When Anna Halprin was growing up in the 1920s, she liked to watch her grandfather pray. He would rock back and forth, his long white beard swaying, while a string of unintelligible words rushed from his mouth. As his words became louder, faster, his body followed suit, moving in what seemed like some mystical dance. God must have looked something like that, Halprin remembers thinking. And so, she reasoned, “I thought God was a dancer.”
The anecdote comes from a new documentary, “Breath Made Visible,” which follows the remarkable career of Halprin, a modern dance icon who turns 90 in July. Beginning in the 1950s, Halprin broke away from the modern styles that dominated dance since the 1930s. And over the years, she created a new physical vocabulary — or, better still, an entire dance philosophy — whose legacy lives on in the works of contemporary dance titans like Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer, both of whom were her students.
“She showed how dance was essential to everyone’s life,” said Wendy Perron, the editor of Dance Magazine. “I actually regard her as a national treasure.”
The national treasure was in New York City last week for the film’s premiere and discussed her work at the home of Ruedi Gerber, the filmmaker. Halprin readily acknowledged that while only a few of the works she’s made — which now total more than 150 — have explicit Jewish content, her Jewish identity has deeply influenced her art.
“I think that [my Jewish heritage] is why I was drawn to the Watts project,” she said, referring to the pioneering multi-racial dance troupe she formed in the 1960s, having had the dancers work in single-race groups first. At the time, Watts, the black neighborhood of Los Angeles, was burning up in riots and Halprin thought that dance might prove a salve. Critics thought she was being naïve, and even dancers — black and white — were skeptical.
But she believed that infusing elements of traditional African dance into a contemporary vocabulary would allow black artists to feel more at home in modern dance. “If you have a black person in a white company, they dance like a white person. I wanted to reverse that,” she said. Once she did, she thought that both black and white dancers would be more able to work together. “Our approach was to maximize the differences, and to find the common ground.”
Growing up in a neighborhood suspicious of Jews, she said, had a strong influence on her sense of wanting to find common ground. “I came from a very anti-Semitic town,” she said, referring to Winnetka, Ill. “Of course, now it’s all Jewish, but when we moved into our home, the neighbors put their shades down.” She remembers making friends in school but then wondered why those friends never seemed to invite her to their birthday parties outside the classroom. “All that affects you,” she said.
Halprin’s alienation stemmed from other sources, too, of course. As the new documentary shows, she was a free spirit. Taking after her father, she was an incessant jokester, and she was always dancing — on her way to class, on the front lawn, inside the home and out. But when her mother decided to put her in ballet class, the instructor sensed immediately that the art form was not for her. So her mother enrolled her in a modern dance school based on Isadora Duncan techniques. “It was more free-flowing,” Halprin says in the film, a harbinger of the dance style she would create on her own years later.
Halprin went to the University of Wisconsin, mainly because of its dance program, then moved to New York to work with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, two icons of modern dance. But she said that the almost cultish reverence students had for these teachers quickly turned her off. “Doesn’t it say somewhere that thou shall not bow down to a golden image?” she said. “I felt like, in those days, you had to bow down to figures like Martha Graham,” another modern dance pioneer.
Things changed radically when she moved to San Francisco in the 1950s with her husband, Lawrence Halprin, a social activist and renowned Harvard-educated architect she got to know through the student group Hillel in Madison. “He had a real influence on me,” she said, repeating a theme stressed in the film. Her husband designed a massive wooden deck set among the towering redwood trees in their backyard. That deck would become — and remains — the prime laboratory for her work. Future art-world legends like John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and more recently aging senior citizens, have all made work on its slabs.
In fact, the filmmaker, Ruedi Gerber, first met Halprin on that deck, too. “I was looking to approach anyone who was doing something interesting,” Gerber said in an interview. In 1982, he was a 25-year-old experimental actor looking to shake up his craft. He had heard that Halprin, who at that point had not performed publicly for more than a decade, was doing strange and interesting things. “She was really getting to the essence: What is performance? What does it really mean? And I was really questioning the theater system,” he said.
The time he spent with her proved invaluable, but Gerber remembers his friends questioning his decision. “They said to me, ‘Why are you going to California, getting massages? It’s so New Age-y.” By then, Halprin’s best work seemed behind her. By the 1960s she had already broken down all the boundaries any one person could seem capable of, from her interracial work in Watts, to her scandalous all-nude piece “Parades and Changes.” Plus, no one had seen her perform in years.
Rumors spread that all she was doing out in California was feel-good art therapy, “social work.” And back in New York, where America’s dance scene was concentrated, former students like Rainer and Brown seemed to be moving modern dance in new directions. “During that period, people said that she didn’t make art anymore, so-called ‘masterpieces,’” said Perron.
Halprin admits it was a difficult time. “To tell you the truth, I felt very isolated by my community” — the dance community, she said. “I was knocked off the tracks in the dance world.” The film digs deep into this period, however, showing that for much of the 1970s and ’80s, Halprin quietly crafted a profound new dance theory that would have an impact far beyond the dance community.
During a bout with cancer in the 1970s, which caused her to give up dancing publicly in the first place, she began exploring the health benefits of dance. Her experiment began with a general belief she had long held — that dance should emerge from one’s inner most sense of self, and that movement should not be restricted to any one style, but should emerge organically, a personal expression of one’s unique emotional state. She began inviting people wholly unfamiliar with dance to work with her. Eventually, in 1978, she founded the Tamalpa Institute, an early example of what is now called “expressive art therapy.”
Gerber still takes issue with derisive comments about Halprin’s reputation as a social worker. When Halprin performed a solo piece at The Joyce Theater in 2002, he witnessed the emotional pull of her artistry for himself. He began to cry as he watched Halprin, then 82, perform with the vivacity of a dancer half that age. Then, he looked around the audience, and saw he wasn’t alone.
“If you look at ‘Guernica,’ and you cry, does that make Picasso a therapist, too?” he said. Gerber added that it is Halprin’s fundamental belief in the power of art that animates her broader health views.
Eventually, after her comeback in the 1990s, the dance world came to embrace her, and Halprin staged her work everywhere from the Joyce to the Pompidou Center in Paris. Fellowships, honorary degrees, and a slew of lifetime achievement awards continue to pour in.
In 1995 it all came full circle for Halprin in one of her few Jewish-themed works, “The Grandfather Dance,” which gets an airing in the film. In it Halprin, wearing a black silk outfit and pearl-white tallis, dances to the music of the Flying Klezmer Band. The outfit was actually inherited from Halprin’s grandfather, she says, and when the music begins to play she moves with her characteristic playfulness. Then, every so often, she will rock a little, looking even more like the man she once thought resembled God.
“Breath Made Visible” plays at Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St. (212) 924-3363. Call for showtimes or visit www.cinemavillage.com.
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