Anna Halprin – the legacy of radical thoughts in motion

Vala T. Foltyn

Anna Halprin passed away on May 24th, 2021 shortly before she would turn 101 years old. She left behind a legacy of her life that generously contributed to the history of dance and contemporary art. Her revolutionary work in the fields of choreography, performance art, and activism inspired many generations of artists and art critics across the world.

When I received the information about her death I was greatly saddened by the thought that she is gone and the entire century came to a certain closure. She shifted the traditions of dance not only in its form but incorporated the social and political aspects into creative processes.

How do we move / how do we dance without those who danced before us? How do we carry the legacy and the spirit of those who made changes and made our dance possible? How do we transform their knowledge and adapt to the current needs and urgencies?

The Mountain Studio in Kentfield (north of San Francisco) was thoughtfully designed in the 1950s by her husband and artistic partner, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (1916-2009). The outdoor dance deck and the studio are sheltered by redwood trees on the steep hillside with a view of Mount Tamalpais. Their studio became a home and refuge over the span of decades for many artists who were on the lookout for innovative practices 1. It attracted people who were searching for co-creation and experimentation with the form and functionality of art-making (Meredith Monk, John Cage, Terry Riley, John Graham, A. A. Leath, Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, Dohee Lee, Shinichi Iova-Koga).

The lifelong collaboration between Anna and Lawrence resulted in developing a transdisciplinary approach towards the creative process, choreography, and environment. Anna received her education from the University of Wisconsin where she studied dance with Margaret H’Doubler (1940-1944). Afterward, she moved to New York and attended dance classes with Hanya Holm and Martha Graham, quickly realizing that she needs to break with the tradition and find other ways to approach movement. Lawrence Halprin graduated from the University of Wisconsin and Harvard Graduate School of Design (1942). They were both very influenced by Bauhaus thought, which at the time was introduced at Harvard by Walter Gropius. The transdisciplinary approach, radical pedagogy, and shifting the relationship with audiences stayed with Anna Halprin for the rest of her life. The rejection of the modern dance style and the classic ballet, the negation of big city life, and the career rush brought her to the West Coast. San Francisco was not a typical place of choice for a young dancer from a well-situated Jewish family from the suburbs of Chicago. The Bay Area was the place of the cultural revolution, which contributed to the birth of many alternative and avant-garde ideas. Halprin’s economic background allowed them to receive an education and devote their lives to art-making 2. It was probably thanks to those privileged conditions that Anna was able to engage in many different activities and host artistic events. On the West Coast, she was in some sense more independent and free from her roots as she was coming from a Jewish family and attended services with her grandfather, who was a rabbi 3.

Dance is for community, for personal growth, for everything because words are just symbols of our experience. So, how do we get to the experience? Because the word is just one symbol, but movement incorporates everything.

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My encounter with Anna Halprin is undoubtedly one of the most important events in my life. I was having a chance to experience her teaching and engage in inspiring conversations. I met Anna while attending one of her dance classes when she was already 90 years old. Despite her age, she was still very engaged in working with local artists and teaching weekly classes. Her care, sense of humor, critical thinking, perceptiveness, and openness to exchange were great gifts that I experienced in this encounter. Over the past few years (2011-2020), I have been collecting materials related to our meetings; recordings of our conversations, video documentation, notes from classes, and performances but also spending time together; cooking and chatting were of great value. The intergenerational exchange of knowledge became a key focus in my later art research around her legacy. I thought her curiosity and interest in other artists were exceptional. She welcomed my queerness, supported my growth as an artist, and invited me to perform at the Mountain Studio in 2014.

Photo: Bartolomeo Koczenasz, 2017

In 2020 in Copenhagen, I was working on a performance lecture Honouring the legacy of Anna Halprin 5 at Copenhagen Contemporary summarizing her artistic legacy. I was trying to find a new gaze into her work and archives. I was looking for another point of entry rather than the history of art, biography, or dance review. I’m focusing here on two particular aspects of that radical legacy: a turn towards interactivity|participation and working with themes that were socially and politically taboos. Both of those aspects are complex and placed in specific historical, gender, racial and economic contexts. The work of Anna Halprin is radical – and by radical I mean, that it dared to remain experimental and often took risks. Her work was also evolving and transforming into new territories and shapes, which resulted in controversy and stepped into a dialogue with stereotypes and cliches.

The first aspect; interactivity|participation already manifests itself in the location of her studio that merges with nature and rejects the proscenium arch. Halprin’s home became a think-tank and safer space for those who were looking for experiments and new modes of being and thinking art and community. She brought to the dance deck not only professional artists but family members and people who were not necessarily trained as dancers or performers. Moreover, she developed a new way of dance making; keeping herself busy with writing and drawing scores, which often included a variety of tasks for the audience participants. Those experiments with scoring tackled the power structures of theatre apparatus and the role of the public, and later became part of a creative methodology developed by Anna and Lawrence. The book was published in 1969 titled The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment 6. RSVP stands for Resources, Scores, Valuaction, and Performance 7. It brings in motion thoughts and ideas that require other modes of working with time and space. It also calls for wider kinesthetic awareness of the surroundings and environment that the body moves through and with. The process needs to derive from personal resources, a lived experience (Resources), embrace the vulnerability, and be observed in supporting and caring space (Valuaction). This kind of perspective differentiated from the way that the art world of early capitalist America would offer. The performative acts, rituals, community work, dances and happenings developed by Anna and San Francisco Dance Workshops were often entering the public space and challenged the division of personal and public spheres (City Dance, Planetary Dance, Circle the Earth) 8.

