Bad at Sports

Interview with Anna Halprin, Part 1

By Bad at Sports March 24, 2013

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


Anna Halprin. Parades and Changes,1965/1970; performance by the San Francisco Dancer's Workshop for the opening of the UC Berkeley Art Museum, November 6, 1970. Courtesy of Peter Selz. Photo: Marion Gray.

From February 15 through 17, 2013, the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum (BAM/PFA) presented the final three performances of Parades and Changes, the legendary work created by the dancer, teacher, and choreographer Anna Halprin with the composer Morton Subotnick. Parades and Changes premiered in 1965 following hundreds of workshop experiments, and the strong audience reactions to various iterations of the dance figure prominently in its history. When it was performed at the Stockholm Stadstheater in 1965, it was televised nationally. As Halprin recounts in our conversation below, she received a letter from a farmer, Sven Kyberg, who compared the dancers to his newborn cattle or lambs and described feeling “cleansed and washed and shaken” watching it.1 But two years later, when it was performed at Hunter College, the New York City police department issued a warrant for Halprin’s arrest for indecent exposure because of the sequences involving nudity.2

The performance that is most resonant for its audiences in February and most notable to this conversation, though, took place at BAM/PFA in 1970, just before the museum opened to the public and before any art was installed. Here Anna recalls director Peter Selz’s initial hesitation over the dancers’ nudity, but, as he recounted in a 2009 conversation, “If I would censor them, I would be in more trouble with myself,” than with his board of directors, and the performance proceeded as envisioned.3 Its recreation in 2013, with Subotnick, the lighting designer Jim Cave, and Halprin’s associate director, Shinichi Iova-Koga, had as its impetus conversations between Halprin and BAM/PFA’s assistant curator Dena Beard, with both keenly aware of what the implications of the final restaging would be. The moment is a pivotal one for the museum, as it begins work on its new home and with its current one, the seismically unfit Mario Ciampi–designed building, scheduled to close by 2016. Parades and Changes has heralded both the beginning and the end of the building’s existence as a museum in a profound way that few other works of art could accomplish.

This sentiment was palpable amongst the crowd gathered on the evening of February 15, the performance I attended. The ground-level Gallery B provided the stage for the performances, and the audience was clustered in areas at its perimeter, ascending along the ramps that lead to the upper-level galleries and hanging over the stacked cantilevered balconies overlooking the space. Depending on one’s vantage point, the unembellished site-poured concrete structure can either feel oppressive and leaden, or its fan-shaped composition can soar upward gracefully in defiance of weight or gravity. Traditionally hung exhibitions in the individual galleries require one to turn one’s back on the space, but the trek up or down between galleries vigorously underscores the intertwined state of consciousness and experience, of seeing and being. Halprin’s dancers brought the audience into that state of awareness again and again.

UC Berkeley Art Museum

Interior of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Ben Blackwell.

In this iteration, the dance progressed through several sequences. Halprin’s great contribution to contemporary dance has been the development of moments that respond to everyday tasks and that eschew the notion of dancers responding exclusively to a choreographer’s instructions or embodying his or her style. Instead, Halprin develops her dances through collaborative input and as a series of scores developed through workshops. The concept of scores evolved from the close working relationship between Halprin and her husband of sixty-five years, the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, and was conceived as a way to create a common language amongst those working in different creative disciplines. Parades and Changes further relies on a series of “cellblocks” that “designated activities to be shaped by each collaborating artist,” as Beard notes, and which can be shuffled to optimally respond to the performing environment.4 Combined with the input of the individual dancers, no two performances are alike.

On February 15, Parades and Changes began with Subotnick conducting the dancers, who were placed at various locations on the lower ramps, through a series of vocalizations; they responded to his gestures with overlapping chants, shouts, woofs, barks, and announcements of varying pitch, tone, and emotion. The dancers, dressed in white shirts, black suits, bowler hats, and ties, then descended one by one to the main performing area, introducing themselves by name and with idiosyncratic movements. This evolved into a promenade back and forth across the floor, conjuring the image and energy of commuters spilling onto the street at the beginning of the workday. The next sequence—in which the dancers paused, slowly undressed, redressed, paired up, and undressed again—was both riveting and disquieting, as each gesture was coupled with a locked gaze on individual audience members. This movement replaced intimacy’s vulnerability with its power. That equation was repeated in a subsequent sequence, in which the dancers, now in street clothes, approached a central platform and fell as if shot; they slid away, seemingly broken, but were resurrected in the penultimate movement with an exuberant percussive stomp. Just prior, in the climax of Parades and Changes, the dancers, still unclothed, ripped and tore long sheets of butcher paper laid across the floor; they clustered closer and closer together, gathering and tossing the paper higher and higher until paper and bodies became a rhythmic, unfettered, and fluttering mass. The joyousness was contagious and the audience spontaneously broke into applause.

