What Matters to Us?: A Reenactment of Anna Halprin’s Blank Placard Dance

Review

What Matters to Us?: A Reenactment of Anna Halprin’s Blank Placard Dance

By Vanessa Kauffman Zimmerly June 11, 2015

Emerging one by one from the doors of San Francisco’s Mission Cultural Center, thirty-six white-shirted performers nimbly and stoically perched between parking meters, ready for the opening beats of the performance that was about to unfold. Standing shoulder to shoulder in one long row, they silently gazed out onto the street’s two-way flux of traffic. The expressions on their faces mirrored the signs they held above their heads: both were blank.

What Matters to Us? (May 16, 2015) was the inaugural event of Dances for Anna: A Worldwide Celebration of Anna Halprin’s 95th Year, a series of performances taking place over the next three months across sixteen countries. Organized by the Tamalpa Institute (the dance and expressive arts therapy nonprofit cofounded by Halprin and her daughter Daria), and directed by Associate Director Rosario Sammartino, Dances for Anna is a tribute to a choreographer whose work and teachings have rigorously challenged traditional definitions of dance, informing and influencing many threads of experimental movement since the late 1930s.

What Matters to Us?: A Reenactment of Anna Halprin’s Blank Placard Dance, Saturday, May 16, 2015, San Francisco. Photo: Emily Holmes.
Today’s performance, What Matters to Us?, began with a reenactment of Halprin’s Vietnam War–era Blank Placard Dance (1967). The original action was a provocative response to the political climate and growing protest culture of the 1960s, in which several dozen dancers marched down Market Street holding protest signs devoid of any statement. The three-hour score for What Matters to Us? included a public intervention at the 24th Street BART station, a walking meditation down Balmy Alley led by Halprin, and a culminating event in Garfield Square. In addition to the placard-holding performers, the participants included an ensemble of ten musicians and percussionists, among them the performance artist Dohee Lee and the poet Jahan Khalighi, additional performers who interacted directly with the public, and various interested amblers who joined in along the way. Three hours, three unique acts, and one seemingly simple ambition: to engage the public in an exercise to populate the reverse of each blank-faced placard with colorful Post-it notes that would collectively answer the question, “What matters to us?”

At the BART station, the dancers quickly filled the space—creating myriad tableaux as they stood in small clusters, face to face, back to back, or shoulder to shoulder—while other performers carrying colorful Post-its and markers began to approach BART riders and other passersby. Not surprisingly, participation was slow to start. As Halprin’s practice has acknowledged (and worked to undo) for much of her career, the movements of the body in the public sphere are often habitual, and seldom personally transformative or socially productive. This was evidenced in people’s guarded behaviors. Many of them, on self-imposed high alert, made a beeline through the performers, while others strolled by seemingly without noticing anything, utterly self-contained and blind. (At times, to this observer, the blank faces of the placards appeared disturbingly similar to the back sides of the iPhones held tight to the pedestrians’ faces, indicating their apathy to their surroundings.) Coaxing out the trust that they knew they had to establish, the performers were calm, generous, and relentless. “What matters to you?” they asked, again and again. Soon the placard backs started to fill. My son. Learning. Revolution. Peace. Universal health care. Askatasuna (freedom). Respect. Ending police brutality. Music. Forests. Honesty.

As the group traveled down 24th Street toward Balmy Alley, drivers honked and shop owners waved (proof that many love a protest, no matter its cause), and responses continued to be collected—some concrete, many virtuous. Whereas the back side of each placard bloomed with the collective consciousness, the other side remained mute, upholding unwavering neutrality. The thirty-six white-clad bodies were physical white flags, surrendering to the strictures of an individual ego. Rather than individually embodied dancers, here they were proxies that reminded us that what we put out into the world, both positive and negative, is a shared burden that is carried on the backs of those with whom we walk. Without knowing what was being adhered to their placards, each performer marched on, in service of the plurality.

Despite the filling placards and the generous ethos of their guardians, a marked tension was apparent at several moments. More than a few individuals shirked the opportunity to participate, bashfully refusing to respond to the prompt. Of those who did respond, few joined in for the remainder of the walk. It was hard to tell if these refusals of sentiment and step were because the dance seemed too far afield from convention, because the revolt was too subtle and unclear, or because economic and social upheavals in the Mission District are making the neighborhood forget its history of community-based activism. Thus, the silences may have been dissatisfying, but they also marked the performance’s successes in that they too were vocalizations of what matters to us.

What Matters to Us?: A Reenactment of Anna Halprin’s Blank Placard Dance, Saturday, May 16, 2015, San Francisco. Photo: Emily Holmes.

The walk continued down Balmy Alley for a final meditation before the crescendo at Garfield Square, where the dancers all read from the Post-its into a microphone. Halprin herself had joined in a few blocks prior to the turn from busy 24th Street to the corridor that is home to the city’s most concentrated collection of murals. Wedged between remarkable renderings of social uprisings across history—manifestations of race, class, and gender divisions—a quiet lucidity came upon the crowd. Halprin called out, “Take ten steps forward. Stop. Listen. Look.” The group began to move together.

With each ten steps, another scene presented itself, several of them eliciting brief commentary from Halprin. (My favorite, demonstrating her humor: “Take ten steps forward. Stop. Think of Michael Jackson. Remember the sacrum.”) As we paced down the alley toward Garfield Square, where the placards would soon be laid out on the grass, the question of “what matters” felt both huge and fleeting. After having spent the last three hours with this question on the tip of each tongue, the tone was appropriately unresolved. The act of protest alone had absolved us of nothing. What matters to us is still out there, waiting.

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