Photo: Bartolomeo Koczenasz, 2017

Secondly, I am looking at Anna’s engagement with social and political taboos. Her workshops and movement laboratories included those who were on the social margins due to the politics of gender, race, and sexuality. Not the controversy was in the focus of Anna but more important was to recognize the needs of her surroundings. She made it very clear that she was an artist whose task was to provide the community around her with some artistic and creative tools for change, healing, and transformation. She was interested in offering a space that would explore areas of conflict, trauma, shame, the crisis of belonging, and invite for co-creation and healing.

I will mention just two examples here that I consider crucial in revisiting Anna’s archives. In the late 1960s as a response to the racial violence in Los Angeles (Watts Riots, 1965) Anna Halprin led a series of workshops Ceremony of Us that brought together the black and white community. She was invited by James M. Woods, African American, founder of the art space Studio Watts in Los Angeles 9. The process in which people attended the workshop series had its source in real experiences and aimed to explore territories of racial tensions. From today’s perspective, this work might seem problematic and controversial as the setting of the work revolved around gender and race. Ceremony of Us was led by Anna where participants in closed space worked with their experiences brought into movement and rituals. This was a turning moment for Anna’s practice to step into real-life matters and deal with tensions and conflict. The workshops explored a variety of experiences including anger and despair as they reflected the social climate at the time. In 1969 at Mark Taper Theatre dance rituals and movement explorations became the material for the public performance which was brought into public discourse at the moment where racial riots and injustice were at a high moment. This work dared to ask questions about sexuality and race and was shared with the audience in Los Angeles.

We’ve opened up all these boundaries. We’ve redefined—I have at least (and it’s had some influence)—redefined the body, redefined who dances, redefined how we can dance . . . but for what?

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It is important to mention Ceremony of Us as it tackles racial violence and brings art practice into another context – the healing aspect becomes her major interest and sets the trajectory for future explorations. Furthermore, the difficulties of dealing with those troubled themes stay with her, she does not shy away from it. She comes up with an understanding of a ritual as a creative process where people are brought together with an intention to confront the challenges of their existence.

The ritual has the intention to confront specific life issue with the purpose of bringing about a desired change, vision or transformation. A ritual is the enactment of the myth. The myth emerges when we confront a real life issue.

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In the 1980s San Francisco was hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and Anna Halprin decided to respond to this crisis by offering another daring process. She was invited to form a group of HIV-positive men and women who regularly met in the closed process to open up their emotions and confront death. Anna led a series of workshops and performances with LGTBQ+ community members affected by the epidemic. Positive motion (1991) was a video documentary that captured the process of Carry me home, which aimed to create a safer place for HIV+ queer men to deal with the isolation, exclusion, shame, and death. The series of regular classes resulted in a public performance, premiered at San Francisco’s Theatre Artaud 12 where HIV-positive queer men shared their emotional responses to the virus in front of the public. The radical gesture of bringing these vulnerable experiences to the stage and choreographing emotional processes brought Anna Halprin to a new place in the history of dance. She dared to bring this issue to the public discourse while the rest of the society wanted to get rid of this problem. She opened a discussion not only within the art context but also stepped into a territory of public health and gave an alternative. She made it possible for people living with HIV to be seen and heard at the moment where their bodies were not cared for and shamed for their sexuality. This work is definitely a groundbreaking in her career and deserves to be mentioned in revisiting her radical legacy. She offered space for people who at that moment were living in uncertain conditions, often without knowing what AIDS actually was, and were confronting death in isolation. The stigmatisation and violent politics of that time resulted in embodied traumas and loneliness that Anna Halprin recognised and decided to work with. And finally her own fight against cancer, which led to a withdrawal from the stage and started her own healing process. This phase of her life where life was at the stake resulted in founding the Tamalpa Institute with her daughter – Daria Halprin, in 1978.

My visits to Anna’s house in California (2011-2017) were significant in my artistic career and gave me an opportunity to establish an intergenerational exchange of knowledge, which later developed into an art research. Anna Halprin offered me her generosity and opened up a discussion about the importance of socially and politically engaged art practice. Her guidance and valuable comments re-shaped my thinking and movement practice and also gave me an insight into a century-long legacy.

Her work might continue inspiring other artists and activists and it calls to reflect the times we live in. It does call for radical care. Anna Halprin was not only a mother of postmodern dance but above all a stubborn, daring, and visionary female, an ally of LGTBQ+ who contributed with innovative ideas and healing practices.

I always wished that Anna would live forever, but today we have to face her loss and look at her legacy from a new perspective so that her radical thought is still alive. We need to re-contextualise its history and achievements to our own needs and challenges of the reality we live in at our presence.

Photo: Bartolomeo Koczenasz, 2017

I believe that it is important for all artists to respond to the present political crisis and devote their art to the protection of democracy.

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Today, there are many new things, exciting things. People are doing their own thing, not like it used to be. Like the first generation of modern dancers, everybody was just imitating either Martha Graham or Doris Humphrey. Now there is a lot of individual expression and people are finding their own way. There is a lot of diversity. I especially like street dancing, where people are very spontaneous. They are dancing out of their natural juices.

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