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!


Bacchante in "Narcisse". By Leon Bakst. From a Souvenir of Serge de Diaghlileff's Ballet Russe. 1916.

One of the most beautifully written and joyful books of last year was Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homan. The first reference I heard to the book was on public radio. I’m not sure who was interviewed and exactly what they said—it might have been Homan herself. I only caught a few minutes of it. What excited me was the idea of dancers aspiring to fly, to go up. I liked the reference to moving up, I guess, because it seems to me a spiritual aim, and yet here it was at the heart of the most physical of arts. It also explained something about ballet to me. In her book, Jennifer Homan writes about its title:

If Apollo is physical perfection, human civilization and the arts, the angels are the dancers’ desire to fly, but above all to ascend; to elevate themselves above the material world and toward God.

More recently, I discovered Toni Bentley’s review in the November 28 issue of the The New York Times Book Review (I get to them late!). It was probably the most ecstatic discussion of a book I’ve ever read.

I’ve never known too much about dance and especially classical ballet. I remember meeting a ballerina once and hearing about her physical hardships, and especially dancing en pointe (that is, on the toes). My friend Wes, who had been another kind of dancer for years, was a friend of Margot Fonteyn’s and exchanged Christmas cards with her. I still have two or three.  I’ve only seen three ballets live, I think, or at least three that meant something to me: of course, I’ve gone to a few Nutcrackers. I was deeply moved by Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet sometime in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, and a friend in New York took me to see an amazing program of some Robbins and Balanchine a few years ago. All in all, I know next to nothing.

Margot Fonteyn performing as a guest dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg, Russia in 1948 Russian photograph. {{PD-RusEmpire}} Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

But this history of ballet is a look from a very different perspective at Western history and culture. When Jennifer Homan became a ballet dancer she discovered that it was:

a system of movement, as rigorous and complex as any language. Like Latin or ancient Greek, it had rules, conjugations, declensions. Its laws, moreover, were not arbitrary; they corresponded to the laws of nature. Getting it “right” was not a matter of opinion or taste: ballet was a hard science with demonstrable physical facts. It was also, and just as appealingly, full of emotions and the feelings that come with music and movement. It was blissfully mute, like reading. Above all, perhaps, there was the exhilarating sense of liberation that came when everything worked. If the coordination and musicality, muscular impulse and timing were exactly right, the body would take over. I could let go. But with dancing, letting go meant everything: mind, body, soul. This is why, I think, so many dancers describe ballet, for all its rules and limits, as an escape from the self. Being free.

Homan describes the history of classical ballet—a history that takes place largely in the royal courts of France and Russia, and culminates in New York City in George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. That ballet is hierarchical and elitist, ruled by the past, and full of artifice makes it even more interesting: how extraordinary that its latest manifestation was in the United States where democracy and pluralism are bi-words, the natural is all the rage, and the future guides nearly every action.
Ballet, says Ms. Homan is “an oral and physical tradition, a storytelling art passed on, like Homer’s epics, from person to person, that it is more and not less rooted in the past.”

It’s all about memory which is partly why it interests me.

Ballet, then, is an art of memory, not history. No wonder dancers obsessively memorize everything: steps, gestures, combinations, variations, whole ballets. It is difficult to overstate this. …. These are physical memoirs: when dancers know a dance, they know it in their muscles and bones. Recall is sensual, like Proust’s madeleines and brings back not just the steps but also the gestures and feel of the movement, the “perfume,” as Danilova said, of the dance—and the older dancer. Thus ballet repertory is not recorded in books or libraries: it is held instead in the bodies of dancers.

Ms. Homan predicts the end of classical ballet for many reasons, but at least partly because of our focus on the “real” and the natural, the overwhelming presence of technology, our haste, our cynicism. Ballet is romantic and idealistic.  I can’t pretend to judge whether she’s right, but how sad, if true. Because, it seems to me, there should be room for an art that’s so profoundly rooted in the past, so bounded by discipline, so physical and mental—even mathematical, so filled with the ideal of “up,” of aspiration, of inspiration.

Flash mobs and surprise parties

I guess it’s because I haven’t lived in any big cities in the last few years, but I’ve mostly missed the “flash mob” phenomenon. I‘ve been reading about it because of the wonderful Christmas present given shoppers at an Ontario food court and in Philadelphia’s Macy’s Department Store. The YouTube recording of both events has been making the rounds all over the Internet. I’m self-conscious about being a sucker for Christmas music and try to stay dry-eyed through every “Silver Bells” I chance to hear, but when people going about their day suddenly find themselves in the middle of a massive choir singing the Messiah, when hundreds of full-throated choristers introduce the subject of the Divinity in the most mundane of settings, well… what can you do but cry, or at least swallow hard?

Wikipedia defines a flash mob as “a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual act for a brief time, then disperse.” Strictly, speaking, the appellation applies only to gatherings organized through e-mail or one of the social media, which may eliminate both Messiahs. It may also eliminate another Internet favorite—when 200 dancers who a moment before were simply more coming-and-going passengers—started dancing to the “Do Re Mi” song from The Sound of Music in a Belgian train station. Whatever. They were all three surprising and joyful interruptions to everyday life.

