Q & A: Anna Halprin on Parades and Changes

Elisa Isaacson


Legendary dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin presents the final public performance of her influential works Parades and Changes at BAM/PFA on February 15, 16, and 17. The piece was performed at the opening of the current building in 1970, and the performances will bookend our tenure in the space, as we prepare to move to a new facility in downtown Berkeley in 2015. Visitors to the BAM/PFA galleries on November 15 through 18 may get a special treat: Halprin along with a cast of a collaborators, which includes composer Morton Subotnick, will be rehearsing the work in the main atrium space during operating hours.

Halprin has been dancing for more than seventy years. At ninety-two, she still teaches mornings and evenings at her home in Marin County, and conducts workshops locally and abroad “when there’s time in the schedule.” Her classes are held on the beautiful outdoor dance deck designed and built by her late husband, the renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, her partner in life and work.

Can you talk about the history of Parades and Changes?

The words Parades and Changes describe the choreographic point of view. Back in the 1960s, the choreography was completely fresh. It was very different from what was popular in Modern dance at the time, which was primarily cause-and-effect, and storytelling, and personal mythology. At that time, somebody like Martha Graham would create a dance, and then she would bring in other artists to support the dance. We did something completely different, collaborating to develop pieces we never showed; we did it for our own pleasure and enlightenment and the excitement of experimenting. Finally, in 1965, we were asked to do a performance in Stockholm, where they had an international festival of music. That’s how Parades and Changes was developed, after several years of exploration and experimentation.

Who will be dancing with you at BAM/PFA?

We have a mix of highly skilled dancers—some of the most remarkable artists in the Bay Area and probably someone from Paris—side by side with local dance students. Inclusive is what it is. It’s exciting and meaningful that the original composer Morton Subotnick is coming from New York to direct the musical part of the piece.

You’ve said that no production of Parades and Changes is ever the same; you’re reinventing the work each time you present it. How do you think the performance in February might reflect what’s happening in the world today?

The new version will have something to do with audience participation, something to do with the call for peace, something to do with who the performers are. New individual scores have been added. Right now, I’m in the process of articulating what its meaning will be, more than forty years later.

Today, dance is for everyone. That needs to be reflected in this version of Parades and Changes. There used to be a sprinkling of Happenings—Allen Kaprow in New York—but we’ve evolved so that dance has become part of people’s lives in new ways. Look at the flash mobs, which I love. There’s even a day set aside where everyone in the world dances—what a wonderful idea!

Nudity in dance has been in the news again, most recently in a New York Times piece by Alastair McCauley. You are still cited as the choreographer who pioneered nudity on stage with Parades and Changes. How do you view the impact of what you were doing in the 1960s, and what do you think of the way nudity is used in performance today?

Back then, at my studio, we rehearsed on an outdoor dance deck. We danced in the midst of nature, surrounded by trees, with the sun and the wind on our skin. What was more natural than to be naked and be part of nature? It was pure innocence on my part. As you know, Parades and Changes premiered in Stockholm in 1965. When we used nudity in Sweden, the critics called it a “ceremony of trust.” So I felt comfortable with the idea that we could introduce the naked body on stage, and it would be received with a particular reverence. When I returned from Sweden, the headlines in this country were “The No Pants Dancers Return,” which is anything but reverent. When we performed in New York—I’d thought, New York’s very sophisticated—I was a bit shocked when I heard whispering in the audience: Oh, no, they’re not going to take their clothes off, are they? And the next thing I knew I was arrested for indecency—or at least summoned—but I was leaving New York that day so nothing came of it.

You performed at the opening of the University Art Museum [now BAM/PFA] five years later. Had anything changed?

When we performed in 1970 at the art museum, the director at the time, Peter Selz, asked me if we could wear leotards or dim the lights. But in the end, he was very brave, and he said just go ahead. We got no flak about it, though it did create a stir. Now, there’s been a complete reversal. Now I wish people who are taking their clothes off all the time would just put them back on! I like to say that when we performed Parades and Changes in New York in the 1960s, we were arrested, but when a French company revived the piece a couple of years ago, they won a Bessie award!

Who do you admire in dance today, and who has influenced you?

That’s hard to answer, because I’m certainly not connected to New York or Europe, and I don’t know where the big influences are coming from. But I can’t talk about my life and influences without talking about Larry [Halprin]. It’s hard for to know where my work ends and his begins. We were together for seventy-one years. My dancing influenced his work, in that he began designing for people’s activity, people moving through space. There was a memorable workshop we did together at Sea Ranch, where we worked with landscape architects and dancers together. I became influenced by environment, and he became influenced by what people experienced in an environment.

You’ve said that the February performances will represent the last time the work is performed in public. Why did you choose this moment to “close” Parades and Changes?

I don’t have that much time left. I want to have complete freedom to explore what’s meaningful to me. For example, I’ve been working on a trilogy called Remembering Lawrence. I also want to explore how my life as an aging artist can influence and be helpful to other artists who depend on their bodies as their instrument. I plan to use dance to help me navigate the aging process and the confrontation with death. I’m thinking of a dance called Beyond Death, which would deal with the issue of what happens when you die. Though I don’t know that this is a subject that anybody else is interested in! So I may do it on the dance deck or another place appropriate for this particular theme.

Parades and Changes will have its final performance at BAM/PFA, where the piece opened the building. It just feels like closure, like many things in my life are coming to closure.

Photo: Kent Reno