The conversation below took place a few weeks following the final performances of Parades and Changes, on a warm winter afternoon at Halprin’s home in Marin County. We sat overlooking the legendary dance deck that has been the site of innumerable workshops and the training ground for such postmodern masters as Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Meredith Monk, John Cage, and Yvonne Rainer. Joining me for the conversation was Beard and the artist Helena Keefe. As it is part of the ongoing collaboration with Bad at Sports, you can listen to the audio version of the conversation, Episode 392, here. This text version will be presented in two parts; Part 2 will be published in the April 9 issue of Art Practical. Part 1 begins with Beard answering my question of how the restaging of Parades and Changes came about. —Patricia Maloney

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Anna Halprin. Parades and Changes, 1965/2013; performance at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, February 15-17, 2013. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Pak Han.

Dena Beard (DB): It’s actually a very interesting story and, yet again, a story that no curator can take credit for, because it all results from the initiative of the artist. My collaboration with Anna arose from the initiative of another artist. I curated a show at Royal Nonesuch Gallery, called Taking Up Room on the Floor, and had some email exchanges with you, Anna, but I didn’t get to meet you in person or come up to the dance deck. Thankfully I was working with a painter, Silke Otto-Knapp, who had already made paintings from photographs of the dance deck. Her paintings were very visceral and involved a kind of staging; they conveyed the way the deck worked in nature as almost a sentient being. When she was in Berkeley, I said it was necessary for her to see it in person. We came up here to meet Anna; because of that meeting, Silke was able to do another series of paintings, but I got to have this brilliant conversation with Anna, in which she suggested that we stage Parades and Changes at BAM/PFA before it closes.

Anna Halprin (AH): I am listening to this with great interest, because I was surprised when you sent me that drawing of the dance deck by Silke. I didn’t know she was drawing it; she must have come to see a performance we did based on Larry’s [Lawrence Halprin] erotic drawings that was part of a trilogy called Remembering Lawrence. Instead of seeing the performance, she spent her time drawing the dance deck. But I never met her and had no idea that was what triggered our working together to do this performance.

We opened the museum at the moment there was nothing in the building; the space was absolutely raw. We only had this overwhelming cement architecture. At that time, we performed just a part of Parades and Changes. When you and I met, I thought, “That’s appropriate: now we’ll close the museum.”

The evolution of the piece came as the result of continuously exploring new possibilities in dance and how dance and life could reflect one another—how we could move to find a new language to work with. So the new version really encompasses the many years and adventures, experiments, and explorations that we’ve done since 1970. As Peter Seltz said, it was a lot better than the first version, because we had the time to develop new ideas and techniques and had more skills and understanding to work with. It was interesting for me to restage it, from that point of view, to see how different the second version was from the first.

Patricia Maloney (PM): Could you describe the conversation with Peter Seltz from 1970, about the idea of opening the museum with Parades and Changes? I know he had some hesitations and that it was quite a risk for him to use this dance to create the initial impression of the museum.

AH: The risk was not that we were doing a dance performance in the museum; the risk came from the fact that we introduced nudity, which always struck me as very amusing, because nudity is part of art. Museums have exhibitions with galleries entirely filled with sculptural nudes. I found it odd that he was hesitant to the idea. I could understand there were politics involved and that he was afraid his donors or board of directors would consider this very inappropriate behavior. He said to me, “Do you think you could do it in leotards?” and I said, “No.” “Can you do it with the lights dimmed?” [Laughter.] I said “No.” And then he said, “Alright, just do it!” In a very short period of time, he went through quite a metamorphosis. Was his loyalty to the artists, or was his loyalty to business? I was very proud of him that his loyalty was to the artists. I think the new version was a tribute to Peter, and it was fun when he came to visit a rehearsal and could reconnect in a new way.