Apparently, flash mobs began in 2003 with an action in New York City instigated by a Harper’s Bazaar editor named Bill. More than 100 people gathered around an expensive carpet in a ninth-floor rug department, explaining to the sales people that they lived together in a warehouse on the outskirts of New York, that they made all their purchase decisions as a group, and were shopping for a “love rug.”


Pillow fight. Photo by Jonathan S. Igharas. 2006. Creative Commons license.
The phenomenon spread rapidly. There was a worldwide pillow fight day that broke out in 25 cities around the globe. Flash mob participants suddenly appeared at a Toys-R-Us to worship a huge toy dinosaur. Dressed as twins (maybe all of them were!), they gathered on a subway car, each person paired with their look-alike, and mirrored each other’s actions. The video of this particular action is not only amusing: it’s wonderful ballet. In London, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, began singing “Hey Jude.”

Another lovely Christmas event happened last year in Times Square when a lone Salvation Army bell-ringer was joined one-by-one by 14 professional bell ringers. Watching as his confusion turned to amazement, at the same time as he kept on ringing, was a Christmas treat.

Flash mob actions can be very special—kind of like surprise parties. And they can turn bad just  like some surprise parties do. Unfortunately, some are becoming political. Some are turning into a form of advertising. Worse, some have become criminal:  in Philadelphia mobs of teenagers have gone on destructive rampages. In some European cities, flash mobs have been made illegal, sometimes more because of their inconvenience than their lawlessness. Even in San Francisco where celebration is often the norm, rules were put in place after too many pillow feathers were left to the street cleaners and the taxpayers.

It’s sad that it may end, this creative activity that has no purpose except that we can all do it together—this mass art that makes us laugh, dance and sing. One newspaper declared it therapeutic in a hectic, economically depressed Christmas season. But as joyful as a mob of people can be singing the Hallelujah chorus, taking off their pants in the subway, or applauding each other for no reason at all… a mob can also turn into just that—a mob. Not hundreds of artists, not hundreds of art appreciators, but a depressing variation.

I think there may be something to learn about social media in all this. I wish we could learn it quickly, whatever it is, and keep right on surprising ourselves with laughter, music and mime in the least likely places.

There has never been anyone like Josephine Baker.

Another biography in our collection of remarkable African-American women entertainers.

Josephine Baker, Paris. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection, reproduction number LC-DIG-ppmsca-07816 DLC.

Writing about Josephine Baker—the “Bronze Venus,” the “Black Pearl,” the “Creole Goddess”— is problematic: she was the first African-American to do so many things, my post could easily become a list. Among her other achievements, she was  the first African-American to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become a world-renown entertainer.

Her beginnings certainly weren’t promising. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she dropped out of school at the age of 12 to live as a street child in the slums of the city, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans.

She began her career dancing and singing on street corners, and eventually joined the vaudeville circuit, ending up in New York’s Harlem and joining the cast of Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along in 1921. Still only 15, she made a name for herself as a comic and dancer when she improvised on her role at the end of the show’s chorus line.

She didn’t stay in the U.S. though; instead she took the Harlem Renaissance with her to Paris and, in 1925, became an instant success for her oddly original and erotic dancing — and, incidentally, for appearing almost nude on stage. “I wasn’t really naked. I simply didn’t have any clothes on.” She was soon the most successful American entertainer working in France.

Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” She described herself  this way: “Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck. I was born with good legs. As for the rest… beautiful, no. Amusing, yes.”

Joséphine Baker in her "Girdle of Bananas." 1926. First seen in her debut revue at the Folies Bergère: La Folie du Jour, 1926-27.

She was especially famous for her Banana Dance, and anyone reading this really must go watch some of the old clips of her performances on YouTube. If I had a technically advanced blog (they cost money so I don’t), I would put them on this post. Please go look. See. You will find yourself in another time and place—sensational, exciting, the beginning of the modern era. Josephine Baker, more than any other single person, became a muse to Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior and dozens of other artists, authors and composers. She was a lover to both men and women, and among the women was the wonderful Colette.

Josephine Baker and her cat.

In 1937, as World War II loomed, Josephine Baker became a French citizen and married a French Jew. She was so popular with the citizens of her adopted country, that the Nazis were careful to leave her alone, which made her a perfect agent for the French resistance. From Paris and on tour in Europe, and then after the Germans invaded, in the south of France and North Africa, she smuggled messages and provided information to the French underground and the Allies. She later received France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s she supported the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., refusing to play to segregated audiences, and speaking at the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. With her usual flare, and disappointed in her failure to have a child, she adopted 12 multi-ethnic orphans in the 1950s (Korean, Japanese, Colombian, Finnish, French, Israeli, Algerian, Ivorian, Venezuelan and Moroccan). Take that Angelina Jolie! For sometime she lived with all of her children and an enormous staff in a castle, Chateau de Milandes in Dordogne, France.

