If I were to sit here and start pounding like this," Halprin demonstrates, pounding her fists against her thighs, "eventually it's going to evoke a feeling. It might be determination, it might be anger. But the movements and feelings begin to have an association, which comes from your personal mythology."

Anna Halprin
Photograph by Michael Amsler

IN 1972, Halprin's own mythology took a dramatic turn when she received a diagnosis of cancer. "Up to that point I was using my life to create my art," she says. "And after I had cancer I began to ask myself the basic questions: Who am I dancing for? Why am I dancing? What am I dancing about?"

Halprin's brow lifts as she ponders the seemingly imponderable.

"I began to realize that I wanted to use my art to create my life," she says. "And that made a big, big shift."

Following her diagnosis, Halprin began leading movement workshops for people with life-threatening illnesses, an approach to healing that proved so powerful that she and one of her two daughters, Daria Halprin, decided to found the Tamalpa Institute in 1978, an educational facility dedicated to expressive-arts therapy.

Halprin also began to explore ways to tap the spectator/participant energy she had felt for years with her performances and public happenings.

The wall between performers and audience almost completely vanished, to be replaced by groups of participants.

The next move in Halprin's work took her to creating art and dance ritual for and with the larger community. One such ritual, "Circle the Earth," began in 1981, while Marin County was being terrorized by a serial killer, who had murdered seven women over the course of two years on the trails around Mt. Tamalpais.

Halprin and dancers from Tamalpa worked for nine months with the community around the collective mythology of the mountain. A few days after the first performance of the piece, the killer was caught.

The dance to reclaim the mountain continued over the course of five years and later developed into community rituals for peace, the Earth Run and Circle the Earth, variants of which are still being danced in 36 countries around the world.

They're also still danced on Mt. Tamalpais each year.

Nature remains a key part of Halprin's work, whether in community or in her own works. For decades she has explored outdoor settings in Marin and Sonoma counties as places to experience creative contact with sand, or seaweed, or decaying redwoods.

BUT HALPRIN is also finding herself on a return path to the "big black box," as she calls the traditional stage. She staged an 80th-year retrospective concert at Cowell Theater in June--"It was meant to be sort of a goodbye," she says with a chuckle.

And 55 years after leaving New York for the West Coast, Halprin is planning to return next October for a collaborative show with Japanese-American dancers Eiko and Koma, along with Joan Jeanrenaud, former cellist for the Kronos Quartet, at the Kennedy Center in New York. The meeting of such creative minds promises to be an exciting landmark in American postmodern dance, but Halprin is as casual about the prospect as she is excited by her work with healing and the community.

"The reason why I'm still excited about dance after all these years," says Halprin, her eyes sparkling, "is because I know that dance can renew and inspire and teach as well as entertain.

"That to me is the most gratifying and fulfilling aspect of my life's work. This is what we train people to do at Tamalpa. We find a foundation for a true dance experience, which they can take out into the world and serve, be useful.

"Be useful."

She gives the phrase peculiar emphasis, and then tells a story about violinist Isaac Stern playing with the Jerusalem Symphony during the Gulf War. In the middle of the symphony, the alarm went off. Everyone put on a gas mask, and the orchestra left the stage.

But Stern continued to play.

"Afterwards he was interviewed, you know, [and was asked], 'What was that moment like for you?' " Halprin says. "And he said, 'It's the first time I felt my music was useful.'

"That's my goal," concludes Halprin. "To reach that kind of depth, where dance can be useful."

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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