A week with Anna Halprin – The Tamalpa Institute

Founded by Anna Halprin and her daughter, Daria Halprin, in 1978, the work of the Tamalpa Institute uses expressive arts practices to tap into the creative resources of individuals and communities. Through what they call a life / art dialogue, this work is really an extension of Anna’s ideas from professional dance/performance making into individual and community development. As described in my previous blogs ‘Arriving’ and ‘Score’s and Resources’, Anna’s work, whilst significant in the lineage of contemporary dance, spilled into real life. Her approach addressed the politics of intra and inter-personal relationships as well as our connection with our environment. The Tamalpa Institute solidifies this relationship through a 3 year training program. During my week’s stay we explored this work in the afternoons, no doubt to take the strain off Anna who is now 96 years old. I had no idea what to expect from this work and what I relate now is just my sense and experience of it during that week, rather than a fully researched presentation.

On the first afternoon Rosario takes us through a ‘self portrait’ process. The question Rosario poses is: “How am I experiencing myself physically, emotionally, mentally in my life right now? I think we dance a little and then paper and oil crayons are provided and we draw an image in response to this question. We’re given time to write something in our journal, inspired by what we’ve drawn. Earlier in the day we were divided into ‘support groups’ of 6 people. In our groups we are now asked to dance in response to our image and writing, whilst the rest of the group bares witness to our dance. After each performance, the performer has a chance to talk about their experience in the dance, about what they were thinking or where they’re at.

I guess that the purpose of this transfer of thoughts from image to words and then to movement aimed to create more texture or room for new ideas / revelations. I feel totally disorientated. Working outdoors is overwhelming and my main concern was staying in the shade and navigating the complex personalities in my support group. The idea is that the sharing is just a one way presentation, but unfortunately members of the group take it on themselves to provide a kind of feedback. I feel a little frustrated by this, but not wanting to be bossy I just let people talk and keep my input to a minimum. Why do we always jump in to provide feedback? Why is it so necessary to give our perspective? It’s a good reminder that sometimes just baring witness to somebody’s thoughts, work, actions is enough, especially when we have no other context, or when our feedback is not invited.

On the second day the sun is so strong that we have to start the afternoon session in the indoor studio. Thankfully, I think. It’s hot and stuffy but there’s something reassuring about sweating again and rolling around on floor without worrying about splinters. The improvisation score takes us through each area of the body to sense what movements are available and then to track back to one area that feels most familiar and another that feels most unfamiliar. Having identified two areas, we’re asked to bring these two movement scores into dialogue. I start working with the hips as a familiar area and the feet as an unfamiliar area. Of course the rest of my body was moving too but the initiation came from these two places. At the end of the process I realised that the areas I had chosen during the exercise were a reversal of my habitually difficult area (the hips) and familiar area (the feet). Ask anyone who goes to my classes and they’ll tell you how much I love working on feet. My hips on the other hand have caused me all sorts of problems. If there is one area I have to work very hard on it would be my hips, as Anna would put it: I have Kangaroo rather than Turtle hips. So it’s quite interesting that in that space and time, this relationship was reversed.

Having devised a movement quality, we’re asked to draw an image somehow portraying a quality / idea / feeling of  what we had just danced. We then get into groups of three. We each take a turn to hold up our own image whilst one person moves in response to it and a second person, the ‘poet’, offers a verbal response. At the end of each 5 minute performance the ‘artist’ has a chance to talk about the experience after which the performer and then the poet offer their perspective. The exercise didn’t seem to give me any new perspective, at least not in the short term. I was mostly struck by the fact that the structure of artist, performer and poet gave each member of the trio an active role, so everyone’s presence felt more invested in the process. We each had something to lose, and I think this made the quality of the ensuing discussion a little richer.

Wednesday afternoon. I spent the two hour lunch break trying to recover from my fit of crying triggered by Meredith Monk’s music in the morning session. I’m telling myself it was the music. We’re asked to consider the following life/art questions:

What in your life is opening? What in your life is closing? What do I want / need to open / close in my life?

Deep stuff. So I turn to my journal and write in all seriousness: “My feet are so dirty and I wish I could clean them. I don’t really know what to write.” Clearly. I think I’d decided to take it all with a pinch of salt. Earlier that morning I had announced to my car pool pals how I really didn’t get the connection with emotions etc. I found it a bit of a stretch. But only a few hours later I was bawling my eyes out. These questions just seemed to press the issue a little. It took some time for me to get something out. Then we transferred the words into a drawing and then again into a dance. This time we performed in large groups of 10 people. We had two witnesses each who sat out and watched. At the end of the performance the performer spoke about their experience, then the witnesses could offer their perspective. “You have colour in your picture!” someone exclaimed later. True. So far everything I’d drawn was monochrome.

