Pin It
_Anna Halprin

Anna Halprin: demon dancer

Experimental choreographer Anna Halprin singlehandedly transformed the language of dance, shocking the status quo with radical new forms of self-expression

Taken from the July 2011 issue of Dazed:

After WWII, legendary dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin decided that everyone is a dancer (even if they got no rhythm), and that every movement is a dance (even the act of putting one’s socks on). With that in mind, she founded what we now call “postmodern dance” – an art movement whose egalitarian, anti-authoritarian ideology had more in common with future phenomena such as punk rock, street art and flash mobs than with the ballet or modern dance of her time. 

Unlike her predecessors, Anna Halprin had a warts’n’all approach to dance. She and her dancers were sometimes naked during performances, and they refused to be corralled onto a stage, performing their dances in the streets, in nature, among audiences, or wherever they felt like it. When invited to dance at a lunch for important art patrons, they made a stage in the middle of the room, sat at a table, and forced the audience to watch them eat lunch. Sometimes they gave audience members a “score”, instructing them to get up and join the dance. This approach was seen as inclusive or insulting, depending on your viewpoint. She really infuriated those who believed that dance was purely aesthetic – something pretty, polite and non-confrontational. Not that she cared what they thought. “I never make my choices on the basis of whether people are going to like it,” she says, speaking from her home in the coastal forests of Marin, northern California. “I have to make my choices based on whether it is good art.” 

By constantly challenging authority and shunning homogeneity, Halprin and her peers helped lay the groundwork for the hippie counter culture, as well as for punks, culture jammers, hipster aerobicisers and iconoclasts the world over (if Banksy had been a dancer, he’d probably have danced with Anna Halprin. And did we mention her daughter was married to Dennis Hopper?). Today, she’s still dancing (still sometimes naked), still pissing some people off, and still inspiring most of the rest. In fact, Anna Halprin is, without doubt, one of the most badass 90-year-olds you’ll ever meet. 

Born Anna Schuman on July 13, 1920 in Winnetka, Illinois, Halprin started going to ballet classes at the age of four. When the other kids laughed at her euphoric, energetic style of dancing, Anna’s mother took her out of that class, and enrolled her in a modern dance class, where she studied the techniques of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. It was a much better fit for Halprin’s freeform tendencies. “We had lots of fun skipping and hopping and waving balloons and moving scarves through space. I liked it very much, and people didn’t laugh at me,” she says. 

In high school, she was introduced to the techniques of second-generation modern dance goddesses, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. By this point, Halprin was already sure she had found her life’s path. Aged 18, she was invited to move to New York City and join Doris Humphrey’s dance company – a huge honour, but her parents said no – they wanted her to go to college first. She hoped to get into Bennington College, a women’s college in Vermont, but the school had already met their Jewish quota, so she was rejected. “In all the private schools in those days they had restrictions on Jews,” she explains. “If the Jewish quota was filled and you were Jewish, you didn’t get in.” She was depressed about not getting into Bennington, but what felt like failure turned out to be a blessing. 

In 1938, Halprin started studying with Margaret H’doubler at the University of Wisconsin, which had opened the first university dance departments in the country. H’doubler, a former student of biology, believed that dance is a science as much as it is an art, and taught dances based on natural body movement. In H’doubler, Halprin found the mentor whose instruction would inform her entire philosophy. It was also around this time that she met her husband, Lawrence Halprin, who would become one of America’s best-known landscape architects, designing fountains, waterfalls, parks and shopping malls around the world. She says Lawrence was her greatest influence, as a dancer. And he often designed spaces with dancers and movement in mind, even calling his park designs “choreography”. 

After graduating, she and Lawrence studied together at the School of Design at Harvard. Lawrence was being taught by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of art and architecture in Germany, who had moved to the US to escape Nazi persecution. Surrounded by some of the most important thinkers of her time, Halprin started applying some of their ideas and philosophies to her own work. Before long, she realised that she was creating a style of dance that was entirely original, and had little to do with the modern dance that she had once worshipped.

“What I noticed after a while was that everybody in Martha Graham’s Company looked like Martha Graham. There was a philosophy behind that approach to art that I found very offensive” – Anna Halprin

“It was a very specific incident,” she says, recalling the moment she realised she was doing something totally different. She had been invited to participate in the American Dance Festival at the ANTA theatre on Broadway. She was the only dancer from outside New York – the others were Manhattan based dancers studying under Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and other notable modern dance choreographers. The festival lasted two weeks, and what Anna saw troubled her. “What I noticed after a while was that everybody in Martha Graham’s Company looked like Martha Graham. Everyone in Doris Humphrey’s company looked like Doris Humphrey. And so on. There was a philosophy behind that approach to art that I found very offensive.” What she was seeing was, in essence, no different from ballet in its philosophy, even though modern dancers had rebelled against ballet because of its rigid, autocratic culture. “I saw the teachers saying ‘This is my style, you learn my style’. Therefore all the dancers looked alike. This seemed very autocratic and dogmatic to me. And after a while it was very boring. I wondered, ‘There must be a different way of approaching dance that doesn’t have everybody looking the same?"

