Anna Halprin

One hundred years of Anna Halprin

"To me, radicalism is key to being a contemporary artist. That involves responding to what's going on in the world. What interests me is an art that is connected to life, where the social, political, spiritual, and aesthetic threads are all interwoven in a real way. What inspires me about dance, specifically, is its power to teach, inspire, heal, and transform. I want to make dances that grow out of lived experience, allowing my art to deepen my life and my life to expand my art." (Anna Halprin, 2015) (Anna Halprin, 2015)

Who would have thought that Anna Halprin's life and work would one day span an entire century? Especially since the dancer, artist, teacher and activist fought cancer in the middle of her life and only defeated it after several attempts?
It has been ten years already since Ruedi Gerber brought his great film Breath Made Visible to cinemas all around the world, presenting, for many people, the complete works of Anna Halprin for the first time. As an artist, she has not only dedicated her entire life to dance but has integrated all aspects of her life and work into dance. More recently, this has included dance performances that deal with illness, aging and dying, but this goes back to the beginnings of her dance career in the 1930s, when she began to explore her cultural heritage, and began to explore everyday life through dance, involving her family and community in her dance work. Although trained as a modern dancer, Halprin found in dance a method to reflect her relationship to the world and to give her individual experiences a universal form.
Breath Made Visible

From the beginning, however, dance in Anna Halprin's life was not an isolated, introverted or egocentric matter, and proved to be a profound examination of her time, society and political circumstances. Through her encounter with Lawrence Halprin, the famous landscape architect and later her husband, she discovered the principles of the Bauhaus. These encouraged the dance pioneer to work interdisciplinarily and in groups. She was one of the first dancers who consciously incorporated visual material, and together with other pioneers, systematically expanded the idea of dance - on the threshold from modern dance to postmodern dance: away from the stage, from narrative, from predetermined choreography, from symbolism, from silence, and away from separation with the audience. Anna Halprin's path led her to work in urban or landscape spaces, to improvisation, to the inclusion of the emotional experience triggered by each movement, and to ritual -- in the sense of a meaningful experience for an entire group.
Breath Made Visible

On her artistic path she has created more than 150 dance pieces that are performed worldwide, founded dance groups - including the San Francisco Dancers' Workshop in 1955 and the Tamalpa Institute with her daughter Daria Halprin in 1978 - wrote books, and since the 1940s has taught people of all ages and backgrounds. In class, Halprin tested methods that allowed for both freedom and structure in movement. She was interested in the structural conditions that promote spontaneous behavior in dance in order to avoid the recurrence of the same movement patterns. Because, since every movement is linked to a feeling, the same patterns of feeling are always relived. Through improvisation freedom can be achieved in a broader sense. The process is more important than the result. This is all the truer as Halprin began to take up social and political concerns in community workshops in order to react to racism, war and social exclusion in the middle of social hotspots. The street became the new setting for her artistic work, just as the landscape or nature did later.

Halprin's path anticipated much of what has become commonplace in the visual arts since the 1990s as "participatory" art. As a result, its achievements are celebrated in the dance world as much as in the field of performance art. Nonetheless, this focus arose from questioning the nature of dance. What is the original function of dance and how can it be updated in the present? Halprin's illness, which had challenged everything that had gone before, led the dancer to the answer: Dance is (also) a moment in which a collective comes together to honour a cause within the framework of a ritual. This ultimately therapeutic attitude is the basis of Anna Halprin's legacy today: on the one hand, to have given back social relevance to the art form of dance, and on the other hand, to see dance as a vessel in which socially or individually transforming experiences are lived through. Thanks to the three films Ruedi Gerber has made on Anna Halprin so far, it is possible to gain a deeper insight into the monumental works of this extraordinary artist.

Kathleen Buehler

Kathleen Bühler, curator at the Kunstmuseum Bern, met Anna Halprin in 2010 on the occasion of the world premiere of Ruedi Gerber's film "Breath Made Visible" in Zurich.