Anna Halprin: From Dance Art to Healing Art

By Ross, Janice | Dance Magazine, January 2004 | Go to article overview
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Anna Halprin: From Dance Art to Healing Art

Ross, Janice, Dance Magazine

Each April we present the prestigious Dance Magazine Awards to outstanding members of the dance community for their contributions to the field. With this issue, we begin a four-part series, profiling each of the four extraordinary recipients in 2004. The first subject of this series is Anna Halprin.--THE EDITORS

SINCE ANNA HALPRIN left New York in 1955 and proclaimed herself independent of mainstream modern dance, she has been back to New York many times (see "Movement On The Mountain"). But on April 26, when Halprin steps to the podium to receive a Dance Magazine Award in New York, the occasion will mark a profound homecoming for the 83-year-old Californian. After nearly sixty years of living, working, and re-creating the rules of dance invention in the West, she still expresses surprise at being included among this year's honorees.

Halprin's isolation from the dominant trends and dance-makers of the modern dance world has given her the freedom to experiment. She has tested a wide range of possibilities for what might constitute a dance, and what spaces, public and private, might house that dance. In the process she has influenced two generations of dancers, choreographers, theater artists and musicians, leading the way to a fresh consideration of dance as task, as ritual, and as healing.

A native of Winnetka, Illinois, Halprin discovered dance as a child, and as a teenager she studied with Josephine Schwarz, a former dancer with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Halprin became a protegee of Margaret H'Doubler, the pioneering dance educator who experimented with range of motion as a means of finding the authentic dance for each student.

After World War II, when the 25-year-old Halprin moved to San Francisco with her husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, she extended H'Doubler's approach to movement discovery into improvisation.

One of her earliest students in San Francisco was Murray Louis. "I responded to Ann's vitality--all the people she attracted responded to that vitality," Louis said, recalling his classes with Anna Halprin (then called Ann) in the 1940s. "Ann released my energy. She taught me to step on the gas. It was in her improvisation classes that I decided I would be a dancer."

Beginning in 1955, after she returned from performing in New York at the 92nd Street Y in a concert curated by Martha Graham, Halprin was disillusioned by what she saw as a lack of individuality in the modern dance world. Halprin began experimenting in her new scenic dance laboratory, an outdoor deck that her husband and Arch Lauterer had just designed for her in a redwood grove on the steep hillside below their Marin County home on the side of Mount Tamalpais.

ON THIS DECK Halprin learned to attend to nature the way H'Doubler had listened to the body, embracing everyday actions like dressing and undressing or dragging the relaxed body of a friend. Among the dancers who came to her summer workshops in the early 1960s were Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Sally Gross, and Meredith Monk. Back in New York at Judson Memorial Church and other venues, they took forward Halprin's ideas of task performance, of the uncoupling of cause and effect in dance theater, and the use of the real world as a site for dance, into a new genre that became postmodern dance.

"One of the most important tools Ann gave me was how to work from nature," Forti said. "She taught the process of going into the woods and observing something and then coming back and working from those impressions."

It wasn't only nature, hut also the social environment that fed Halprin as an artist. In the late 1960s her interest turned toward community and the urban rituals that sustain it. Her 1969 Ceremony of Us was shaped by racial tensions among the cast, which drew from black performers in the Watts section of Los Angeles and her white dancers from the San Francisco Dancers' Workshop.

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