I had an interesting realisation at the end of the performance. During the improvisation performers were given the option of talking. Someone in the group had taken on this option in a somewhat more determined way. The whole performance was taken over by her monologue. I mostly spent my time trying to withdraw from the noise and pull of the group. I just wanted to do my own dancing! Then at some point I crossed paths with Dena who had taken to asking everyone questions. “Who are you?” she said to me. Instead of responding, I kept moving in my own little dance. I remember considering a response but then deciding that to say anything just wouldn’t have felt authentic to where I was at that moment. So I ignored her, making her question an abstraction. Sitting with my two witnesses afterwards I thought to myself: “what a typical bloody Londoner I am. Someone talks to me out of the blue and I assume they’re mad and ignore them.”

Thursday afternoon. We cover ourselves in tick and mosquito repellant and are led into the woods. This is meant to be a dance with nature. We arrive at a spot for this enlightening process and there’s the very distracting sound of a digger in the background. I first stand by a tree stump that looks a little interesting. The score is to make contact and then have some kind of a movement dialogue with nature. OK then. Suspending judgement. I stand there for a good minute before realising that this particular bit of nature is swarming with mosquitos and that I probably haven’t covered my legs with enough of that tick spray. So eventually I give up on my efforts to ignore it all and find a less mosquito ridden tree. It’s ok to move away from something that feels hostile, I tell myself. The second tree is a large redwood. My dance doesn’t feel hugely overwhelming. I lean into its bark, sit back and look up at it, try to see right to the top. The dialogue feels very one sided… trees don’t take any notice of you.

I walk back to the deck where Rosario asks us to grab our journals and consider: “What am I bringing with me from the natural world?” But unlike yesterday’s conundrum today I have a clear answer. I realise that I spend most of my life trying to meet others. I travel to my clients and classes. I feel that I’m always trying to meet someone else’s standards and needs. Trying to be the teacher they need, trying to be the flatmate they need, trying to be a useful sister, trying to meet funding aims and objectives. And here I am at the home of a woman who is known the whole world over and who has built her work around her life. Anna has been developing work in her home studio since she was 22. People travel to her, some from considerable distances. With all the emphasis on getting yourself ‘out there’ I think we undervalue the need to create roots, to stand squarely in our own space and say “this is me”. There’s a popular saying that goes: “If you don’t like your life, change it. You’re not a tree.” Yes change precipitates growth, but you can’t grow a tree if you keep digging up its roots. Sometimes relating to people needs you to shift your perspective. But what if I stand still? Might that not allow other people to adjust and relate to me? Who says we need to spend our lives hopping around everyone else?

By this stage we had all become a little more tuned in to the process. So we closed the session with a group sharing. Each of us had about a minute to reflect our thoughts back to the group. Some people performed a small movement or gesture. One person sang. But none of it felt silly. It all felt quite authentic and insightful. What I hadn’t accounted for that I now realised, was that over the course of the week we were all getting better at selecting and dealing with the materials we were working on. I wrote down a few of the other insights that people shared because I thought they were quite resonant:

  • One participant had been working with a large asymmetrical stick. Her dance involved trying to balance it in one hand. She found a technique to allow her to do this. She concluded: “there is balance in asymmetry. You just have to figure out the technique. Don’t blame the stick. Engage with it. It’s a personal responsibility.”
  • Another participant shared the following observation: “When you really want something and you hold on to it, it doesn’t really work out.”

It’s the final day. By this point I’ve learnt to just keep my shoes on so my feet don’t get all mucky. Rosario takes us through an improvisation sitting on the benches. To be honest my mind is not on my movement, because last night the UK voted to leave the EU and I cannot think straight, I’m so frustrated. Borders! They want more borders! Rosario asks us to take paper and colours and draw out something that carries the feel of the movement. I wasn’t paying attention enough really, but I trust another saying that Rosario has: “the experience is in your body in some way so don’t worry too much about ‘knowing’.” After drawing, we return to our journals and write a letter to ourselves “from the voice of the drawing”. Suspend judgement. Trust the body. Just write. And I do. When we get back into our support groups to share our pictures and thoughts someone asks if we’re reading out our letters too. Rosario says that this is just an option as letters can be hugely personal. Phew! I think. I’m not reading mine. No way! But as the first member of the group reads through her letter, and then the second and then the third, fourth, fifth, I slowly start to realise that there is sheer wisdom coming out of these insights. Not only this, but by being authentic to themselves they have written things that I empathise with and that resonate with me. So I read my letter too.

My trip to Anna Halprin’s Summer Workshop 2016 has been made possible thanks to the support of the Lisa Ullman Travelling Scholarship Fund.



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