BY Ross Simonini in Interviews | 07 JUL 16
Featured in
Issue 180

Anna Halprin Reveals Our Universal Connection to the Natural World

Ross Simonini talks to legendary American dancer about movement, healing and improvisation

BY Ross Simonini in Interviews | 07 JUL 16

At the age of 95, the American dancer Anna Halprin continues to create new work, give weekly movement workshops and grant PhDs in the Life Art programme she developed at her Tamalpa Institute in Marin County, California. Along with her contemporary Merce Cunningham and her students Trisha Brown, Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, Halprin is one of the undeniable pioneers of avant-garde dance. Her radical improvisation and stubborn resistance to cohesive style has resulted in works as diverse as Circling the Mountain (1985) – in which she organized mass tribal dancing to protest murders in her community – and Dancing My Cancer (1975), a violent, costumed piece illustrating her use of movement to heal her own cancer.

Since the 1960s, Halprin has documented many of her ideas in writing, including Dancing as a Healing Art (2000), a handbook of multimedia exercises to be used by art teachers, dancers and therapists. With her husband, the architect Lawrence Halprin, she developed a method of visual scoring for her work that recently led to the ongoing series ‘Scores about Nothing’, in which the subject of a dance can be as trivial as the zipping of a sweatshirt. She has spent a lifetime dismissing the boundaries between segregated disciplines (art, dance, medicine) and nationalities. The Planetary Dance (1980), a simple group score, is an attempt to create spontaneous, annual gatherings across the world through mass, synchronized movement.

Anna Halprin in Marin County, California, 1950s, photographed by Ron Partridge. All images courtesy: Anna Halprin

In the winter of 2015, I visited Halprin’s studio in the California redwoods and attended one of her introductory dance courses – three hours of walking, crawling, shaking and physically responding to the dancer’s anecdotal teachings on physics and biology. Afterwards, I followed my teacher across a vast performance deck, up a steep hillside of stone steps and into her modern cabin of a home, where we spoke about her legacy over tea.

Ross Simonini  What is your daily movement practice?

Anna Halprin  I swim, I do hula-hoops. [Laughs] I do 100 hula-hoops a day because I want to get that part of my body moving and I swim for endurance, to get the limbs going. I have a very analytical practice, but I don’t dance on a daily basis because that’s too familiar. I want to do movement that is based more on the physical aspects of dance. 

RS   Do you think about normal daily tasks as part of that?

‘Each person has their own imagination, their own life experiences that affect how they image things. What I do now has taken me a lifetime to systematize.'Anna Halprin

AH  Understanding the objective mechanics of the body is the basis of movement, and that’s endless. Most dancers are stylistic. They are either this style or that style. And I feel that, as an artist-performer, in order for an audience to be able to empathize with you, you have to use a language that’s universal. It can’t be stylistic. So, my philosophy of teaching is: where people understand what they’re doing internally, it will help them as an artist. I always use drawing. I say: ‘Now, draw an image of what you’ve just experienced.’ Or: ‘Now, we do vocal work,’ and I do scores that get people to use their voice, so they become more musically inclined. I do creative writing, so they learn how to be poets. That’s what’s so exciting to me about dance: our bodies are an instrument and, because of that, we become multi-dimensional artists. I try to use dance as the base, but reach out to all the other art forms. That’s why I get so specific that this is the movement you’re doing and this is why, and this is why it connects. You’re a part of nature.

RS   What does that mean to you, being part of nature?

Parades and Changes, 1965, Stockholm, photographed by Ove Ohlstrom

AH  For years, I would never use the word ‘spiritual’. Everybody always, in dance, will talk about the ‘spiritual’. And I would say to myself: I don’t understand what they’re talking about. I don’t even know if I’m spiritual. [Laughs] Then, suddenly, in my later years – I’m 95 now – I thought: well, maybe it’s because we’re really all connected. You know Chief Seattle’s speech? His line that: ‘All things connect.’ I always loved that. But I never knew why I loved it so much. Then, I thought: well, I finally understand how we are connected to the natural world. Maybe that’s spiritual. Maybe that sense of being connected to everything in life is that your body is integrated. You move one part of your body and you can feel it down in your feet, because every part of your body is connected. I know that scientifically but maybe that’s also spiritual: I’m not sure. I know that when tai chi practitioners move they can move out as far as they want to go. And then they bring it back to their centre. There is a definite spot in your body from where all energy flows. The Chinese know that. It’s in their philosophy.

RS  Tan t’ien. The Cauldron, they call it.

AH  But then, I thought: where is the centre? In nature, it’s the horizon. But that’s on the outside. Where is it inside? There were scientists over at UC Berkeley experimenting with LSD [during the 1960s] and they wanted different artists to take it and see what happened. There weren’t many dancers in San Francisco at the time, so they asked if I would do it. I said: ‘No, I don’t want to.’ [Laughs] So many of my friends had gone nuts. The composer Terry Riley was a wreck for a month. We were scared to death. We had to have somebody with him all the time. He was totally insane. But the scientists pleaded with me, so I finally said: ‘OK, but only if there’s a doctor here.’ So I took the stuff, and nothing happened. Nothing! Your colours are supposed to become vivid, everything’s going to just be spectacular. Nothing happened. So everyone got bored – they all left, except the poet Michael McClure who decided to stay with me, and he kept talking to me, and my tongue started to swell because I didn’t want to talk. And then, all at once, it was like a bolt had hit me. BAM! And I fell to the ground. I could feel behind my eyeballs. And then, suddenly, I felt the red spot. I felt all its rays and energy just flowing in all directions. Like a sun. That’s what the Chinese philosophers called it. The red spot. The centre.

RS  And where did you find yours?

AH  Go from the navel down to the tip of your sacrum and, in your imagination, make a diagonal line between those two points, then put a red spot in the centre of that diagonal. We didn’t do that today in class because that takes more time.

RS  Did that end up having an effect on your movement practice?

AH  Totally. When I work with people over time, we go into depth over all the different aspects that I understand about the body’s mechanics. I went to a state university and had a teacher there who was trained as a biologist. I had to do human dissection for a year. I was 17 years old, going to study dance, and I walked into the studio and saw a skeleton. I thought I’d gone to the wrong place. That’s how I learned to appreciate movement.

RS  The Feldenkrais Method works that way, too.

Planetary Dance, 2005, photographed by Marguerite Lorimer

AH  Moshe Feldenkrais was my best friend. Brilliant. I would check things out with him because I don’t know enough about the nervous system and that was his specialty. I learned a lot from him. Did you notice in the class how slowly I worked when I got you on the floor? He worked like that, too – so slowly. Because he internalized. You see, most dance people externalize. They teach from style, from how it looks.

The opposite of Feldenkrais was Ida Rolf. She would just pound into you, force your muscles to do something. Then, of course, by the time she finished, they just got worse. They argued all the time but she and Feldenkrais were good friends. He used to say: ‘If she had studied with me, she wouldn’t have died so soon.’ And then she would say about him: ‘If he had studied with me, he would be a different person.’

‘That's what's so exciting to me about dance: our bodies are an instrument and, because of that, we become multi-dimensional artists.'Anna Halprin

Feldenkrais slowed you down, got you inside your body so you experienced something that was real for you, not somebody else doing something on you. I like to tell people what to do, but not how to do it. That’s when I use the word ‘improvisation’. People understand that word means you do what you want to do. I try to give a basic approach to some essential principle and tell you to create your own experience around that movement. I don’t teach a pattern because everybody’s so different. Each person has their own imagination, their own life experiences that affect how they image things. What I do now has taken me a lifetime to systematize. It’s important because it creates commonalities between cultures, it allows African-Americans to be who they are and it allows Asians to be who they are. It allows each race to express its cultural heritage. I think that makes people healthy. I discovered I had cancer through an image I drew. I drew a dark image in my abdominal and I drew a dark area in my pelvic region, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. So, I thought I’d better go to see a doctor because it was trying to tell me something. And that’s how I discovered I had drawn my tumour. I thought: ‘Wow!’ They removed the tumour and the doctor said to me: ‘Well, you’re cured now. But let’s make sure that, for the next five years, you stay free, because it could spread.’ So I said to him: ‘It’s funny because I may be cured but I don’t feel healed. I discovered I had cancer through my dance. Maybe I can heal it through my dance.’ I then had a recurrence, so I said: ‘Give me a month.’

