Out of the box – and out of this world

At age 90, US post-modern dance pioneer Anna Halprin conducts workshops here, in which she conveys her credo that ‘everyone should dance as they feel’

Anna Halprin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Anna Halprin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
They say that seeing is believing, but in Anna Halprin’s case seeing is being amazed. Halprin was in Israel a couple of weeks ago to front some dance workshops at various locations around the country, including Neveh Shalom and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance of the Hebrew University.
She also attended the Spirit Film Festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, where the documentary about her life, entitled Breath Made Visible, was screened; so naturally, she gave a workshop there, too. Halprin had a pretty busy schedule during her visit here from San Francisco which, considering she is one of the pioneers of experimental or post-modern dance, is only to be expected. On the other hand, Halprin turned 90 earlier this year.
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The four-hour workshop Halprin conducted at the academy was a wonderful and enlightening experience, and the nonagenarian showed few signs of fatigue during the long stint with the students, some of whom could have been her great-grandchildren.
For nigh on 70 years, Halprin has followed her belief that anyone can dance and that everyone should dance as they feel, without the strictures of acquired education.
“I became disenchanted with the pioneers of modern dance, like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey,” she declares. “I was initially drawn to them, but after a while I saw that if you studied with Martha Graham, for example, you danced like Martha Graham. But that isn’t right. We should express what we are, not what our teacher tells us to do.”
That ethos came across loud and clear during the workshop in Jerusalem. Halprin, who was visiting Israel as a Fellow of the Fulbright Program of the United States-Israel Educational Foundation, regaled the participants with colorful tales of her encounters with Native Americans and of her artistic endeavor, as well as humorous anecdotes from her long life thus far.
The highlight of the workshop was the Planetary Dance, which was inspired by a piece of advice Halprin had received from a 109- year-old shaman around 30 years ago. We ended up dancing and running in concentric circles for quite a while, expending bucketloads of energy but palpably feeding off some other energy source. It was an exhilarating experience for one and all, including Halprin who observed us with great joy.
“The Planetary Dance is now performed in 46 countries across the world,” Halprin told me in a post-workshop interview. “It seems to have just taken off.”
HALPRIN HERSELF “took off” a long time ago. She started ballet lessons at the age of five, but her mother soon took her out of the course when her daughter was laughed at by the other students for her seemingly ungainly poise. Even at that tender age, it set Halprin off on a quest for selfexpression through dance, a path she has steadfastly followed ever since.
After leaving high school, Halprin attended the University of Wisconsin and came across a person whom she calls “the best teacher I could have wished for.” The mentor in question was Margaret H’Doubler, who emphasized the importance of personal creativity and encouraged the study of anatomy to achieve the most effective ways of moving. Halprin imbibed this with gusto and soon began putting theory into practice.
In the 1950s she established the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop to give artists like herself a safe haven in which to practice their art. She freely explored the capabilities of her own body and created a systematic way of moving using kinesthetic awareness. Much of this work was undertaken on a large deck constructed at her San Francisco home by her husband, Lawrence, who was a landscape architect and designed the promenade in Armon Hanatziv in Jerusalem.
As has often been the case with artists with a tendency for thinking and working outside the box, there is a backlash from the mainstream avenues of art or from the general public. Halprin was on the receiving end of a generous dose of vitriol when her company performed Parade and Chains in New York in 1968, which included a scene with nudity. She was hounded out of town and warned that she would be incarcerated if she ventured back to the Big Apple.
Since beating a bout with cancer almost 40 years ago – which she says she cured through dance when she released “a big black bird” from inside her – Halprin has devoted much of her time and talents to teaching and to healing physical and social ills. In the late 1960s, following race riots in Los Angeles, she worked with a white dance company and an African- American group, eventually bringing them together.
“That was a learning experience for all of us,” she recalls. “We all realized that we had preconceptions about blacks and whites – me included.”
More than anything, Halprin feels her Jewish roots have informed her entire life and work. “I think my Jewishness comes into everything I do – my value system and what I consider liberal and democratic. I hate anything autocratic. I will not bow down before a golden image.”