Bad at Sports

Interview with Anna Halprin, Part 2

By Bad at Sports April 8, 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.

Image: Merce Cunningham performing on the dance deck. Courtesy of Artforum.

This is the second of a two-part interview with the legendary dancer, teacher, and choreographer Anna Halprin. The conversation below took place a few weeks following the final performances of Parades and Changes at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum (BAM/PFA) from February 15 to 17, 2013. 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. 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. While Part 1, which appears in Issue 4.12/Rewind of Art Practical, focuses on the development and final performances of Parades and Changes, Part 2 explores the evolution of her approach and her wide-ranging influence. Joining me for the conversation was BAM/PFA’s assistant curator Dena Beard and the artist Helena Keefe. As it is part of the ongoing collaboration with Bad at Sports, the audio version of the conversation, Episode 392, can be heard here. —Patricia Maloney


Patricia Maloney: One of my favorite performances is Blank Placard Dance from 1967, in which a group of dancers are protesting, but the signs they are holding are all blank. As passersby and witnesses encounter the dancers, they ask, “What are you protesting?” and the response from the dancers is, “What do you want to protest?” I am very intrigued by the idea that a dance could function as a blank slate on which the audience can project their intentions. It creates an entry point for participation.

Anna Halprin: That dance is still being performed; we did it at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) recently. That was one score that I took out of the studio and into the environment to see what might happen. People wanted to protest but their voices weren’t being heard in any effective way. So we marched with blank placards, and we collected a lot of protest statements and wrote them down. Then we marched back with the protests written on the signs. But you need to get permission from the city authorities, and you have to stand ten feet from the person in front of you; we did that so we wouldn’t get arrested. We had previously been arrested during protests against the Vietnam War.  

PM: You haven’t shied away from social issues during your career. How has that manifested in the dances? 

AH: I’ve always been involved in social issues because they are part of our lives. I don’t like to disengage from what is going on in the world. For example, the gun violence right now is horrendous; my niece was just murdered. How can I not be involved? I don’t think of it as politics so much as this is what is affecting us as a community or a nation or part of the global consciousness.

Anna Halprin, Blank Placard Dance, San Francisco, 1967. Courtesy of Anna Halprin. Photo: Lawrence Halprin.

I created Planetary Dance in 1980 in response to a series of murders by an individual nicknamed The Trailside Killer. He killed seven women from our community on Mt. Tamalpais, which is a place you go to have picnics or weddings or to meditate; to be on the mountain is a beautiful way to enter into nature. But for two years, we were not allowed on the trails because of the murders, so I decided that we needed to reclaim the mountain. My husband and I created a series of workshops in which Mt. Tam was a recurring motif. With the community, we performed a dance starting at the top of the mountain, and as we came down the mountain, we made offerings at the sites were the seven women were murdered. About a week later, the killer was caught. He had been on the loose for two years. It became a myth in this community [that the dance led to his capture]. The dance has evolved into a pattern of running in circles, and every year we dedicate it to a community issue. One year we performed the dance for women with breast cancer because Marin County has the highest rate of breast cancer in the country. Another time we dedicated the dance to AIDS and another year to bullying in the schools. Because we have a training program with students from all over the world, and these participants want to bring the dance to their communities, now it is performed in forty-six different countries.

Dance has many different faces and many possibilities if you convey the experience of a movement that everyone recognizes and can participate in. Most people can walk or run to a drumbeat and create their own movements around the running. It’s accessible. I’m delighted because it’s happening everywhere now. Dance is enacting a tremendous shift to being available to all kinds of needs. 

Helena Keefe: Could you talk about how your concept of dance evolved early on, in contrast to other choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer or Simone Forti? My understanding is that everyone was reacting to theatricality and drama or virtuosity in dance, but the paths away from that approach diverged.

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 the UC Berkeley Art Museum.

AH: They were my students. I was close to forty while they were in their twenties. I was exploring a different way of teaching, in which we were learning how to score and how to work in the environment. I was collaborating with the Tape Music Center, with painters, filmmakers, and poets. I was leading my students in explorations of movement beyond modern dance. Trisha Brown was teaching at Mills College at the time; Simone Forti had just graduated from Reed College. So they were mature, but there weren’t as many outlets for them as there are now. I had a family, so I was rooted here, but they weren’t rooted here. So, like the painters, they went to New York because the opportunities were there. They started the Judson Dance Theater.

There was tremendous discrepancy between the way the Judson Dance Theater originated here and how it evolved in New York. The Human Potential Movement—which evolved [at the Esalen Institute] in response to Fritz Perls [his concept of gestalt therapy], and [the theories of] Erik Erikson and Abraham Maslow—was influential here but not in New York. There, people are surrounded by buildings, while here we are surrounded by trees. The dancers who moved to New York became involved in the New York conceptual approach to art. I was more interested in the humanistic aspect of using everyday movement, so it would be accessible not only to me but also to everybody. Even when I teach now, I don’t think of what I do as task-oriented. I work with the science of movement and ordinary experience.

