Anna Halprin's Curtain Call

Robin Rinaldi | October 2, 2018 | Lifestyle Story Galleries and Performance News and Features Culture

Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the October 2018 Legacy Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

There’s something about Anna Halprin that makes you forget you’re talking to one of the groundbreaking artists of the past century. Maybe it’s the tiny frame and the wiry silver hair. Maybe it’s the mirth-filled eyes. Or the irreverence. “Did you see that balloon of Trump as a giant baby they used in England to protest his visit?” she asks me. “I’ve written and asked if they could please lend it to me for my events at the de Young.”

It actually makes a lot of sense. After all, this is a woman who was arrested for obscenity in 1965 in New York City when she staged Parades and Changes, in which dancers repeatedly undress and dress in slow motion. And who in response to the Vietnam War created Placard Dance, in which participants were invited to carry blank protest signs through the streets, filling them in with suggestions made by onlookers. Halprin has been stirring up the world of dance for 80 years, and her work continues to inspire and enlighten dancers and audiences around the globe.

The dance pioneer’s trailblazing career will be celebrated this month as the de Young Museum presents Anna Halprin: Body Radical, a major series of performances, films, workshops, and public dances. And a huge balloon of a wailing Donald Trump would fit in perfectly with her democratic, participatory, and provocative artistic vision. “I’d love to have it!” she says, throwing her head back with a quick laugh. “Isn’t it a kick, that balloon?”

Halprin comes across like a sweet but feisty 98-year-old Jewish grandma—which, as a matter of fact, she is. But it just so happens that, back in the late 1950s and early ’60s, this sweet, feisty Jewish grandma basically invented postmodern dance out on her redwood deck in Marin. To be clear, it’s not your average deck, even by Kentfield standards. Halprin and I are standing in her living room, all warm wood and soaring glass, looking out at it: a large, distant platform located down a steep ravine from the house—past steps, a pool, more steps, and a second building. Its weathered surface extends into the surrounding forest. Halprin’s late husband, the iconic landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, designed it for her in the early ’50s, soon after they purchased their home, so that his wife could do things her way. Which meant exploring dance’s potential out in nature with her two young daughters, instead of locked inside a Manhattan studio imitating Martha Graham.

Not that she didn’t try. Like many young dancers of the time, Halprin made a pilgrimage to New York to learn from Graham, the dominatrix of modern dance, who had liberated the form from the unnatural 180-degree angles of ballet only to codify an entirely new language of measured breathing, angular contraction, and great sweeping spirals of the torso and limbs. Young Halprin was not moved. “Rather than teaching her experience as a dancer, she was teaching us how to dance like her,” she says. “I could never dance like Martha Graham. I could sprain my ligaments trying.” Halprin’s theory is that all human bodies can be categorized as either turtles—loose limbed, flexible, low to the ground—or kangaroos: shallow jointed and light, less flexible but springier. “Martha was definitely a turtle,” she says. “I’m a kangaroo.”

Lest you think this metaphor too folksy to register in the annals of dance history, consider what Halprin did next. She returned to California and began holding workshops on her new deck in which she explored organic ways of moving—walking, reaching, climbing, rolling—often taking participants to nearby woods and beaches to improvise and engage with nature. She gave dancers permission to adjust moves and timing to their own bodies and intuition. Rather than viewing the body as simply a disciplined instrument for making pretty shapes, she encouraged dancers to speak, growl, or sing, breaching a hitherto-sacrosanct barrier.

The students who came to learn from Halprin, including Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, and Yvonne Rainer, found themselves changed. That trio would return to New York and become part of a revolutionary circle of dancers, musicians (among them John Cage), and visual artists called the Judson Dance Theater. Judson existed for only four years, from 1962 to 1966, but helped give birth to postmodern dance—a more natural exploration of human movement, free of spectacle and virtuosity. The company influenced major figures such as Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs, and Pina Bausch and loosened the pedagogy of modern and even ballet choreographers worldwide.

Meanwhile, Halprin’s curiosity kept expanding. Her interest in adding a somatic layer to what had traditionally been an aesthetic pursuit would turn out to be lifelong. But she also wondered how dance, freed from its former confines, might be used to connect people, heal them, and give them a voice. “My idea was to use dance to strengthen your connection to your community,” she says.

In 1969, she trained two sets of dancers—an all-white group in San Francisco and an all-black troupe in Watts—and brought them together for Right On (Ceremony of Us), an experimental piece that expressed both the intense racial tensions of the time and the prospect of reconciliation. The performance wasn’t filmed, but watching the rehearsal footage, you quickly perceive the capacity of dance to confront charged social issues that can thwart discussion or debate. She staged a similar catharsis with a group of HIV-positive men in 1989’s Circle the Earth.

