Please Respond: RSVP Cycles in the Work of Anna and Lawrence Halprin

By Emily Hite


Ann and Lawrence Halprin have been married for over 68 years, and this pair of artists have spent just as long working together. An event this month at the Stern Grove Rhoda Goldman Concert Meadow marks their deepest collaboration yet, informed by decades of experience and experimentation. Ann, who changed her name to Anna in 1972 after regaining her health following a long battle with cancer, is a dancer and choreographer regarded as the mother of postmodern dance. Larry is a distinguished landscape architect who was at first a painter. Together they make a natural team. When Larry was commissioned to redesign the historical Stern Grove park in San Francisco, a project that finished construction in 2005, he intended “to create a mystical place where one would be inspired to reach into oneself.” Anna, drawn to the spiritual quality of the site and its architecture, was inspired to make a dance in it. Also, she says, “I wanted to do something special for Larry.”

Though their influence on each other’s work has taken many forms, the Halprins developed a guide to the creative process called the RSVP cycles that remains at the center of their artistic beliefs and practices. (R)esources can be objective tools and given materials, or subjective opinions and choices based on the experiences people bring to a project. (S)cores, or sketches of events to take place, or documentation of ones that already have occurred, can be open or closed to change to differing degrees. (V)aluaction, a term coined by Larry, is an evaluation of what people are doing, without judgment. Leaders of an RSVP team use it to help determine what is and isn’t working in a score, or how resources could be better used. (P) is the enactment or performance element of the cycle; in architecture, it refers to the product or structure built. RSVP calls for involvement of all participants in a process-oriented, rather than goal-oriented, experience. As it concerns the Stern Grove project, RSVP cycling takes into consideration the performance’s position in a natural environment, which is home to animals and used by park-goers. It even means respecting the neighborhood association’s wish to not have consecutive-day performances over a weekend, a request which Anna obliged. In contrast to RSVP is what Larry calls the “artist-as-hero hangup”—a process that is singularly controlled, resulting in an outcome imposed by the artist, however well meaning.

Detailed in Larry’s 1969 book The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment, the steps of Resources, Scores, Valuaction and Performance can be applied not only to the Halprins’ different artistic media, but also to community projects and any creative endeavor. Larry references numerous scores humans have used throughout history: The I Ching, the book of change, has served as a guide influencing behavior and decisions for over 3,000 years in the Chinese tradition. Navajo sand paintings have scored performance rituals for healing purposes, integrating the graphic and performing arts into a living environment. Bach’s sheet music, an example of a closed score, has provided generations of musicians with precise orders to follow. A football play outlines a plan of action for a team’s specific aim. Labanotation records in written form a preconceived dance.

For a concept that cannot be communicated through existing methods of scoring, a new form may be introduced. The RSVP Cycles includes a task list for Serenade II Janice Wentworth, scored and performed by Ted Greer and Charles Amirkhanian in 1967-1968. Like RSVP scores, the directions describe what to do but not how to do it: “(4) plays about fifteen notes on xylophone in middle and high registers; (5) utters the word ‘due’ while raising a hammer, and ‘doe’ while smashing a walnut; (6) utters ‘or…’ and proceeds to exit by means of the nearest visible door.” Over the years, Anna has scored her events through words, pictures, or other methods, as called for by the work.

The score for the dance at Stern Grove started with a map of the landscape. Anna invited about a dozen people to visit the site to begin collecting resources by exploring personal responses to the environment and “see[ing] what comes up.” Some ideas emerged about how to travel down the Concert Meadow’s zigzagging pathways through trees to the stage space. Reversing traditional performer and spectator vantage points, the audience will be stationed near the stage and the performers will inhabit the amphitheater seating made of stones nested into sloping ground. The first idea manifested in an orderly procession, with performers coming down in a single-file line that evoked a kind of pilgrimage. Larry visited the site to see the beginning of the dancers’ work and offered Anna some feedback. Anna recalled Larry’s valuaction: “‘It’s just terrible. It has nothing to do with the architecture,’ [he said] … I thought to myself, ‘Oh, boy! I better wait until I get something more pulled together’” before having him back.