I begin with awareness and simple movements in order for people to become comfortable using their bodies, but then I begin layering responses to images and feelings. Something like dressing and undressing, which I would call an ordinary rather than a task-oriented movement, can prompt an inquiry into how you feel when you are naked in front of others or into the sequence of movements of taking your shirt off. 

AH (cont.): You start with something the audience can connect to, even as you’re thinking about that movement changing.

PM: But those movements become performance. Could we delve into that transition from movement to performance? It seems to be a very porous boundary, because of the way the audience is asked to acknowledge the motivations and gestures of the individual dancers. For example, during the performance of Parades and Changes that I attended, one of the dancers locked eyes with me as he was undressing; it was a very intimate and unsettling experience. And it was a fantastic one, but it is not necessarily one we’re accustomed to as members of an audience. How do you enable this intimacy to exist and yet still be performance?

AH: That is the risk you take. It is really a risk. Making eye contact was done very deliberately. In a proscenium theatre, there is a natural separation between audience and dancers. But at BAM/PFA, there was no separation. What are you going to do in that environment? Are you going to pretend the separation exists or are you going to use it? I thought, “Let’s use it.” The dancers were to lock gazes with an individual member of the audience but instructed to shift and give them space when they felt the person grew uncomfortable. It’s not meant to be intimidating. That is an example of inclusiveness, of trying to make it very personal. Then, the dancers shifted their gazes to each other in the mirror-image sequence, and the movements intensified.

Portrait of Anna Halprin. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Kent Reno.

PM: That was one of the most notable parts of the performance, during the second sequence of undressing. The dancers paired up, and some of the pairs were immediately apparent, whereas others were across the stage from each other, and you only recognized the pairs as other dancers finished undressing.

AH: The dancers chose their partners and the distance they wanted to be from each other; it kept the performance more spontaneous and not as rigid. That was a very courageous part of the dance for them to do; it wasn’t easy. Choosing the distance gave them more control and something to focus on.

Dena Beard: I was speaking with Simone Forti; she and Bob [Robert] Morris were painting in San Francisco, but she had always been interested in movement. She took a workshop with you, and Bob was interested in the actor John Graham’s approach to working with objects in theater. There was this convergence of energy on your dance deck and this amazing situation at the time, in which people had come to San Francisco seeking the resurgence of Abstract Expressionism that was happening in the visual arts, and they found you. I found it interesting to see how the visual arts and movement [came] together. When I was putting the exhibition together at BAM/PFA, many people commented that the material was just documents and ephemera. I said, “If you collect all the variations on this theme together, what you have is an image so profound, it exceeds the walls of the museum and becomes alive in the resources of the human body.” That’s what you did; you took these impulses from the visual arts and made them alive in the resources that these impoverished artists had at the time. You showed them they could do this work within the scope of their bodies. That was incredibly radical. That’s why the dance deck became this place of saying, “We are each other’s resources. We don’t need the paint, the canvases, or the camera.” 

AH: I was doing a performance with a group at San Francisco State University, and Bruce Conner got up on stage and started dancing with me. We did this incredibly funny, stupid little dance act together, and it was perfectly natural. There were all kinds of craziness going on at the time. The Bay Area never quite got the acknowledgment it deserved. It seems like everything happened in New York, but everything seemed to start here. Unfortunately, at that time, there wasn’t really the financial means for the dance world to stay here.

DB: All these different minds and disciplinary skill sets found a home on your dance deck.

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.

AH: It is very important that we had a place to work, and this wasn’t a traditional, indoor box. You have a different relationship to your body in nature; you feel part of a bigger body. It took us out into the streets, and we performed City Dance (1960–69, 1976–77) throughout San Francisco. It was like a flash mob except we started at Twin Peaks and moved from one neighborhood to another. We did City Dance for about three years, and then it evolved into Carnaval in the Mission district.

HK: Which young dancers are you interested in and curious about now? Are there dancers who are innovating in ways that you find of interest? 

AH: I’m not necessarily interested in what dancers are doing; I’m interested in everything; I’m interested in life. I’ve connected to dance in so many different ways. When I had my family, I worked with children for twenty-five years. When I had the studio at 321 Divisadero, I collaborated with artists because they shared the same space. That pushed me in a much broader direction than I had previously been working. After we lost that building, my husband Larry built the dance deck. Larry studied at Harvard with Walter Gropius, who had been the director of the Bauhaus; working with architects had a big influence on me, especially Larry, who was a landscape architect. Fritz Perls made me very comfortable working with people’s emotions—that movement could trigger some feeling, state, and it was fine.

There have been a lot of touch points in my life that have thrown me into different directions, and it all accumulates. One direction leads to another. It always involves other people. Different people have enriched and moved me to incorporate ideas that would not have occurred to me on my own. It’s been a journey, like the one everyone goes through in life. I have a passion for dance; our bodies are our instruments and carry everything that we are, every memory that we’ve had. Every feeling that we are capable of is in this body. That is true of all the arts, and the most characteristic thing of what I am interested in is how we can use all the expressive arts to create change and transformation. Some people call this spiritual. I don’t think of it so much as spiritual as becoming whole. Hopefully the organism continues to grow and change, and I am still learning. I am not ready to let go yet.

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.


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


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.”

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