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.