Even her death had magic about it. On April 8, 1975, she starred in a retrospective revue at the Bobino in Paris, celebrating 50 years in show business. Financed by Prince Rainier, Princess Grace, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it opened to rave reviews. Four days later, after a cerebral hemorrhage, she was found lying peacefully in her bed surrounded with glowing reviews of her performance. She died on April 12, 1975.

Josephine Baker in feathers, 1928.

Wes Adams and the last vaudeville circuit

He lived a wonderful decade of his life in a artistic frenzy of dance and travel.

My friend, Wes Adams, played the last vaudeville circuit in the United States. When he died at the age of 79 in 1987, I inherited several drawers-full of old reviews, playbills, and photographs. I used to talk about donating the whole lot of it to the New York Library for the Performing Arts, but I think, even then, I knew there had to be a way to honor him that didn’t involve putting his remains in a museum archive, preserved but lost to sight. By the time Wes died in an apartment fire, he’d lost most of his contemporaries to time and death, he had only two blood relatives that I knew of, both of them remote, no children, and in fact, almost no one. He left no legacy, except what I could make of the smoky souvenirs I uncovered in his apartment. He’d told all of us anecdotes from his show career, but not enough to put the whole thing together.

Someday I want to put some of the diaries and much of the memorabilia on-line. It’s an America and an American people should know more about.

Wes grew up Swedish American on Minnesota’s Iron Ridge, blond and reticent, but determined to go into show business. Since he was handsome and well-spoken he found himself at the age of 20 in Coffee-Miller Players, a troupe that toured the middle U.S., performing mostly in theater space in high schools and colleges. He was very young, ambitious, and impatient. So it wasn’t surprising that he quit after a few seasons and, on September 13, 1929, arrived in New York City. At 18 Charles Street in the Village. Not that far from where he was to die 59 years later.

“Becoming worried about eating. Little money left,” he wrote in his diary. He may have worried about food, but almost every night he went to another play, movie or concert. He was in training for the theater, I guess. Less than a month later he found a job with Arthur Murray. This was before the man had a chain of studios and appeared on TV every week. Murray became a good friend, and one of the first of many names Wes dropped over the years. But there were many more he never did.

Even though it was 1929, the stock market crashed and not everyone could afford to learn to dance, the Arthur Murray gig turned out to be one of the most important in his life because he met Lisa there, and in time the two of them became a dancing duo. They eventually called themselves Wes Adams and Lisa and they began to get jobs in hotel ballrooms, at weddings…. those kinds of jobs. It was the beginning of their kind of ballroom dancing, one that was also theater. One of their most popular acts, especially among the jet set in Europe, was about the Duke of Windsor and his American wife, apparently among Europe’s most famous boors.

Unfortunately, in 1930 Lisa’s wealthy parents decided to send her off on a European tour-but misfortune soon turned to fortune when Wes found another partner and became part of Doc Rockwell’s vaudeville company. In this instance, he couldn’t drop names: by the time, I knew him, no one knew anything about “Doc Rockwell – Quack, Quack, Quack” whose most famous comedy routine was one where he portrayed a doctor with a stethoscope holding a five-foot banana stalk. He was at the height of his career in the early 1930s, appearing at Radio City Music Hall and the Ziegfeld Theater, pulling down $3,500 a week in the middle of the depression.  (He was also the father of American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell, an embarrassment since he numbered Groucho Marx, Fanny Brice and Jack Benny among his friends.) It was Doc Rockwell and vaudeville that turned Wes Adams and Lisa into a thriving dance act.

The decade of the thirties may have been hell for much of the country, but it was wonderful for the two dancers. A gig on a cruise took them to Cuba where they became famous in Havana society, and where they eventually had to flee one of the island nation’s many revolutions.

They traveled and performed in Alexandria (Egypt), Bucharest, Budapest, Paris, London, the French Riviera and Spain, until they had to flee the Spanish Civil War. They were the opening act for people like Marlene Dietrich. In 1939, they danced at the wedding of the Egyptian Princess Fawzia, King Farouk’s sister, to the Crown Prince of Iran, at the Abdine Palace in Cairo. (There’s old footage of the event-though not the entertainment-on YouTube.) They became friends with members of the Royal Ballet and Margot Fonteyn in London. (I have several of her Christmas cards.)

World War II ended the most wonderful decade of Wes’s life. The dancers returned to the U.S.; Lisa fell in love with a Canadian and joined the Canadian version of the WACs; Wes tried out other partners, but the act never caught fire again, even when Lisa’s marriage ended a few years later. Lisa and Wes remained close friends. Wes moved on; he got involved in making TV and motion picture documentaries. He moved to Christopher Street in New York. He continued to travel whenever he could.

When I first met Wes, he was freelancing for the National Council of Churches and had just returned from Senegal where he’d been the translator for the novelist and movie maker, Ousmane Sembene. He’d been practicing his French (and his Spanish) in his diaries for years, one reason parts of his career will always be a mystery to me.

Wes Adams was a kind gentle man when I met him, one who loved beauty and life. He wasn’t quite an artist anymore, but someone who, for a brief magical decade, lived the artist’s version of the proverbial “life of Riley.”