Anna Halprin—An American Dance Legend Visits Santa Cruz

by Renée Rothman

Once in a while, if you’re very lucky and very determined, you get to see a living legend. The Santa Cruz dance community was honored by the visit of one such legend, Anna Halprin, a charismatic American dance pioneer. Breath Made Visible, a new feature-length film documenting her life, was previewed at the Rio Theater on Saturday night. Halprin, now 89 years old, made a personal appearance and took questions at the end of the film.

Swiss producer-director Ruedi Gerber compiled archival footage (there’s a ton of historical footage—the Halprin’s were obviously incurable documentarians as well dancers) with contemporary interviews to create a compelling bio-pic of Halprin’s life and loves. It explores her development as an artist from her studies with Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham, to her post-modern avant garde period, to her creation of community dance rituals. Through the film, we watch her when she dances her way through cancer inspiring her to develop strategies for dancing with AIDS patients, senior citizens, and the natural environment itself.

Equally fascinating, though, is Gerber’s portrait of the Halprin family—Anna, her world-renowned architect husband, Lawrence, and their daughters Daria and Rana. In the 1960s, their home and outdoor studio in Marin County, California became a center of dance exploration and experimentation with ongoing classes, rehearsals, workshops, and performances. Everyone was involved. In recent interviews for the Gerber film, the now adult daughters seemed to have mixed feelings about the eccentricities of their home life: we were too young to know the difference between performance and home, they said. Still, in 1978 Daria and Anna founded The Tamalpa Institute to promote and develop the connection Anna had made between art and healing.

The love story between Anna and her beloved husband Lawrence is central to this film. They met and married as young New York artists and lived happily ever after—for seventy years, until Lawrence’s death in 2009. When Lawrence took ill several years ago, Anna composed a devastating piece in which dancers sitting in hospital beds face their own deaths. Anna’s haunting performance was a courageous tour de force. Their love and respect for one another was present throughout Gerber’s film.

A who’s who of local modern dance teachers, students, and aficionado packed the Rio Theater on Saturday night to see the film, but perhaps even more so to see Anna Halprin live. We were generally not a youngish group (I’m guessing mostly over 40) and many of us are facing new limitations as dancers. But listening to the vitality in her voice, hearing her plans for future performances (one, a memorial to Lawrence to be performed at his architectural contributions to The City of San Francisco)…This woman will be 90 in July. Personally, I will never again be able to say “I’m too old to dance” but only “I need a new dance.”

Anna Halprin lives her dance. She dances personal and planetary healing, she dances social change, she dances love and joy and grief. She is a performing artist and a healing artist who asserts her own truth in kinesthetic form. She has achieved a state of dance that few of us in the audience can hope to reach…but then, we’re still relatively young.

Anna Halprin still teaches and dances. Her next public dance ritual is Planetary Dance on June 6.

Breath Made Visible is currently available on DVD at selected theatrical showings only.

(This was cross-posted from Dance Docs Think Tank.)

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