A short documentary on Anna Halprin

Because there was no alternative dance tradition for her to align herself with, she had to create her own from scratch. Settling in the Bay Area, she began to teach. In 1955 she founded the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, teaching and collaborating with a number of the most progressive dancers and composers of the time, including minimalist composer John Cage and dancer Trisha Brown. She encouraged her students to improvise. “I would give them ideas, not commands. I would say, ‘Move in levels’ or ‘Move in different spaces’. It was very open, and very improvisational, and as they began to respond in their own way, I began to see there were many differences in the ways people moved and the ways they chose to express themselves.” 

When the dances went a little too far in the direction of openness, becoming overly “loose”, she remembered D’Houbler’s instruction, and decided to revisit a more scientific approach to the body. “What’s unique about dance is that our body is our instrument,” she explains. “That’s not true of any of the other arts. I knew I needed to look at this instrument that we have, and figure out a new way to develop it. And that’s what we did.”

“What’s unique about dance is that our body is our instrument... I needed to look at this instrument and figure out a new way to develop it” – Anna Halprin

The rest of the world woke up to her revolutionary approach in 1965, when she and her students (including both her daughters Daria and Rana) performed Halprin’s “Parades And Changes”, one of the most controversial dances ever seen, at the time. It’s a sweet, innocent dance, in which the dancers happen to become entirely nude. “I chose the task of dressing and undressing as my inspiration,” she explains. I thought that this would be very beautiful, because you could see the body as it undressed in many different forms, and it would have a sculptural feeling.” Her studio in Marin, where she still works today, had an outdoor theatre, a wooden deck built by her husband. “Out there, we were very close to the feeling of nature. It is nestled in a wooded area, and it is very private. It didn’t feel coquettish or seductive to be nude in that environment.”

On stage in New York City theatreland however, the nudity was shocking. As they danced, Halprin heard members of the audience whispering “Oh no, they’re not really going to undress…are they?” But they did. In the corner of her eye, Halprin noticed a couple of cops lurking backstage. “I figured, ‘This is New York, maybe it’s a custom,’” she says. The next day, Halprin received a summons for arrest for indecent exposure. She left New York and didn’t go back for ten years. She and her students became outcasts of sorts, shunned by the modern dance circuit. But once again, just like the time she was laughed out of ballet school, or turned down by a college for being Jewish, being rejected by the establishment was a blessing in disguise for Halprin. 

No longer able to perform or tour heavily, she and her dancers had the space and time in which to fully explore, experiment with and evolve the artform they had created – postmodern dance – as well as the healing and therapeutic capabilities of dance. In 1978, Halprin and her daughter Daria, a psychologist and former actress, would found the Tamalpa Institute, teaching “personal, interpersonal and social transformation, teaching new models for health, psychology, art and communication”. 

If it all sounds very tripped out California, well, maybe that’s because it is. Had Daria not had such an unconventional California upbringing, perhaps she would not have been so well suited to co-found the ultra-progressive Tamalpa Institute with her mother. And perhaps she would not have been so well suited to play the lead female role in Antonioni’s cult classic Zabriskie Point – a 1970 art film that captured the essence of the psychedelic counterculture, featuring music by Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. Daria was perfect in the role of a young California hippie chick tripping out in the desert – she had been tripping out all her life, playing and dancing with the most talented avant-garde artists of the time on her mom’s wooden deck, leading a childhood so bohemian, so unconventional, some kids weren’t allowed to come and play at their house… the Halprins were that far out. Daria was married to Dennis Hopper from 1972 to 1976, and had one daughter with him, Ruthana. 

Anna Halprin dancing "Intensive Care"

That’s a long time ago now. Today at their Tamalpa Institute, Daria and her mother work with terminally ill HIV/Aids and cancer patients, as well as students of movement. Halprin has borne witness to the healing power of dance many times. One man, after a two-month workshop with Halprin, drew a selfportrait that showed fire coming out of the side of his head. Six months later he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “I did a similar thing, made a portrait, and that’s how I discovered I had cancer,” says Halprin, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1972. “Your body is your instrument for expression, but your body can also lead you to information that can otherwise be hidden.” She has written a book about how to heal through dance, and made several videos. Maybe to some people, cancer isn’t something to dance about. But to Halprin, dancing is the only response to the realities of life. And perhaps its no coincidence that she looks about 30 years younger than her age, and is still as provocative and focused as she was in her youth. 

You can spend an hour or so of your life getting to know Anna by watching the documentary Breath Made Visible, made by one of her former students, Ruedi Gerber. It’s a touching film, especially when you realise that so much of Halprin’s life has been a love story, with Lawrence. The affection between them is palpable, and enough to bring tears to anyone’s eyes. When Lawrence became sick (he eventually passed away in October 2010), she created the dance “Intensive Care” – a haunting, nightmarish exploration of death and dying that evokes Japanese butoh horror dances in a hospital ward. “That was the most recent thing I did that people started walking out on,” she says. Still, you get the sense that shocking people is the furthest thing from Halprin’s mind when she’s creating a dance. Understanding the images in her head, as inspired by the emotional events of her life, and translating those into movement – that is her life’s work, and will continue to be. Whether it’s shocking or not is irrelevant to her. And even though she may be 90, don’t ever expect Anna Halprin to stop dancing. “Looking young, feeling young, I don’t know if it is in my DNA or it is the demon dancer in me that makes it so, but I feel I am working on dances all the time. I can’t stop. I don’t feel that my age is going to stop me from dancing. I just dance differently. I don’t dance now the way I dance when I was in my 20s or 40s. I dance the way I do when I am 90. And those dances are just as important.”