PM: Seeing Parades and Changes at BAM/PFA in February, I noticed how people were hanging over the ramps and the balconies, and everyone’s attention was intently focused on the performance area. There was something very special about how the space was utilized for the performance. Did you think at all about the fact that you were defining this space for visitors?

AH: Absolutely. It was very challenging. We weren’t able to do all the things we wanted to do to define the space, particularly in the first episode, when Morton [Subotnick] is leading a group of performers. Originally, they were sprinkled throughout the museum so the audience would be required to keep looking in every possible direction: here and there and down and up. The episode had a two-fold purpose: one was a clever way of introducing the performers, but it was also a way of introducing the space. However, the space echoes in a way that was unexpected. We would make one sound, and that sound would sustain itself, so the second sound would be laid over the first. It was maddening for Morton as a musician to work with the vocalizations in that space. We had to compromise and put all the performers on the ramp, which we both were very disappointed about.

The intention was different than what we were able to actually do. Instead of being able to introduce the space, we were able to introduce the idea of collaborating with the musician. I could provide performers that would enable him to compose a piece of music he wouldn’t have done otherwise. It is a real collaboration when you allow the interaction between you and an artist of another medium to create something new. That was what was most encouraging, stimulating, and challenging of working in the collaborative process, which was in relation not only to Morton but also to Jim Cave, who was doing the lighting, and each individual performer. Consequently, the results were unexpected, and I think the audience reacted to that; they felt a certain energy coming from the performers, who were invested and all part of a working team. It was their performance. It wasn’t my choreography that they performed; it was our performance as collaborators.

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Anna Halprin. Parades and Changes, 1965; performance by San Francisco Dancer's Workshop at the Stockholm Statstheater, 1965. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Ohlstrom.

PM: You have worked with different groups of dancers for iterations of Parades and Changes. How has each collaboration informed further iterations?

AH: Every time I presented Parades and Changes, I had a different cast, and each cast brings a different flavor to that particular performance. Each of the performers in the most recent ensemble has a different background. Only four or five of them are what we’d refer to as professional dancers. That is why each was introduced individually; I had never done that before. I wanted the audience to relate to these performers as real people who brought with them their cultural heritages.

Parades and Changes has a history that reflects the social conditions, mores, and political climate of the moments in which it is performed. For example, after the Watts riots [1965], I had an opportunity to work with an all-black ensemble and an all-white ensemble, separately, and then bring the two groups together.

There is also a different social condition each time we’ve done the piece. When we did it in Sweden in 1965—Swedish people are very accustomed to nudity—the performance presented no problem whatsoever. The dressing and undressing scene was broadcast on national television. A farmer wrote to me and said, “When you removed your clothes, it became so sacred, it felt so blessed, it was like the birth of my newborn calves.” But when the piece went to New York, a warrant was issued for my arrest.

The piece reflects the concept of dance as a democracy, as opposed to a hierarchy, and so many things are happening in our consciousness at the time that we are performing it that it is never the same. I say I’ll never do it again because I’ll never do the same composition again: the people will be different; the social conditions, I hope, will be different.

That is why I use the term scoring instead of choreography. In the world of dance, choreography refers to the idea a single artist has for a dance and how that artist will train a company of dancers so they will have a unified style, which reflects the artist’s idiosyncratic style. I don’t use that term because I don’t think that way. I’ve used the term scoring, which my husband Lawrence arrived at with some input from me. When he designed a public space or garden, he’d consider whom he was designing the space for and what their needs might be so he could reflect those needs in his design. He began to use a workshop system that he borrowed from me, but he developed the scoring process in order to create a common language across disciplines for the workshops.

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Anna Halprin. Parades and Changes, 1965/2013; performance at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, February 15-17, 2013. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Pak Han.

Helena Keefe (HK): I am curious to hear more about the dancers’ experiences and your way of leading them through this process, so that they acclimate to this idea of non-acting and instead work from their emotions and lives—and how doing this on stage may be at odds with the audience’s experience. What is the experience of non-acting in front of an audience like?

AH: That is easy to answer, but it is also complex. For Parades and Changes, it was my responsibility as the initiator to create the activities and the episodes. For example, I said to them, “I’m really interested in how we can use falling, and the image that I conjure is related to all the gun violence that is happening. But I don’t know how to design each of your falls.” So we went through an exploration period, in which the dancers considered their responses to falling. And, as a perfect example, I questioned that we could do it on the cement floor, but I wanted it to happen. Shinichi [Iova-Koga] carried one of the boxes used as a sound instrument over in a way that looked like Christ carrying the cross. He set it down and then plopped his body on the box, and everyone jumped. I thought, “That’s it!” From there, each one found his or her way of falling. I could never have choreographed the falls.

