“When you’re watching a performer of any art, don’t you find yourself constantly wondering about the ‘real’ person behind the art? I do, all the time. My dance reveals that ‘real’ me; and its truth, I hope, speaks to the audience.”
— Min Tanaka, butoh artist
I must confess that I have fallen in love with Anna Halprin. When we met in person last fall, I could tell she was someone who embodied many of the good things in life: generosity and compassion, optimism, laughter, tenderness and honesty. I say this to acknowledge both my bias for the work, as well as the impact that getting to know Anna personally has had on my understanding of her work. I wonder sometimes if, in our goal of wanting dance to be seen by more people and in larger venues, we sometimes lose the intimacy and connection that comes from having a relationship with the artist.
When I went to my first rehearsal for Anna Halprin’s Stern Grove project, I expected to take on the duties similar to that of a production manager: fetching a blanket for Larry if it was cold, gathering the necessary permits, collecting information and getting it to the publicist, etc. It soon blossomed into some interesting side jobs (such as researching the position of the sun in the sky) and eventually I found myself mostly just sitting next to Anna taking notes or wandering around the space hoping to capture the work in photographs. I witnessed rehearsals in all manners of weather and spent hours listening to Anna’s delightfully frank and endearing voice. This is what I’ve experienced:
I’m standing behind a young sycamore tree in Stern Grove park, trying to hide from the group sitting on stage by aligning myself with the trunk—like when Scooby Doo somehow manages to disappear behind a lamp shade. I’m close enough to the dancers to overhear their “backstage” chatter and I’m noticing a theme in their questions. What are we doing out here? How is this going to take shape? What happens next? And yet no one actually seems concerned. It’s one of the great skills we learn from dance: the capacity to live in the unknown. We commit to projects without a script, spend a majority of the rehearsal time trying to fathom what is being created, always trusting that those guiding the process will eventually take us out of the mystery. Maybe it’s what compels a dancer to work for a particular choreographer – the belief that they can eventually guide us out of the unknown. And all of Anna’s dancers certainly trusted her to guide them out.
An alternate title for the work being created at Stern Grove could have been “Perspectives.” What do we see, what don’t we see, and can we see something from another’s perspective? These questions have all come up time and again in the work and Anna is particularly adept at letting these play out in rehearsal.
It’s seen clearly in the creation process, where Anna has set for herself the task of weaving multiple perspectives into something that can be shared with the audience. Of course there is her own viewpoint, but then she has added in feedback from the space itself, the voices of the cast, plus those of us who happen to be watching from the sides, the neighborhood residents, and of course, her husband Larry, who has perhaps the most vocal opinion of them all. While Anna may have brought many of the initial ideas to the table, it’s the collective responses to those ideas that have shaped the work. As Anna put it, “Every idea I have when I start a project always ends up looking terrible. I plan something, and it turns out unimaginative. It’s when I start responding to the environment that things come together. The ideas come by sitting and watching and listening.” And of course, to prove the point, a short while later in the midst of a long slow procession, a creamy white dog bolted across the space injecting it with energy, and she just smiled and called everyone together and proceeded to reshape the section with this new information the environment had just given her.
But the work isn’t just about a collection of perspectives and the struggle to pull them together. It’s also about shaping and highlighting our own perspective of the space. In preparation for the upcoming Dance Discourse Project discussion focusing on site-specific dance, Anna joined the moderators, other panelists, and I over lunch. During the meeting, Anna asked us, “What is the difference between raising one’s arms up in a dance studio versus outside?” It’s that different experience of relationship to space that Anna is searching for in the work at Stern Grove—how the performer can bring perspective to the space.
For her, two men conversing on a rock create a spatial relationship with the towering trees behind them. A passing dog walker brings attention to the horizontal pathways. Everything that passes through has an intimate relationship with the architecture of the space. And those moments are just as important to the work as the actions the dancers are performing. In fact, I think Anna would be disappointed if the audience watched the dancers the entire time.
I believe Anna’s hope for the work is that we each take a moment to experience, witness and appreciate the space we live in and realize our intimate connection to that space. Anna acknowledges the audience won’t have the same perspective she has of the work. We each approach art with our own way of seeing and being in a place. I love that. I love that a group of people can sit together and watch the same thing—and because we each have our own life experiences and interests—we walk away with entirely different ideas of the work. This transformative impact of experience reminds me that art-making isn’t just about how many people see the work, it’s also what kind of experience each person has. Not only is it about the work we create, but it’s also about the relationships we forge with each other and with our community.
I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t spent this time with Anna, I probably would have seen the performance as a group of hippy dancers communing with nature in a pretty stunning environment. Instead, I see a group navigating each other’s quirks, searching for guidance while enjoying peanut butter, cheese and apple slices. I see a space that breathes and lives by the people (and birds!) that inhabit it. And most deeply, I see a healer who passionately loves her husband.
This article appeared in the May 2009 issue of In Dance.