“Dance is what you see, what you smell. It’s what you hear. It’s how you bring your consciousness and awareness to your experience. So if I bring my consciousness to a tree, and then I bring that consciousness into my body, then that becomes a dance experience for me. I’ve always said, ‘Dance is the breath made visible.’”
That’s Anna Halprin in “Breath Made Invisible,” a beautiful documentary made in 2009 about Anna and her life. Anna is a dancer, choreographer, and pioneer of the experimental art form known as postmodern dance. For 69 years she was married to the late Lawrence Halprin, who was one of the principal architects of The Sea Ranch, featured in last month’s installment of In California. The couple were longtime collaborators. Together they explored the common areas between choreography and the way people move through public spaces.
“My husband Larry is who has influenced me the most,” says Anna in the film.
Lawrence and Anna met when she was 19. At the time she was deeply entrenched in the New York dance world, but she made the move to California to be with him.
“I don’t think I could have survived in New York even if I had stayed, because an urban environment is not my nurturing place at all,” she says. “I became much more physically oriented, and I began to feel that I needed to look for something that was more like nature itself. And if I was going to dance I wanted to dance about things that were real in my life. Here in California it’s a very sensorial and a very emotional environment to live in.”
There’s a terrific shot that recurs throughout “Breath Made Visible.” In it, Anna is wrapped in a gauzy white fabric at the shoreline, the surge and retreat of the waves rolling her to and fro. It’s a beautiful sort of surrender that calls to mind the famous Bruce Lee quote: “Be formless, shapeless—like water.”
Lawrence built a redwood deck outside their home in Marin County that would become arguably the most important outdoor deck in American dance history. Starting in the ‘50s, Anna led experimental workshops that rejected the high style and codified technique of established choreographers like Martha Graham in favor of improvisatory tasks and everyday activities.
In 1959, Anna founded the San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop along with several others, including dancers Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Simone Forti, and artists John Cage and Robert Morris. The purpose of this organization was to give her and others the opportunity to delve into more explorative forms of dance and move away from the technical constraints of modern dance
“My mission was to keep opening the boundaries that were being set around dance,” says Anna. “Art should never be censored.”
And boundaries she definitely opened. In her most famous work, “Parades and Changes” (1965), dancers casually rid themselves of their clothes and tear through huge rolls of paper in the nude. It’s as aurally arresting as it is visual.
In the wake of the Watts Riots in 1965, she got a call from the director of Studio Watts Workshop asking if she’d give a performance in their LA space. Anna had an idea. She’d go to Watts and work with an all-black group there while simultaneously working with an all-white group in San Francisco. A year later she brought the two together to perform “Ceremony of Us.”
“I spent a year developing a common language through movement, finding ways that I could honor the black experience…that was the result of living in a place like Watts,” says Anna. “And at the same time honoring the white experience as being different—but finding the commonalities.”
The piece is charged, angry, sexual, and deeply allegorical.
“After that performance there were many people in the black group that wanted to come and join Dancer’s Workshop in San Francisco. So I formed a multi-racial company, which was the first multi-racial company in the country.”
In 1971, Anna was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her colon, which inspired her to explore her emotions through dance in pieces like “Darkside Dance.” She did workshops dedicated to therapeutic, transformational, and psychological needs. In 1987, she was invited to the Cancer Support and Education Center to work with individuals with cancer. There she would lead them through a series of body awareness exercises and creative visualization. These exercises aided their struggle to create energy and to heal.
And she’s still at it. Now 99, she continues to work with terminally ill patients.
In an early scene in “The Breath Made Visible,” a dancing, 82-year-old Anna says “I love to dance. My mom would say, ‘Why don’t you sit down for a while.’ ‘No, I just love to dance all the time for the fun of it.’” At the end of the film they return to that scene: “And when I am 100,” says Anna, still dancing. “I will dance the essence of things. And when I’m 110—yep, 110!—I’ll dance the way things really are.”