Anna’s Postmodern Children

By John Killacky

September 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Sitting in Yerba Buena’s theater last March, I was mystified by the ecstatic reaction French choreographer Jerome Bel received restaging his “encounter” with classical Thai dancer Pichet Klunchan. All around me young dancers and a wide spectrum of Bay Area choreographers seemed to be having epiphanies, while older postmodernists like myself were bored and cranky at what we perceived to be derivative conceptual posturing and exoticized multiculturalism.

Animated aisle and lobby conversations had me wondering if anyone remembered Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 No Manifesto. And surprisingly, many with whom I spoke had not:

NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendence of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.

For me, Jerome Bel brought nothing new to what Rainer postulated four decades ago. And so it seems, postmodern dance suffers from historical amnesia, as each subsequent generation breaks with tradition and wants to forge uncharted aesthetic paths. Too many artists erase mentors and influences, as though the perceived connection mitigates their creativity. But, quite the opposite is true. Audiences want to be ushered into and learn more about the art form.

My dance lineage is East Coast focused. I studied in New York in the early 1970s with post-Judson all abloom: Meredith Monk in parking lots, Trisha Brown on buildings, and David Gordon (with a towel over his head) improvising with Grand Union at the 14th Street Y. I performed with Jean Erdman’s Theater of the Open Eye. As an arts administrator in the 1980s, I managed the companies of both Laura Dean and Trisha Brown.

My Bay Area dance history was augmented recently; in reading a new book by Joanna Gewertz Harris and revisiting a video by Austin Forbord and Shelley Trott. Both provided invaluable and insightful information.

Joanna Gewertz Harris’ wonderful book, Beyond Isadora, Bay Area Dancing 1915-1965, illuminates 50 years of regional dance history, “from skirt dancers to site-specific performances, from acrobatics to aerial dance, from fairs to festivals, from cabarets to lifts.” This well researched chronicle depicts the development of modern, classical, and ethnic dance forms.

It lovingly details many early Bay Area modern dance pioneers such as Betty Horst, May O’Donnell, Lenore Peters Job and her daughter Judy, and Bonnie Bird. San Francisco Opera Ballet’s beginnings in 1933 with Adolph Bolm followed by the Christensen brothers in 1937, is also illustrated with luscious photographs and program details.

While Harris’ scholarship tends to focus more on ballet and modern pioneers, a myriad of culturally specific and folk dance pioneers are highlighted, performing at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition and the 1939 Treasure Island World’s Fair, as well as on concert stages, nightclubs, and restaurants.

According to Harris, the 1940s and 1950s were expansionist times for Bay Area dance as modernists Welland Lathrop, Gloria Unti, Ruth Beckford, Mimi Kagan, Frank Shawl, and Victor Anderson opened studios. Notably, it was during this time that Anna Halprin performed with Welland Lathrop and Dick Ford presented by the San Francisco Dance League.

By the 1960s, with Halprin leading the charge, dance was yanked off the proscenium stage into outdoor site-specific situations, seamlessly integrating art into life. The next aesthetic revolution had begun, with political, social, and sexual politics fermenting further cultural explorations still bearing fruit today.

It is here that Harris’ book concludes and Austin Forbord’s and Shelley Trott’s video, Artists in Exile: A Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco begins. Through interviews with leading regional chorographers, we learn about Halprin’s encompassing influence; mavericks including Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk, Simone Forti and Trisha Brown visit her outdoor dance deck before going back east to formalize their own postmodernist stripped-down versions of everyday action.

Here on the left coast, Halprin’s influence spawns, among others, the all-male contact improv group, Mangrove and Theresa Dickinson’s feminist Tumbleweed collective. Early footage of Halprin, Mangrove, and Tumbleweed is arresting and revelatory.

An aesthetic mapping builds as the video proceeds. Tumbleweed’s influence is clear on Krissy Keeffer’s Wallflower Order/Dance Brigade with its blend of feminist politics, ritual, and dance. Sara Shelton Mann, who worked with Mangrove, takes contact improvisation to higher-octane levels, exploding and ritualizing it with her company Contraband. Keith Hennessy, Jess Curtis, and others from Contraband continue that legacy today.

The video acknowledges Terry Sendgraff’s seminal integration of trapeze and gymnastics into dance. Without her, the Bay Area could not be known for its aerial work by Joanna Haigood, Jo Kreiter, and Amelia Rudolph.

Interdisciplinary formalists Margy Jenkins with her precise beauty and Brenda Way with her intelligent kinetic exuberance are also well documented. But these two are by way of New York, via Merce Cunningham and The School of American Ballet respectively, so they can be forgiven their lushness. For Margy it was a return home, since she is a native San Franciscan, and Brenda arrived in a yellow school bus with her Oberlin Dance Collective.

Myriad dancemakers have emanated from both Jenkins and Way, although Way’s most enduring contribution might be in her creation of ODC’s Dance Commons. Jenkins’ next generation profiled in the video is Joe Goode with his exploration of sexuality and gender, returning in the 1990s to what Halprin began in the 1960s.

It was lovely to view Artists in Exile, especially at the same time as reading Beyond Isadora. Forbord and Trott, unlike Harris, did not try to be encyclopedic. Instead, they contextualized their own aesthetic forbearers. Throughout, archival footage is juxtaposed with interviews of local choreographers feeling supported in their experimentation in the Bay Area, but feeling marginalized and ignored in the national dance dialogue still dominated by New York.

This theme of exclusion from the national discourse resonates as I continue to reflect upon Jerome Bel’s deconstructionist conversation with Thai dancer Pichet Klunchan. I can now better understand why it was welcomed so effusively, since we are all Anna’s children. For me, however, Bel came 40 years too late. Maybe it has taken Europe that long to catch up to Anna Halprin.


John R. Killacky is the Program Officer for Arts and Culture at The San Francisco Foundation.

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