Life as Art: Anna Halprin interviewed by Jacquelynn Baas

Legendary choreographer Anna Halprin returns to BAM/PFA after a forty-two year absence to direct the final staging of her most enduring and important dance work, Parades and Changes, February 15-17. This revolutionary piece, a harbinger of postmodern dance, was performed at the opening of the new University Art Museum on Bancroft Way in 1970. These final performances are part of a special MATRIX presentation that also features a gallery installation of scores, photographs, and other documentation surrounding this work.

Halprin developed an interest in dance and participated in her earliest performances in the Midwest. In the mid-forties Halprin relocated to California with her late husband, the influential landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. It was in California where she experienced her greatest artistic breakthroughs and successes, eventually setting-up her fabled Mountain Home Studio in Marin County. The following passages are excerpted from an interview with Halprin by former BAM/PFA Director Jacquelynn Baas in the recently published book, Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society (University of Chicago Press), edited by Baas and Mary Jane Jacob. Here, Halprin talks about how the move west transformed her work.

JB: In 1945 you moved to California. What effect did California have on you?

AH: I didn’t spend my entire career in California. I was dancing and performing on Broadway before I came here, and for four years before that at the University of Wisconsin. I was dancing and performing when I was a child, in 1934, at the Chicago World’s Fair. What I would say is that, since 1945, following World War II, when I moved here, I’ve developed my particular, individual approach to dance. Up until that time, I was part of another kind of a movement: the “modern” dance movement. When I came to California there was very little dance activity. In my isolation, which I thought was the end of my career—actually it was the beginning, because I had to reassess dance from the beginning—I broke off from modern dance. I just didn’t like it anymore because it was too idiosyncratic. You had to imitate Martha Graham or you imitated Doris Humphrey—imitated a style. I felt that dance was not based on somebody else’s idiosyncratic style, that the creative process would lead us to find our own style.
So coming to California gave me an opportunity to reassess and redefine dance in the same way that my husband Larry [Halprin] redefined landscape architecture. It gave rise to a new definition of dance that I was left alone, on my own, to explore and experiment with. I even did human dissection for a year, so I could understand how the body actually worked. I had to really start from scratch.

The idea for the word “workshop” [as in her San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop] was influenced by the Bauhaus, because of Larry’s connection [at Harvard, 1942-1944], but also because it was a word that was just right to describe what was happening, because I was so isolated. All of the artists were isolated here [in the San Francisco Bay Area]. The painters eventually left and went to New York, because they couldn’t sell paintings here. But because of the isolation—which I thought was a curse but turned out to be a blessing—I came to have this wonderful facility that Larry built for me, and so it became a gathering place.

JB: Your famous dance deck in the redwoods?

AH: Yes. It became a gathering place for artists who were painters, musicians, theater people, poets, filmmakers… . We gravitated into a group that experimented, each of us in our own way, but this was the place where we met, shared, and influenced each other.

JB: Surely the great beauty of the natural environment in California must have been important to this vision that you developed.

AH: Oh, absolutely. On the east coast they were developing conceptual art. We were getting away from that. We were developing a new approach to art, which was art and the environment, sensorial. They used to tease me on the east coast and call me “the touchy-feely therapist.” And I used to answer, “But is there something wrong with feeling something and touching something? Is that wrong?” Well, for the east coasters, who were so conceptual, I was not acceptable. But when I went back this last time [in April 2010], I was a hero; I had people lining up at the doors to take my workshop [at Judson Church]. But before that, I was just off the tree, the dance tree, completely.

JB: Yet your presence in New York was huge, thanks to the migration of your students there during the early 1960s, performers like Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk. You’ve been called the “mother” of postmodern dance, referring to the incorporation of everyday activities into dance. Yet, I think of you as a quintessential modernist, due to the ways you radically challenged and retooled, for social ends, traditional cultural concepts and attitudes toward nature, including the body. Do you think of yourself as a modernist? as a postmodernist?

AH: I suppose something doesn’t exist unless it has a label. Maybe “contemporary” means what’s happening right now. But in my mind, I have really gone back to the origins of dance. I’ve gone back to the origins and roots. If you look at the origins of dance, it includes the totality of one’s life. Look at the American Indians. As soon as they see that their dances are being lost because the elders are dying off, the first thing they do is get the kids to learn to speak the language, the dances, so they don’t lose their tribal identity. As soon as the dances go—because dance for tribal people is the totality of their life and preserves their identification as a community—they’ve lost their identity.

So that’s another label—“ritual” dance. But the ritual dances are also life-art dances. They’re based on the community, maintaining the myths. Here is an example of a community life-art process: in the late 1970s we had the Trailside Killer, who killed five women on Mount Tamalpais. The trails there were closed for two years. We organized a dance to reclaim them, and one week later the killer was apprehended and the trails reopened. Thirty years later, we’re still doing the dance that we did to reclaim the trails on that mountain. So that story became a myth and the dance a ritual. That mountain represents the spiritual icon of our community. We use the mountain to go on walks, on hikes, to meditate, to have weddings, to mourn our dead. It is our spiritual center. When the trails were closed, it was a matter of either maintaining our connection to our spiritual center or not. So we had to reclaim it. After two years, it was like, “That’s enough. We’ve got to go back.” Thirty years later, we’re still going to the mountain in the springtime. Every year we’ve taken a different theme. This year we’re calling it Dancing with Life on the Line.

I’ve developed, along with my daughters Daria and Rana, what we call the life-art process. Now, I would say that Picasso’s Guernica is a life-art process work. He took a reality in his life and how it affected him, and he made a painting that said, “This is what the revolution is, and this is how it affected me.” It was a lived experience. There were certain things I did that were very personal from my life experience, like Intensive Care (2000). It was an expression of a real-life situation. In the movie [Breath Made Visible], I talk about where those movements came from, how it affected life as art, me, how frightened I was, and how this dance became a catharsis for that fear. But the dance used art principles, so it was an art expression; it wasn’t just a therapeutic release.

JB: But there is also a certain universalism to it, this strong expression that you rarely see in theater—a kind of honesty.

AH: Of course, there is a universalism to all of it. Larry had been influenced by the Bauhaus at Harvard, but at a certain point, as a result of going up to the Sierras every year with the children, his whole approach and definition of the art process shifted, at about the same time that mine did. It was because of the environment and beginning to look at the art process from the point of view of how nature operates. That’s why I did human dissection. How does my body actually operate as part of nature? Everybody’s body operates this way. It isn’t an idiosyncratic pattern.

The everyday movement idea—everybody grasped that, because it was easy to grasp, but that was not where I was going. Everyday movement was used because I wanted to demonstrate that if you look at everyday movement as an art experience, anything can be art. I look at water all the time, and I get all kinds of ideas from it. You can look at people walking down the street and just shift your consciousness, and look at it as a dance. I send my students out, all the time.

JB: It’s how you see.

AH: It’s where you bring your awareness….

The entire interview is available in Chicago Makes Modern. To learn more or to purchase a copy visit the University of Chicago Press website.

Above: Anna Halprin: Parades and Changes, 1967; performed at Hunter College, New York. Photo: Nicholas Peckham.