She also used her artistry to address more personal crises. In 1972, while working on a self-portrait, she intuitively drew a large black mass in her abdomen. Haunted by the image, she went to her doctor, who diagnosed her with colorectal cancer. After surgery and a recurrence three years later, she created 1975’s Exorcism of Cancer. In videos of the piece, she appears to be literally fighting the disease, samurai-style, with her body and voice. She considers the dance to have been an integral part of her recovery.

A few years later, Halprin and her daughter Daria Halprin, a movement therapist, cofounded the Tamalpa Institute, a first-of-its-kind training program for expressive arts therapy—a combination of movement, art, somatics, and psychology that can be applied to performance just as easily as it can to individual or group healing. The institute, based in San Rafael, now has four international branches, and alumni implement its holistic approach in troubled communities around the world.

It was at Tamalpa that Halprin created the work she is most proud of, The Planetary Dance, which will be staged as a participatory event at the de Young. It had its genesis in 1981, when she led a group of dancers along the Mount Tamalpais trails where six women had recently been murdered, in an effort to “reclaim the mountain,” she says, and restore peace. Days later, the killer was caught. Halprin has repeated the ritual each spring ever since, expanding its scope so that participants can choose the cause they perform for and simplifying its structure into a basic circle dance reminiscent of a Native American rain ceremony.

The work continues to grow. To date, The Planetary Dance has been staged in 46 countries on six continents, including at a former rocket base in Germany, at the Eiffel Tower, and at an Israeli-Palestinian think tank in Jerusalem. Last year, hundreds of people took part in it at the Venice Biennale. Also on exhibit there was one of Halprin’s “scores”—graphic renderings outlining the basic construction of a dance. This particular score, for Male and Female Dance Rituals, takes the form of variously sized circles embedded in a series of pastel-­colored waves titled “drum,” “breath,” “drone,” “voice,” “percussion,” and so forth. It is 30 feet long. “I don’t use the word choreography,” Halprin says. “Choreography is when one person has an idea and tells everyone else what to do. A score is an outline that incorporates input from participants. Scores also change with time. They’re not static.”

Halprin got the idea from watching her husband use blueprints to map out his environmental designs. The couple collaborated closely during their 70-year marriage, until Lawrence’s death in 2009. When he was hospitalized in critical condition in 2000, Halprin channeled her fear into Intensive Care, which tackles death head-on: Dancers in white hospital gowns struggle, writhe, and eventually surrender to silent keepers dressed in black. “Some people get up and walk out,” Halprin told a KQED interviewer of Intensive Care. “It’s not an easy performance to watch.”

Two years ago, I attended Halprin’s annual workshop at the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur. For five days, Daria and several assistants provided most of the active demonstration while Halprin sat at the front of the room instructing from a wheelchair. I had assumed that the wheelchair was due to her age (96 at the time), but no: She informed us that she had fractured her back. “I’ll be up and moving again in a few weeks,” she said.

We spent whole mornings exploring the muscular pattern of swinging from the waist. We engaged with one another in improvisational push-pulls. We got down on the floor with pastels and drew our own bodies, walked barefoot in slow motion through the dirt and rocks of Big Sur, arched our backs over pillows until the tensions of our desk jobs melted.

The final day, we learned The Planetary Dance. It consisted of three concentric circles, with Halprin and a few percussionists sitting in the middle. When we were in the large outer circle, we ran. When we got tired, we moved into the middle circle and walked fast in the opposite direction. If we tired of that, we again reversed, moving into the innermost circle, and walked slowly, exiting that circle to rest in the center with Halprin and the percussionists if we felt like it.

Before entering the outermost circle from the perimeter of the room, we were asked to announce the person or condition to which we wanted to bring peace. At the time, a close friend of mine was in rehab, so I announced, “I run for everyone affected by addiction.” Others ran for the healing of the environment, for the eradication of violence, for Black Lives Matter. There were as many causes as people.

I’m a very bad runner. Two minutes into a casual jog, I get side stitches. But I ran fast in the outer circle for nearly an hour, pausing only a few times to catch my breath in the middle circle before heading back out to run hard to the beat of the drums. Halprin sat at the center watching, her eyes focused calmly as we whirled by in a blur.

When I ask her now why she thinks I didn’t get tired or cramp up, her eyes gleam. “The power of purpose,” she says. “You had a reason to dance.”

Anna Halprin: Body Radical is at the de Young Museum Oct. 20, 21, and 28.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Follow us on Twitter at @sanfranmag
Follow Robin Rinaldi @Robin_Rinaldi


Photography by: