Anna Halprin’s Living Legacy

July 13, 2021  by Dr. Suki Munsell

Following Anna’s death on May 24th, at 100 years of age, the deep grief I feel is blended with gratitude for the life changing gifts I received from my mentor, colleague, and friend over forty-five years. I search for ways to describe her great legacy. Attempting to do so seems a daunting task – capturing nearly eight decades of ground breaking dance, performance arts, choreography, and teaching.

I’m looking at a deck of Angel Cards. Each tiny card features a single word and a little drawing of an angel. No one word can possibly summarize her legacy. But sitting atop the deck is a righteous word – CREATIVITY–  a theme throughout Anna’s career. The little angel on the card bends to tend her garden.

A dancer and choreographer,” the New York Times describes Anna in its eulogy “who sought to move beyond what she saw as the constraints of modern dance, and whose experiments inspired, challenged and sometimes perplexed generations of dancers and audiences.”

Anna’s exploration of her creative path gets her labeled as a firebrand, a trailblazer, a genius. “At one of our performances in Italy,” Anna liked to relate, “they threw tomatoes at us. An older man came up to the stage and yelled at me, in heavy English,‘for this we discovered America.’” Her eyes twinkle recalling the memory.

Anna broadens our understanding of the creative process and the creative life force itself. Her method allows us to intimately explore our self-creativity, how we create with others and with nature, of which we are an intrinsic part.

The Self-Creative Process

Studying with Anna felt like coming home to myself, to the dispossessed, forgotten, or uncelebrated parts of who I am. Connection. Permission. Acknowledgement. I learned to feel myself, to speak it, to trust it, to offer it. And for hundreds of her students, to teach it.

 “You always saw the potential in each of us and empowered us to dance, sing, experiment, improvise, play, and listen in new ways to our bodies, to each other, to the ocean, trees, wind.“

Joy Consuela, Tamalpa teacher 

“Anna created the right conditions for learning – her affirmative facilitation – where she valued and celebrated peoples uniqueness, their expressions, who they were as a person – children and adults. She was so skilled and ingenious at having us experience the possibilities of being a participant in the living world.”

Ken Otter, Tamalpa teacher

On her redwood dance deck, Anna explores organic ways of moving with her students. We frolic and leap, roll in puppy piles, walk unsteadily heel-to-toe on the top of thick braided rope. We stroll barefoot into the redwood grove a few yards beyond the deck. Our senses heightened, we meld into the towering trees, the verdant ferns, the springy mosses.

“She intuitively knew how to connect to nature; she gave us a very clear process on how to do that, through our bodies, and through creativity.”

Ken Otter, Tamalpa teacher

The dance studio adjacent to the deck became a second home to me. Light filters through the trees entering the tall windows on three sides, illuminating the sprung wood floor and textured rust-hued wall. The wall seems to absorb and radiate the power of our living dances.

The Creative Life Art Process

Magic happens within the studio, dramas unfold, dreams manifest. Anna invites us to dance ourselves alive. Stories embodied within us take shape.  We turn the dance into a drawing , title it with three words – maybe a poem – noting our experience physically, emotionally, mentally.  We share with a partner who might dance what we express. We feel seen, heard, freed. Each form of creative expression – the dance, the drawing, the writing, the talking – mirrors our in-formation process. “Your life informs your art, and your art informs your life,” Anna says. This is the Life Art Process, the core of her legacy.

In one corner of the studio resides a life size skeleton. She shows us the pelvic bones of the skeleton, how they connect to the spine and the hips – their range, their limitations. Anna teaches us to internalize the movement in our pelvis. She leads us through exercises, from floor, to standing, to moving. Anna calls these exercises, “movement explorations,” a term I use with my students today.

We perform them with curiosity and care. I notice my pelvic range, my edges, right/left differences. What changes with breath, with sounds. These sensations give rise to emotions, trigger memories, inspire thoughts, evoke new movement. I learn to use my total body as an instrument to express my experience and my passion for life.

On large paper I illustrate my experience – termed “drawing visualizations” – using creamy pastels and colorful crayons that awaken the uncensored expression of childhood pictures. The pelvic bones I sketch seem to quiver on the paper. I capture ripples of color that expand outward, upward, squirming as if to break free. My drawing morphs into a butterfly, flutters lifts off, and returns home to my pelvis where it still lives.

Suki’s Drawing Visualization, 2013

“She knew embodiment and knew how to teach it the most efficient way possible. Once you are in your body, the sky’s the limit and everything can happen from that place. You keep pushing those limits to see what’s next.”

Carole Naber, student

“She invited us into a bodily process that we can actually feel, to immerse ourselves into the direct participation of the living world, and weave into the parts of our lives.”

Ken Otter, Tamalpa teacher

Breaking Professional Boundaries 

Anna is credited with pioneering post-modern dance. She expanded the boundaries of her profession, as a dancer and as an educator. She opened the field to include the total environment – structural, natural, diverse, and stripped bare. She added new resources – from sensory impressions to embodied emotions, from ceremony redefined to ritual rewritten. This was her playground, her creativity unbounded.When dance evolved from the center of a village to an elevated stage, a split occurred between performer and audience. Anna broke the invisible barrier that developed, termed the proscenium arch. She invited the audience to engage as witness, and at times as performer. Dance, performance art, and theatre as we know it was forever changed.

Following the Watts Riot in Los Angeles in 1969, Anna traveled to Watts and formed a troupe of dancers. For three days a week she led them through a series of dance explorations. She followed the same routine at Dancers Workshop in San Francisco. After several months, she brought the two groups together to explore black/white tensions through the common language of dance. Racism, body image, sexuality, sexism, and other themes emerged. These issues became resources for dancing – from division to eventual reconciliation. The cathartic performance which emerged was named Right On, but soon became lovingly known as the Ceremony of Us.

Anna staged a similarly cathartic performance with a group of HIV positive men in 1989’s Circle the Earth. She described her personal experience. “During a most emotional, volcanic performance called Dancing with Life on the Line, we were working with a hundred people with HIV/AIDS who were actually facing the reality of dying.”

“I had given Suki one of the most difficult roles in our performance, suitable only for someone with the courage and strength to deal with this life-consuming experience in which these hundred performers confronted their own death. The performers’ faces became masks, contorted in the most agonizing and frightening expressions as they advanced toward the audience. Suki was positioned next to me on the front line. We moved slowly forward in a strong warrior dance, between the performers and the audience, giving those watching time to assimilate the force that was approaching them. This section of the dance was so intense that we had given the audience masks and told them to put them on, to protect themselves from receiving the full brunt and terror of the performance.”

Anna Halprin, in forward to Dynamic Walking, unpublished manuscript

Self- Healing

Anna discovered the power of drawing visualizations for self-healing. In 1972 while working on a self-portrait she intuitively drew a large black mass in her abdomen. Haunted by this image she went to her doctor who diagnosed colorectal cancer. Surgery and a colostomy followed. “They routed it through my belly-button,” she told us, “so I could continue performing nude.”

“Three years later, the cancer returned. Anna had not exorcised that initial drawing by dancing it. She always wondered what might have happened if she had.”

James Nixon, longtime collaborator

Anna did not make that mistake again. As part of her recovery, in 1975, she drew a second portrait and realized she needed to dance it. I had met Anna a few months earlier. Thirty of us were invited to witness her dance and add our healing intentions. It was my first time at Dancer’s Workshop. I was nervous. I remember …

“We stand in the dark, cavernous studio in front of an elevated stage. Hung on the back wall behind Anna is her life-size self-portrait. She begins moving slowly, lyrically. Vulnerable and raw, she retreats into a private, tortured hell. Her primal screams reverberate off the bare walls, a visceral anguish that seem spawned by the cancer within. Her rage grows from a palpable, burning presence into a laser-like fierceness. From deep within a fighting spirit roars forth, filling the vast space, trembling through me.”

“I watch with breath suspended, frozen in place. Anna appears to grow larger, to glow from within. She illuminates the self-portrait hung behind her. In the audience we catch a collective breath. I can not remember what happens next; I’m no longer thinking.”

“Something happened in this dance that I can’t explain,” Anna wrote years later. “I felt I had been on a mysterious journey to an ancientplace. Time and place were suspended and I was in an endless blue void. The experience left me shaken and cleansed. After this dance my body went into spontaneous remission.”

Anna Halprin, Returning to Health with Dance, Movement and Imagery, 2002

Anna recovered fully, her cancer never to return. Her dance served as my initiation. I experienced the unbridled creative life force, channeled and unleashed. Insights etched my brain; I witnessed dance and drawing melded to intention, infused with passion, in the service of transformation and healing.

I knew this work would be my calling.

 

 

Collective Creativity 

A new chapter in Anna’s life begins when the San Francisco studio closes and our training moves to her Mountain Home studio and deck in Marin County. “Anna’s curiosity kept expanding,” Robin Rinaldi writes in 2018 about the then 98 year-young dancer in S.F. Magazine“Her interest in adding a somatic layer to what had traditionally been an aesthetic pursuit turns out to be lifelong. But she also wondered how can dance, freed from its former confines, be used to connect people, heal them, and give them a voice.”  “My idea,” Anna says “was to use dance to strengthen your connection to your community.” 

Tamalpa Institute

“Anna and her daughter Daria Halprin, a movement therapist,” writes Rinaldi, “co-found 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. The institute now has four international branches and alumni implement its holistic approach in troubled communities around the world.”

