Anna Halprin and Breath Made Visible

I’ve always been a self-conscious person—and that’s not the same thing as a conscious one. My vision of myself is no more acute than anyone else’s, rather less so, I think. I’ve seldom been at ease dancing, and in general I feel more awkward than graceful. That probably won’t change, but I’ve learned a lot about movement and the body lately, and it’s worth recounting for those who know as little as I have.

A couple of years ago I had several sessions with a practitioner of Feldenkrais, a method of increasing bodily awareness and reducing pain. I had heard that the methodology was especially beneficial for artists (in my case, a piano-player with tendinitis). I know little more about it than I did before the experience, but I did learn one very important thing: the very slightest of movements or the most ordinary change in physical positions can make a remarkable difference.

Now, as I practice the piano, I am learning that the slightest difference in pedaling, fingering, whether a note is held long enough or phrasing taken into account, makes a difference in the sound I make, and the sound I hear.

This week, I discovered Anna Halprin. For those of you who know who she is, I can only hold my head in shame. Why hadn’t I heard of her long ago, way before she was past 90 years old. While I was still in the San Francisco Bay Area! Life is so full and we miss so much!

From Breath Made Visible

Anna Halprin is called the founder of “post modern dance” but says of that description: “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” Back in 1955 she started the San Francisco Dancers Workshop. Not many years later, she and her company caused a scandal when they used full nudity in a dance piece—not for the sake of showing naked persons on the stage but because she was interested in exploring the ordinary movements of everyday life as art. When men and women in black pants and white shirts began to dress and undress over and over again in slow cadence, some in the audience began yelling and throwing shoes. Halprin simply brought them into the dance too.

Early on she left the proscenium stage behind and made dance happen on city streets and meadows, and especially on the outdoor deck that she and her husband (a landscape architect) helped design in a redwood grove on the steep hillside below their Marin County home on the side of Mount Tamalpais. Her dancers (who were mostly non-dancers in the professional sense), explored “working from nature,” discovering something in the woods and working from their impressions of it.

She also became deeply involved in peace and justice movements. Hers was one of the first dance groups to explore race relations in her 1969 Ceremony of Us. More recently she and her dancers created the Planetary Dance, a dance for peace that is today still celebrated annually by hundreds of people on the hills above the Pacific Ocean and in nearly fifty other places around the world.

When I started reading about her and looking at her dancing on YouTube, I was first moved by her—she’s instantly and deeply likable. Secondly, I was attracted to a quotation: “Aging is like enlightenment at gunpoint. Before I had cancer, I lived my life for my art. After I had cancer, I lived my art for my life. I’ve always said dance is the breath made visible. That covers about everything because once you stop breathing and the breath is no longer visible, you stop moving.”

That quotation deserves long and thoughtful silence.

As a cancer survivor and dancer, Anna Halprin has worked with aides patients and cancer patients. (When she first discovered she had cancer she devised a dance for her own healing. In 2004, she did the same when her husband architect Lawrence Halprin was ill.) As she’s grown older she’s also worked with elderly people. In every case, she helps people become conscious of their own movements, take them up and embrace them, and learn from their own bodies. Watch her; it’s extraordinary.

I’ve only seen moments of it on Youtube, but someday I hope to join her, probably when she’s 100 plus, and others our age and younger in Seniors Rocking, a dance she made with some 50 participants between the ages of 65 and 100 performing in rocking chairs next to a lagoon.

From the film Seniors Rocking.

P.S. There’s a new film of Anna Halprin and her work called Breath Made Visible. I intend to run, not walk, to find it and see it. Both it and Seniors Rocking are available on DVD. Check it out!

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One thought on “Anna Halprin and Breath Made Visible

  1. Anna s soothing instructions guide me into my body more deeply than in an ordinary dance class. We her students want to know our bodies as deeply as she does and experience the joy of dance together in the heavenly environment that she calls home..Anna Halprin standing with students on the deck of the Mountain Home Studio in Marin County California in the 1960s. But her journey into teaching dance began at age 12 when she would recruit the neighborhood kids and their mothers and teach them basic warm-ups and stretches that would later lead into improvisational group dances.

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