From there, it evolved. The falls introduced passivity into their motions, but you couldn’t leave them there, in an inert pile; you need to have a restoration, and so we explored what that means. Gradually, the work began to evolve. As the leader, I will throw out an activity; I tell them what to do, but I don’t tell them how to do it. That way, I gather more resources, and as an outside eye, I can shape those resources in a way that satisfies my aesthetics. In their choices, though, you see real people, not trained dancers with stylized movements. When performers are so committed and so authentic in themselves, the audience feels that. I honestly believe that when audiences see activities that are so meaningful to the person doing it, they are affected by it.

HK: A 1967 interview between you and Yvonne Rainer mentions an incident in which a woman who was a member of the audience smashed a kerosene lamp during a performance of Procession. You noted that it was a pivotal point in your thinking, about how dancers could react in the moment to unexpected and unplanned events and have authentic and personal responses. Especially at that time—when you were getting some extreme reactions from the audience—were there moments you were able to test that?

AH: I’ll never forget that because it was so shocking. Actually, my daughter Daria was cut by some of the glass because the woman threw the lantern against a scaffold, and it just shattered. Then she ran up the aisle, banged into a door, fell backward, recovered, and off she went. That was the end of the performance. Ten years later, a man referred to that and thought it was part of the performance. Like many things, it was a curse but also a blessing, because I realized it was time for me to really understand what is going on with an audience. I stopped performing and began doing scores for audiences. For example, at 321 Divisadero, where I had a studio and where the Tape Music Center was—it was a center for a lot of artists—we starting performing Ten Myths, on which I collaborated with a lighting designer. There were scores for audiences to perform while we watched, to study what they did. The scores had very specific activities; the space was designed in particular ways, as were the lights. Each score might include as many as fifty to sixty people in the room. Everything would go fine for about the first half of the evening, and suddenly we would see the audience members completely deconstruct every aspect of the score and find their own ways of working together. Every time, they would deconstruct it and then create something of their own. Every week we would do a different theme, but we noticed certain recurring habits. There was always a way in which the audience found commonalities and became a community. It was fascinating. That taught me a lot about audience participation. Now, whenever I create something, I consider how it affects audiences and how they can participate.

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Anna Halprin (b. 1920) has possessed a singular career spanning the field of dance since the late 1930s. She founded the groundbreaking San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop in 1955 and the Tamalpa Institute in 1978, with her daughter Daria Halprin. Her students include Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Shinichi Iova-Koga, and many others, some of whom became involved in the progressive and experimental Judson Church Group. Over the years, her famous outdoor deck has been an explorative haven for numerous dancers and choreographers, including Merce Cunningham; composers such as John Cage, Luciano Berio, Terry Riley, LeMonte Young, and Morton Subotnick; and visual artists such as Robert Morris and Robert Whitman.

Halprin is an early pioneer in the healing expressive arts. She has led countless collaborative dance programs with terminally ill patients, as she has long believed in the healing power of movement. Halprin has also investigated numerous social issues through dance and through theatrical innovations. She has created one hundred fifty full-length dance-theater works, which are extensively documented in photographs, books, and film. She is the recipient of numerous honors and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Dance Guild, and many others. In 1997, she received the Samuel H. Scripps award for lifetime achievement in modern dance from the American Dance Festival. The Dance Heritage Coalition has named Anna Halprin one of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.”

 

Anna Halprin: Parades and Changes/Matrix 246, which includes ephemera related to the performances, is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum through April 21, 2013.

 

Listen to the interview with Anna Halprin: Bad at Sports, Episode 392.

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NOTES:

1. Dena Beard, “Anna Halprin/Matrix 246,” exhibition brochure (Berkeley: UC Berkeley Art Museum, 2013).

2. Beard, “Anna Halprin/Matrix 246.”

3. Jarrett Earnest, “There and Back Again,” Art Practical, Issue 1.4 (2009), http://www.artpractical.com/feature/there_and_back_again/.

4. Beard, “Anna Halprin/Matrix 246.”

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