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February 21-27, 2007

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'Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance'

Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance
(By Janice Ross; UC Press; 445 pages; $34.95 cloth)

Ballerinas burn out by their 40s; even Martha Graham had to quit around age 70. But modern-dance pioneer Anna Halprin continues work at age 86; last November she appeared at Stanford to re-create her audience-participation work Ten Myths. Describing herself as a "cup breaker in the world of modern dance," Halprin dissolves the barriers between performers and audiences. As Janice Ross, a professor at Stanford, describes in her superb biography, for Halprin, dance is a way of finding "the inner soul" and effecting "social change." She emphasizes improvisation and teaching—giving her dancers simple, everyday tasks and setting them loose to turn those movements into staged rituals—over rehearsed choreography and polished performance. In time, the audience was invited to invade the stage. Ten Myths began with suggested scripts in which the emphasis was "more on shedding behavioral encumbrances than on what specifically participants are supposed to create." This often meant nudity, about which the San Francisco press was all too happy to express outrage. As much therapeutic as aesthetic in her goals, Halprin, who moved to Marin before the hot tubs, worked closely with Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls, explored racism (in Ceremony of Us, a highly charged collaboration with black dancers from Watts in 1969), ecology (her celebratory Planet Dance) and aging—she often works with seniors and the disabled. Ross is an astute analyst of Halprin's methods, although her attempts to connect Halprin's work to a larger frame that includes Lucille Ball and Candid Camera don't quite succeed. The book is rich with fascinating material about the Bay Area experimental art movements of the 1950s and '60s. Anna's daughter, Daria, for instance, played the hippie chick in Antonioni's Zabriskie Point and married Dennis Hopper. In retrospect, Halprin's works can sound painful: she once repeated a single action "to a point past boredom until, because of its extreme monotony, it once again became interesting." It helps to remember what one of Halprin's dancers is quoted as saying, "It was the sixties."

Review by Michael S. Gant


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