RS  To try and heal it on your own?

AH  Yes. I worked every day on a healing process and the tumour disappeared.

RS  How did you work on it?

In and Out of the Mountain, 1981, Mt. Tampalpais, photographer unknown

AH  By then, I understood the relationship between imagery and how it was communicating, so I said: ‘I’m going to take one part of my body at a time and I’m going to spend a week working on all the movement possibilities: what’s happening in the joints, what’s happening in the muscles. When you intensify or relax, how are the dynamics making you not just feel – feel is sensorial – but what is the emotion behind it? How is it related to something in your life?’ And I thought: I feel angry. What am I angry at? And I realized I was angry at anti-semitism, at the prejudice I had experienced my whole life growing-up in Illinois, when I hadn’t been able to visit my friends because their parents didn’t allow Jews in their house. As a kid, I could never understand it, but it made me sick – that I had a friend in school but I couldn’t go to her birthday party. It brought all that up for me. I realized that was still in my body, that anger; it was creating the natural flow of energy in my body, and it was getting stuck. It was literally making me sick in my stomach.

RS  Do you continue to use movement to heal?

AH  I do visualizations every day. I have images.

RS  When you say visualizations, are you drawing or is it picturing things in your mind?

AH  I do both but drawing is more effective. And you don’t have to be an artist. Some of the drawings are very crude, but they’re strong because they’re real. I’ve been trying to analyze colour. Why people use certain colours and what that colour has to do with where they’re at. For example, a lot of times people use green and orange. Why? Well, when I look out here, I see green is the colour of growth. Orange is the colour of sunset. Yellow is the colour of the sun. Blue is the colour of the sky.

RS  Do your drawings have a connection with the visual scores?

AH  Scoring is something that my husband, Larry, developed. It’s a wonderful process. That’s a whole subject in itself.

RS  Did you develop the RSVP cycle together in 1969, the two of you?

AH  A little bit. He has this intellect and I don’t have that. He’s able to organize, intellectually, information. Essentially, a score is an activity in space, over time, with people. Those are the four elements you need to create any kind of an event or a product. What he got from me was that I started a process of workshops and he said: ‘That’s interesting! That’s what I ought to do when I design! I ought to get input from the people I’m designing for and then create my design from those resources.’ So, he got that from me and I got the RSVP cycle from him. We worked together fine and had a good relationship. We were married for 70 years. 70 years: isn’t that a good one?

Parades and Changes, 1970, performed by San Francisco Dancer's Workshop for the opening of the University Art Museum, Berkeley, photographed by Paul Fusco

RS  Are you still making scores for new dances?

AH  I have a score called Parades and Changes that I did at least 20 years ago, which is still being done by people in France and in Poland; I did it in Israel. It’s a score that is so flexible you could take sections of it out and put new sections in that are more appropriate for the place you’re doing it, for the time you’re doing it. That’s probably the best score I’ve ever done because of its ability to adjust to every situation.

RS  What is your definition of improvisation?

AH  An improvisation is an open score. It tells you what to do, but not how to do it. You just have resources. Do what you want with them. Sometimes, a score can leave the activity very open. Some­times, it can be very closed, as with The Planetary Dance. For instance, it says: ‘Run in a counter-circle; run to the beat.’ That’s very closed. However, you have choices that will allow for your differences. Young people love the vigorous run, because it’s a big circle and it’s a vigorous run. But then, in the next run, the space is smaller, so it’s more like a jog. And the next circle says: ‘Walk.’ If you’re tired, you walk. And, in the final circle, if you feel like you’ve had enough, you just stand still and clap to the music. That is a closed score, but it has open elements in it. There’s a whole technique to scoring and to which scores are appropriate for which situation. You know, they teach choreography and it’s a real study, like learning music composition. I don’t teach choreography, but scoring has the same discipline. It takes a lot of knowledge and experience, but it’s a completely different process. It’s more participatory, inclusive. Everybody has the talent to score at any age. Not everybody has the talent to choreograph. You have to be special to be a good choreographer. I don’t know any choreographer that I would want to study with. I don’t want to do somebody else’s thing. I want to do my own thing.

Ross Simonini is a writer, artist and musician living between New York and Northern California, USA.