During Anna’s career she collaborates with dancers, musicians, artists, and her lifelong partner Lawrence. In this phase, she and Larry refine methods for collective creativity that facilitate both personal and community healing – ideas that spread around the world. The R.S.V.P. Cycle and the Planetary Dances are among the couple’s most enduring contributions.

The R.S.V.P. Cycle

In Larry’s R.S.V.P. Cycle class we gather our Resources based on what we want to perform – why, when, where, and how. All ideas are considered without judgement. If we had performed the event before, that too is a resource – how it worked or not, why, and how performing in a different environment necessitates change. The best ideas emerge, feel right, move forward.

From our resources we create the Score, a visual language of communication that anyone can read and perform. “I don’t use the word choreography,” Anna writes. “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 are not static.” (Performance score for Giza, Egypt above.)

We Perform the score. As performers, we are asked to “not break the score.” However, Anna will change the score during the performance. We expect it. Part of her choreographic brilliance is orchestrating changes in a split second – in performers, tempo, activities – as needed. We learn by watching the changes, in counterpoint to the original score.

During the Valuaction following the performance we objectively discuss how true we were to the score. “The valuaction is the evaluation minus the of emotion,” explains Larry. Emotion is a valuable resource but not appropriate in the valuation. Anna explains her reasoning for changes she made during the performance, resources for the next performance.

“The R.S.V.P. Cycle is a way of making things visible,” Larry wrote in the Introduction to his Notebooks 1959-1971,“… and working with process towards objectives rather than toward predetermined goals. It is open and inclusive rather than closed and exclusive – a way of making multiple input possible and encouraging groups of people through the cycles to influence and be accountable for their own destiny in art and life.” Larry, a renowned landscape architect, used the R.S.V.P. Cycle to design and build many projects including the F.D.R. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The Planetary Dances

The Planetary Dances are Anna’s chosen legacy piece, a ritual that has been held over a forty year span on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California. You can read in Anna’s latest book, Making Dances that Matter, of the dance’s storied history, born of the murders on our beloved mountain which she and Larry, and our community, helped to heal.

At the Marin event, hundreds of participants gather. We welcome and prepare them to express their deepest intentions for healing themselves, their loved ones, their culture, and their planet. We proceed in ceremony to the meadow and form a great circle. Each of us, in turn, proclaims our intention and begins running “in the spirit of peace with each other and with the earth.”

“The Planetary Dances began on our little mountain right here,” Anna delights in the telling, “and are now danced in over 46 countries.” 

Venues have included the Eiffel Tower in Paris, a former rocket base in Germany, an Israeli-Palestinian think-tank in Jerusalem, the Venice Biennale in Italy, twice in China, and at the De Young Museum in San Francisco in 2018 when Anna was 98 years old. As the dance travels the world, each community chooses its own theme and each participant their own intention for healing. “Part of the international adaptation and vitality of The Planetary Dances,” Larry wrote in his Notebooks“rests in that foundation.”

Anna’s Living Legacy 

Anna’s legacy lives in the Planetary Dances and is carried forth by her many students and teachers world-wide.

 “Anna always demanded a lot of presence. She wants us to be the artist of our lives and be exactly who we are, and express it exactly as we do.”

Barbara Borden, drummer, performer, and teacher

Twenty-five years after meeting Anna, I graduated from her training as a Halprin Life Arts Teacher, finished my Ph.D., and became a Registered Somatic Movement Educator and Therapist (RSME, RSMT). Anna, the studio, the community, the Life Art approach, became my world. We traveled, we danced, we grew. I apply her methods to many subjects and many age groups: from teaching roller skating to masque therapy, from teaching gravity inversion to walking transformation, from teaching children to college students to adults. Her work works.

“If there was one thing that solidified my enduring connection [with Anna], it was a shared dedication to being the best possible teachers we could be – to approach somatic-expressive education as a creative, essential art practice that is empowering, liberating and ultimately healing for every-body.”

Jamie McHugh, teacher

“I knew of Anna for years but never studied with her.  But what I see in you [Suki] is your innate ability to connect us to our inner child and the freedom we can have in our bodies. It’s you having gone through that pivotal time of learning with her, and it feels pretty pure.” 

Holly Badgley, 2nd generation student

Farewell Anna

If you have missed saying good-bye to Anna, you can find her at AnnaHalprin.org and DancesforAnna.org. Vicariously dance with her while watching Rememberingher farewell performance with her grandson, performance artist, Jahan Khalighi. I have sobbed every time (at time code 14:00) when, with simple gestures, she turns away from him knowing she must continue alone.

Farewell, dear Teacher. You will live on in our hearts and in our bodies.

Suki Munsell, teacherJuly 13, 2021, Anna’s 101st birthday