In one rehearsal, Anna and the dancers were joined by a pair of off-leash dogs bounding through the concert space, unconcerned about plotting a linear pathway. Anna was inspired: “They come in here and they just scamper, helter-skelter. Running and jumping and leaping. And I said, ‘Wow. Why didn’t I think of that?’ They introduced the totality of this [space] rather than all of a sudden [Anna imposing], ‘This is the way I see it.’” This freeform use of a community park, shared by dogs, children, and adults, proved a better fit with Larry’s intention. The performers also spent time standing outdoors, rooted to the earth and connected to the sky, a position which, for Anna, evoked Leonardo DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man. Using two diagonals intersecting at the center of the landscape, Anna overlaid the DaVinci drawing on the map and began to think of the concert grove as a human body, with the lower half providing strength and support for the lightness of the upper half. Performers also worked with ideas of personal space and public space: their individual responses to the environment, which were influenced by other people’s presence.

In this public space, the collaborators continue finding resources and deepening their experience of the tasks that make up the still-evolving score. The public has unknowingly played a significant role in the creation of the project. Couples eating lunch, fathers pushing baby carriages, and groups of children on an outing from a nearby nursery school are among the people-resources Anna noticed and studied. A man in a catchy hat sitting still against a rock gave her the idea that the audience would also need a rest from time to time, and so she included a masked person (longtime friend and mask-maker Annie Hallatt) in quiet repose during the performance. One mask led to twelve, which led to “How many can you make between now and May first?”

In valuacting, the score is continually refined. Questions are asked of each choice: Does it support this intention? Does it satisfy your aesthetics? Anna acknowledges, “I have personal aesthetics. Some things I find more provocative than others.” The masks worked, but quantity mattered. How the mask-wearers emerged from the landscape mattered. Where a performer stood in relation to the sun mattered. Discussions during rehearsals took into account not only Anna’s intention and aesthetics, but also those of her collaborators, including inkBoat’s Shinichi Momo Iova-Koga and multidisciplinary performer Dohee Lee. Larry’s point of view, as expressed by the landscape architecture, was of course a key component of valuaction. Even with a long history of site-specific work, Anna finds the Stern Grove project to be her most challenging undertaking because so many variables are at play at once: the history of the site, the many uses of the public space, the constant or unpredictable elements of nature, and the presence of a large prop—a central ziggurat in the seating area.

Stern Grove is known to most San Franciscans as a venue for free outdoor concerts, a gift to the city that was made 72 years ago. In the 1890s, eucalyptus trees were planted in what had been sand dunes and marshes, and later the popular recreational destination, the Trocadero Inn, was established. The Inn, which attracted visitors with its biergarten and deer park among other amusements, closed in 1916. In 1931, Rosalie Stern, a supporter of the playground and recreation movement of the early twentieth century, purchased the land with the intention of providing free-admission performances as well as open park space for common use. Stern’s descendants have since run the park and upheld her commitment to the people of San Francisco.

In designing his concert grove, Larry wished to evoke a quality of the ancient Greek theater, of a time when going to an outdoor theater was as common and as social an activity as going to the movies is today. To create a timeless, mystical aesthetic that blended with nature, Larry carefully selected granite from a quarry in China and had 175 boulders shipped over, already cut according to his drawings. Unlike the majority of his projects, which take place in other states and countries, Stern Grove was close enough to his home in Kentfield that he could visit the site every week and stay an active part of the boulder installation, which pleased him. Larry remarks, “I really enjoy the construction area as well. First I design it, and then I enjoy the hell out of making it, and being there and talking to staff people. They’re a remarkable group of stone masons.” Blending with nature was a primary concern when Larry developed the trails in Yosemite National Park, and so was enhancing visitors’ experience with an environment: “I don’t give it to them, I lead them to it,” he says of Stern Grove.

Stern Grove is not the first project in which Anna has worked with a historical site that holds importance to a community. Planetary Dance, now in its 29th year and performed globally, is a peace dance developed from a healing ritual performed in 1981 on Mt. Tamalpais, which was called “In and On the Mountain.” The earlier work developed from a community workshop’s collective focus on the mountain as a source of shared pain: Two years after seven women had been murdered on the trails, their killer had still not been found. Less than a week after the two-day ceremony took place, the killer was arrested. As explained in Janice Ross’ book, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance: “‘I never said we caught the killer,’ Anna clarified, acknowledging it wasn’t that the dance had magical qualities, but rather that ‘the dance focused the mental intention of the community toward solving the problem.’”

