A week with Anna Halprin- Arriving

Gate 1.  As you enter and pass through the gate leaving the driveway and leading to the studio, become aware of descending, of a procession and a change of atmosphere.

It’s Monday 20th June. After 5 hours in airports and 11 hours in the air, I arrived in San Francisco last night. The word ‘gate’ is a loaded one. I think about the gates I passed through to get here: tube gates, departure gates, arrival gates, the invisible policed gate that is border control, the Golden Gate Bridge and now this one. You cannot travel to the US without becoming excruciatingly aware of the politics of gates. Gates as a means of control, St Peter standing at the gate, “do you have your papers?”, “how much money are you carrying on you?”, “do you have proof of a return flight Ma’am?” I thought I’d negotiated my way through passport control quite neatly, but then another officer caught sight of my Maltese passport and sent me over to import control to have my bag scanned in case I was carrying any nasties. Lest you forget, let us make it absolutely clear that you are not welcome to over-stay your stay…oh and welcome to the US.

Anna’s historic Mountain home studio is nestled into a forest of redwood oak trees on the west slope of Mount Tamalpias in California’s Marin County. A long staircase takes you down from the driveway to the lounge area. A sign at the side of the entrance invites you to consciously attend to your descent: “walk slowly, pause periodically, look, listen, breathe, smell, touch.” It’s immediately clear that the users of this space revere the environment as much as they do the history of the studio. When Anna moved here with her architect husband, Larry Halprin, he knew that she needed a space to continue to develop her movement work. Together with Arch Lauterer (Martha Graham’s lighting designer), Larry designed the outdoor studio which was built in 1948 and later the indoor studio in 1950.

Anna and Larry’s work sought to redefine social structures in art and life. Their home studio became a seed bed for postmodern thinking in the 1960’s, attracting artists from all over the US to the West coast. This is how I had placed Anna’s work. Historically she is one of the founding artists of post-modern dance, a title she naturally refutes, along with the idea of choreography altogether. “We’re all choreographers” she says.

By 10am a group of around 30 of us have assembled in the lounge area, a hut space with kitchen and bathroom set on a lower level to the studio. Tomoko, one of Anna’s assistants, leads us up to the studio through a dance. Barefooted we’re invited to hold hands in a long line. We enter the space like a procession, ascending the stairs to the outdoor deck. In the far corner a frail Anna sits in a wheel chair. A minor injury means she’s a little less mobile, but she’s OK, they assure us. As we file passed Anna she asks each of us for our name and where we come from, and “please speak up ’cause I’m a little deaf”.

A leaflet they gave us on arrival spells out the significance of this space. It’s history is not lost on those of us present. A sense of reverence for the environment, for the people who have been a part of it and have literally sweated into the deck, takes over each one of us. As Anna explains:

This place has a long and fascinating history. It is here that the Dancer’s Workshop did its early experimental work..Artists who are now well known started here; dancers like Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer, A.A. Leath, John Graham, Norma Leistiko, Shirley Ririe…; Musicians like Terry Riley, LaMonte Young; Ruth Beckford who led one of the first all black dance companies, Merce Cunnigham, Min Tanaka… all performed on this deck… And of even greater importance are all the many talented and wonderful students and teachers who have shared so many creative dances and laughed and cried together here.I believe there is a field of energy that keeps growing, bringing the past into the present, and giving this space its particular beauty and sacredness. I hope you will enjoy being here and that you will be able to experience the power others have invested into the Mountain Home Studio as an addition to your own creativity – Anna Halprin.

Anna’s words spin in my jet lagged head. I have no idea what time zone I’m in. I find the outdoors overpowering and cannot feel my body. Worst of all my feet are so dirty it looks like it will take a month of hardcore scrubbing to get them clean again. But in the back of my head I hear Chris telling to me to just go with the daze, to surrender to the unfamiliarity of it and who cares that you haven’t had a warm up.

As Anna says, life and art are never separate, and here I am on this creative journey negotiating with an unfamiliar space whilst a part of me frets about whether they’ll let me back in when I fly home. The Entry Score provides a welcome direction for my unsettled brain. The rules are clear, inviting engagement, framed/ held together by years of other entrances down those stairs. All gates have entry scores, I think… and then I wonder what airport gates might be like if people were invited to walk slowly, pause periodically, look, listen, breathe, smell, touch….

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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Anna Halprin – The Breath Made Visible

On the occasion of Anna Halprin’s 95th Birthday, (yes, 95!) JW3 held a screening of Ruedi Gerber’s emotive documentary of the artist’s life and works, The Breath Made Visible. As a student and professional in the lineage of contemporary dance, Halprin’s legacy has always been on the edge of my radar. Her influence both ubiquitous and yet somewhat sidelined, unknown, mysterious. The film paints her as a comedic, free spirit, an artist who really followed through on whatever just needed to be done, no matter what it took. A dedicated teacher, Halprin approaches making, teaching and performing with both a rigorous attention and a subversive irreverence. In the same spirit here are my sketchy thoughts, impressions that feel important to set out, but they’re not fully formed, so my conclusion might sit somewhere in between the sentences that follow:

– I felt touched by the portrayal of her love for her (now late) husband, and the honesty with which her daughters described the difficulty of growing up in a ‘strange’ household. The juxtaposition of her Jewish cultural heritage, with which she strongly associated in her family life, against the hippie community that converged around her artistic work in the 60’s. It hints at questions around boundaries in an artist’s life. How much of my art should I allow to take over my life? Is it possible to disconnect the two? It sits uneasily with me.

– The transition of her work from the performance based, theatrical pieces, to the ritualistic and spiritual. It made me wonder if her ‘strangeness’ had perhaps become ‘too strange’ for the dance world to accept. Perhaps a few years ago I’d have included myself in that skepticism. But recent thoughts about the nature of health and the power of thought and visualization to overcome disease…. well, it’s something I’m thinking about more and more. No wonder my sister recently wondered if she should come and rescue me from becoming a hippie…

– I think the thing that will stay with me the most was her sense of purpose. Sometimes I feel that I spend too much time trying to carve out my ‘vision’, that ‘Big What’. But doesn’t it all feel a bit superfluous if that’s not underpinned by a strong ‘WHY?’ Why do I do what I do? I think that Halprin’s following the more political, community based work and ritualistic ideas was more a result of her search for purpose than any arbitrary artistic aim. And that’s why her work resonates so strongly.