Anna Halprin’s experimental workshops that began in the 50’s became the seed bed for postmodern dance, influencing the artists who later went on to form the Judson Church group in 1960’s New York. I am not a dance historian. I travelled to California not to understand Anna’s work intellectually but to experience it, to embody the space, her approach and her ideas. Anna’s work has underpinned much of the postmodern dance practice that has been filtered down to me through my teachers and their teachers. I came here to get to the source and what I’m relating now is the slightly haphazard collection of thoughts that spilled out from this frail but determined 96 year old.
Choreography is a strong word… I’ve spent my life rebelling against it. When you choreograph, you create. When you use scores, others create. That’s how I don’t burn out. I make space for others to be creative, I tap into their potential and I learn something from what they do with my scores. So I never burn out. – Anna Halprin
If Anna’s creative approach could be summed up in one word, that word would be “scores”. We walk into the space through a score. We relate to each other through a score. We create individually through a score, we dance together through a score and finally we eat together through a score. A score is a set of rules that loosely hold together an event, allowing an individual to devise freely but still remain engaged in a specific dialogue.
But the score needs support. Anna draws strongly on the RSPV cycle defined by her husband Larry Halprin. The R stands for resources. What are we working with? A resource could be the environment, our bodies or any object, idea, stimulus that informs or moulds our dance. Resources are the raw materials of the creative process. If we define them and become aware of them they can enrich our practice. S stands for score. These are the rules of engagement. P stands for Performance, the enactment of the score using the resources. V stands for Valuaction. Like an evaluation of the performance, this is an opportunity to look at what happened in the performance to generate further resources that will then inform the next execution of the score and so on in an endless cycle.Even the working process can be a resource. “Don’t worry if you feel stuck” Anna says, “Just think to yourself, ‘OK I’ve been collecting resources, now what can I do with them.'” With each repetition we become more attuned to the practice, opening up the creative options.
Anna approaches the body as a resource. She identifies two ways in which this resource can be used. Firstly it is a point of sensation, what do I feel through my physical body? Anna talks about being an artist. She says that as an artist working with the body, her aim is to try and access the most authentic movement possible. If movement is authentic then anyone can empathise with it. Inauthentic movement, like ballet, she says, is like decoration. “It’s not bad, but it’s not authentic. It’s a style.”
Anna tells her assistants to pull out all the cushions from the studio. She instructs us all to lie down with the pillow under the upper back. “Let your jaws relax or you’ll hurt your necks.” We lie there for a good 15 minutes gradually circling our arms overhead to which she exclaims “Oh my goodness Colin I’m very worried about you. You need to do this everyday!” Colin is not a dancer, in fact most of the people here are not dancers. It’s a testament to the reach of her work that such a wide range of people have been drawn to this workshop. Whilst I’m lying there with my upper back in this extremely extended position, I feel gravity slowly stretching out my diaphragm and abdominals. Of course, being a Pilates teacher means I spend most of my day loading in the opposite direction. No wonder my entire abdomen goes into spasm once a month. We then placed the cushion under the pelvis, creating traction in the lower back. “Could all the assistants please develop eagle eyes”, she yaps. Her old-school manners sometimes come across as quite harsh.
I was relieved to hear her talk about her two favourite muscles: The trapezius and the gluts. Her largely self taught knowledge of anatomy was quite impressive. Clearly she spends a lot of time thinking and learning about movement. She talks about western cultures being more removed from the earth, losing our ability to ground. Whilst african cultures are more earth bound. Their tailbone opens backwards more, orienting the pelvis forwards, so they can commune with the earth more easily. She asks us all to raise our arms upwards by rolling the the chest backwards to access the lower trapezius. This is sky. She then instructs us to drop and ground through our feet to create a connection to earth. The centre is your horizon, the point of intersection between sky and earth. If sky and earth are two polarities then the horizon embodies both qualities. I think that’s a really interesting perspective on the centre, not as a fixed point, but as a dynamic interplay between the polarities of earth and sky.
Anna insists that we feel the earth polarity in our bodies. So she instructs us each to focus on grounding, whilst another person attempts to lift us off the ground. Obviously none of us budge. Then she tells us all to do it again and “just think about what you had for breakfast”. Lifting us off the ground this time round is a piece of cake. Wow! So it’s real! Anna stands up from her wheel chair. To give you some context, this 96 year old recently slipped on some dry leaves sending her shin first into the deck which cut across her shin bone. To avoid putting her weight onto it she started to walk differently which then led her to fall, fracturing her lumbar vertebra. So though still able to walk, she’s been instructed to keep it still and is in a wheel chair much of the time “for the next 6 rather than 8 weeks, because I have too much to do” she says. As we’re all trying to feel grounded she lifts herself up to standing, plants her two determined feet into the ground and gets her assistant to try to lift her up, fracture and all. Her face looks furious”You Won’t Lift Me!” she shouts. Surely enough Rosario cannot lift her.
Another resource is how we relate, because “you cannot exist without being in relation to others”. Anna describes two more polarities, Active and Passive. We work through scores involving touch. In the first score we’re asked to lead a partner who’s eyes remain shut. We can leave our partner at times, and select someone else. “Did you feel anxious when you were left alone? Was it hard to leave someone?” We worked through different variables within this score. Both partners had eyes open, both could select to lead, to follow, to leave or hold on. “It’s important to be clear in a relationship. It’s important to recognise when it’s no longer comfortable, when the relationship isn’t working anymore.” The intersection between life and art is no where more evident than in this abstracted relationship practice. It created a lot of food for thought. I noticed that my dominant action was to lead and got into a few power struggles when the person I was trying to lead refused to give in, taking us both into spins.
The body is also a site of emotions, what am I feeling emotionally? Physical sensation and emotions are linked. We inhabit our emotions in our bodies and in our movement. Anna instructed us to sit back to back with a partner, giving and receiving weight in turn as we went into flexion and extension. Moving with empathy for our partner’s body. Then she gave us the following score: starting back to back with your heads touching, slowly turn around to face your partner without losing contact between your heads. This has the effect of bringing you very close to your partner’s face. In the background she played a piece of music by Meredith Monk. I think the sound will haunt me for a long time. I’m not really sure what happened. My partner was a lovely older woman, Anita, who, as we turned to face each other, put her arm around me and smiled. I don’t know if it was the kindness of this gesture or the emotional manipulation of the music, but I literally began to sob.
Physical sensation, emotion, environment, relationships. Each of these resources form part of the self. Each of these resources impact on each other. For example: My environment can impact on my movement which can then impact on my emotions which then has an impact on how I relate to others. By highlighting these different resources, we create options that give us a sense of agency. If I move differently, how will that impact on my emotions? How will this changed state impact on my relationships? And how, in turn might this impact on my environment. Through the use of scores, Anna offers people a chance to play out these different dialogues through a process she calls the life / art dialogue. This is the basis of the work of the Tamalpa Institute, the organisation she co-founded with her daughter Daria Halprin. I’ll talk more about this work in the next post.
My trip to Anna Halprin’s Summer Workshop 2016 has been made possible thanks to the support of the Lisa Ullman Travelling Scholarship Fund.