Artist revelling in the plasticity of daily life

Anna Halprin
June 15, 2007

Anna Halprin's manuals have long functioned as key guides to a holistic dance practice that integrates the emotional and physical in an art-life interface that recognises no distinctions between experience and creativity. Now, three years after Libby Worth and Helen Poyner's useful textbook introduction to Halprin's radical dance work, Janice Ross offers an indispensable critical biography of this modern dance pioneer.

Halprin's career, like that of Pina Bausch, demonstrates the body as a site of exploration and experience. Ross's meticulous study of Halprin's work positions it in the context of wider 20th-century cultural movements that are, in turn, refracted through her dance. Halprin's is a vision of dance as part of everyday existence drawing on objects from the material world in inspiring a new plasticity of movement that recognises the rituals of daily life as art. The genesis, execution, evolution and analysis of key productions - from the disclosures of Parades and Changes (1965) to the healing ethos of Intensive Care (2000) - are central to Ross's thesis.

Environment is never shown as a given but rather as a process of negotiation and part of a consistent interrogation of how on-stage events are shaped by off-stage factors.

Hers is a trajectory that Ross compares to comic Lenny Bruce and photographer Diane Arbus's framing of the more invisible facets of early 1960s American culture, to Jerzy Grotowski's rethinking of performer/spectator relationships and Mark Rothko's attempts to strip art from narrative logic. Halprin is conceived as the Lucille Ball of 1950s dance: a comic locating dance as a practice bridging both the stage environment and the home.

Throughout, we are given the sense of a practitioner using improvisation as a means of discovery. Consistently it is the classroom that serves as the site for probing the relationship between thought and action with the space of performance conceived as an educational arena for both dancers and audiences. The creative tensions between Halprin as pedagogue and practitioner are played out throughout the biography.

From her unconventional training with Margaret H'Doubler at the University of Wisconsin to her own educational workshops with children, cancer support and Aids groups, Halprin is shown to be more than a choreographer. Rather, the focus is on constructing experiments that allow participants to produce dances that link the social and performing selves.

Ross maps the many influences that have shaped Halprin's choreographies, from Jewish myths to Samuel Beckett. Her husband, the landscape architect Lawrence (Larry) Halprin, remains a constant presence whose views of landscape as choreography are informed by and informing of her own choreographic practices.

Other artistic collaborations, such as those with composer Luciano Berio and psychotherapist Eugene Sagan, provide revelatory insights into a working process where spontaneity is sometimes shown to have problematic ethical consequences. Ross's biography does not evade the thorny issues involved in placing the adolescent naked female body - that of Halprin's eldest daughter - on stage in Parades and Changes or the evasion of the dynamics of racism in Ceremony of Us (1969), the collaboration with the Studio Watts.

The portrait of Halprin that emerges in this remarkable study is of a restless experimenter incessantly redrawing paradigms that demonstrate the ways in which dance can go beyond the act of talking to ourselves to embrace how we relate to larger communities.

From the Jewish girl who embraced modern dance to the elderly grandmother balancing the desire for remembrance against the imminence of disappearance, we are provided with a sense of Halprin's body as both subject and object of the performative.

By indicating how Halprin's practices have been inflected in the artistic journeys of Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, Joseph Chaikin and the Living Theatre of Julian Beck and Judith Molina, Ross's intelligent biography maps an approach to creation that has prioritised the sensory and the therapeutic in ways that have left their traces across the panorama of contemporary dance-theatre practices.

Maria M. Delgado is professor of theatre and screen arts, Queen Mary, University of London.

Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance

Author - Janice Ross
Publisher - University of California Press
Pages - 142
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 9780520247574

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