The process of community building is a desired outcome of RSVP cycling for many subjects. Anna says that with the RSVP book, Larry has developed “an approach that could be applied to any field in which you are trying to solve problems,” including design, art, and city planning. Workshops gather input from a group of people coming from different backgrounds, offering a forum for communication and a score for participation. RSVP has many social benefits: “People can disclose information, respond with feeling states, reveal their needs, be alert to what is going on around them, and take on the role of active participants.”

How people participate in public life and imagine public space—questions investigated in the Stern Grove project’s score—inform much of the Halprins’ work. Anna’s Citydance was choreographed for and in the city of San Francisco and performed for 12 and a half hours on July 24, 1977. Dancers took over the city, performing tasks in locations ranging from Twin Peaks to the Embarcadero, in cars, on hills and inside stores. Tasks ranged from everyday activities such as children playing in a park to theatrical ones such as costumed artists performing a dance. The open score allowed audience members and passersby to join in if desired. Citydance followed several of Larry’s workshops that encouraged community scoring as a primer to the city planning he would direct.

Describing his “City Map” of 1968, Larry writes in RSVP Cycles: “It was a score designed to sensitize people to a given environment and to other people’s activities within it.” As in Citydance, the exploration of personal and public space at Stern Grove challenges participants to be fully present inside their own bodies while being conscious of being members of a group, within a natural environment, and as part of a larger universal order.

Since she and Larry moved to California after World War II, Anna has been working with people in nature at her home outdoor dance deck, designed by Larry, where she holds classes, rehearsals and movement explorations. In 2002, Anna created Still Dance, an intensely personal discovery of a human’s relationship to nature, to be photographed by Eeo Stubblefield. It was documented as a process in Andy Abrahams Wilson’s film Returning Home. Anna’s work captured on film embodied the complexities of living, aging and dying. To do this, the artist placed herself in many natural contexts. At times she softened into leaves, her nude body painted to identify with her surroundings, and she appeared warm and safe and comfortable, enclosed and protected by her surroundings. In other scenes she was waist-deep in cold Northern California ocean water; here her nudity identified human vulnerability and frailty in an environment that could swallow and destroy as easily as it could support life.

Nature’s unpredictability and humans’ only partial ability to control their living environment is also a theme at play in the Stern Grove project. Dogs could run through the space while the formal performances take place on May 3rd and steal focus from the dance events. Rather than imposing control by way of a makeshift fence or policing volunteers, Anna and Larry welcome the continuation of normal public use of the park. A park sign that reads “No Dogs Allowed in Concert Meadow” will be pleasantly ignored. In fact, Anna has planned to place an encouraging sign nearby: “There is a performance going on. You’re part of it. Please continue.”

The Halprins promote freedom through creativity and cooperation, as evidenced by their RSVP-informed work. The process, however, depends on systematic discipline and responsibility for one’s actions as much as openness of form—continually valuacting the resources, scores, and performances of an idea. Larry writes in RSVP that the cycles can demand a great deal from participatory audiences as well as architects of the score. The situation, he writes, “can be tremendously exciting and dynamic and far reaching; but within the excitement there can be many failures and errors along the way.” Learning from the failures contributes information to the process that could change the outcome in a way that goal-oriented action might not allow.

During an interview in March 2009, Anna cautioned that the score could change and that much of what she had described will have evolved beyond recognition by performance time. At a rehearsal on March 29, the last motif of the Stern Grove dance depended on the central ziggurat. Performers occupying personal space moved into shared space around the stacked stones. At the closing of the piece, dancers encircled the ziggurat, choosing community identity without abandoning individual presence—reaching inside themselves, but staying on task.

Dancers’ Group presents Anna Halprin’s Spirit of Place in the Stern Grove Concert Meadow on Sunday, May 3, 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.

This article appeared in the May 2009 issue of In Dance.

Emily Hite has contributed to the Dancing Times, Stanford magazine, Stanford Lively Arts magazine, Dance Magazine, Voice of, and Mindy Aloff’s book Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance (Oxford University Press, 2006). In 2008 she interviewed Yvonne Mounsey for the George Balanchine Foundation Interpreters Archive film of Prodigal Son. She joined Hope Mohr Dance in 2007.