Parades and Changes Over the Past 43 Years: an Interview with Anna Halprin

By Ann Murphy

January 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

When choreographer and dancer Anna Halprin and her husband Larry perched themselves on the side of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, they rooted their creative futures in a landscape of redwood, madrone, oak and berries. Little did they know that their choice would help revolutionize post-war dance in the United States. On five acres of wooded hillside Larry Halprin, a landscape architect, built Anna a stage in the trees—the now famous dance deck that hangs below a leafy canopy and an open sky—and this became an important laboratory for some of the most inventive artists of the last 60 years, including Terry Riley, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Simone Forti, Morton Subotnik, Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris.  Anna began to create scored systems on the deck that were fixed yet fluid, echoing the structured improvisations of her forebearers Isadora Duncan, Rudolph Laban and Mary Wigman. Then, by applying ideas from landscape design, music, politics, film, psychology and poetry to the moving body in the environment, she formulated works shaped by the cultural concerns of the day, from war to the unadorned body to the sexual politics of family life.

Pictured: Anna Halprin's "Parades & Changes" Photo by Unknown
Pictured: Anna Halprin’s “Parades & Changes”
Photo by Unknown

Now, at 92, Anna is remaking for the last time what may be the most seminal dance “score” of her career. In mid-February dancers from as far away as Paris will stage a final iteration of Parades and Changes, the dance that caused the New York police to issue a warrant for the artist’s arrest, stunned East Coast audiences with its total nudity, but also prompted curmudgeonly critic Clive Barnes to marvel that in the paper-tearing sequence, “Fantastic shapes evolve, paper sculptures mingling fascinatingly with nude bodies. The result is not only beautiful but somehow liberating as well.” In the less provincial environment of Berkeley in 1970, Parades was the first art event in the concrete modernist building built for the new Berkeley Art Museum. The dance program was an event described as “a multidisciplinary art extravaganza, heralding a radical new building and an ambitious cultural enterprise.” Now, 43 years later, Anna and her dancers return to say goodbye to the concrete structure, which will be repurposed by the university once the museum shifts downtown. We will all say goodbye to a legendary dance.

For this last look at a dance that changed the terms of performance and public expression, Anna is striving to make Parades as timely as ever as it channels the uprisings around the world. She is including a new, rhythmically patterned stomping section devised by composer and long-time collaborator Morton Sobotnik designed to suggest protest. She will add a falling section, that connotes sacrifice and death, and, most important to her, she is injecting a tender embracing section that signals our capacity for caring and concern. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of talking to Anna after a rehearsal about this final installment. This is what she had to say:

Ann Murphy: What does the title Parades and Changes refer to?
Anna Halprin: It’s the idea that there is a sequence of actions that go like this [she moves one hand after the other on the table top] that remind me of a parade, but they keep changing. So [in a dance] we might have a series of blocks going like this [demonstrates again] but they will change every time you do it, and that’s where the title Parades and Changes comes from. It was very hard to find a title [for a work that] keeps changing so much in its relevance to historic culture, so it has one connotation in one particular time. The first time I did it it was inspired by Picasso’s painting called “the Family Circus.” My family was like a circus, and the cast was all family. The second time I did it I did it with a group of hippies. Then the third time I did it was with the multi-racial company. So the cast changes as well, and as the cast changes the cultural overtones change.

AM: So your casting is in response to the cultural moment?
AH: Yes. And I want to say that with regard to the family cast, I had spent over 25 years working with children, so I was very used to relating to children. Rana was 10 and Daria was 14 and they were part of the children’s troupe. In those days children weren’t taken seriously in dance as members of a cast. I think Robert Wilson used a child in one of his pieces but that was very unusual. So that wasn’t an expectation—children taken seriously as children in a cast. And that was where I was—I was building a family at that time.

Pictured: "Parades and Changes," Sweden 1965 Photo by Ove Alstrom
Pictured: “Parades and Changes,” Sweden 1965
Photo by Ove Alstrom

AM: Did you score the original Parades and Changes, and have you scored successive iterations, and if so what does that mean?
AH: You saw me scoring right now today. I get resources from the group I’m working with. Then I begin to see what they’re presenting to me, and then I begin to find the scoring element. So my first score is very open: here’s an idea; explore it. That’s a very open score, but still I selected the idea of the embrace because I felt I needed that in this piece—I needed this human factor that was missing. Parades and Changes until now was completely task-oriented and I wanted something more humanistic. Now, at the very beginning, it starts with people telling stories, so the task is: tell a story. I will take an ordinary task but unlike the Judson I want to turn it into a dance. I don’t want to leave it as a realistic task.  So when people talk about task-oriented movement on the East Coast it’s very different from what I mean by it.  The environment has been foremost in my sensibilities. I even do exercises with the eyes with my students so they learn how to look and see the environment instead of an object. I can look at Sue as an object, or I can look at Sue and be aware that there’s a fire going on behind her, and that she’s gesturing, and that there’s a man over there with grey hair, and a woman over there with a white blouse. I’m still looking at Sue but I’m looking at her in relation to the environment and not as an object.

AM: What does this relationship to the environment bring to your work?
AH: One of the first things is that it broke the barrier of the proscenium arch, because I worked on the dance deck that meandered in around the trees and is suspended in the air. I was aware of the sky and the animals that went by. So it had a huge effect on me to get out of the box studio or the proscenium arch theater and opened up a whole world of new possibilities that had to do with being more realistic about life. It’s as if the dances I’d been doing [earlier in my career] were little exhibition pieces in a box.

AM: What do you mean by being more realistic about life?
AH: It means that you’re contacting other people, which gives you a different relation to the audience, so it becomes more inclusive. At a very profound level it means working as nature operates. Nature operates according to processes. Nature doesn’t have an ABA and a formalistic compositional technique. Nature works in process—a tree grows, the sun comes out, the rain comes. It’s never a fixed form. That was so reinforced by my husband, because he built that deck and he’s the one who got me out of a box….[He] got that not from the Bauhaus but from going up to the Sierra for a month at a time every August and living there and sketching and drawing and writing and observing. He was my major collaborator and that had an effect on me.  The deck itself had an effect on me.

AM: Did your and Larry’s choice of moving to the side of Mt. Tamalpais prefigure that? Were you already aware of the role of the environment?
AH: In an intuitive way. I was born on the Skokie Plains, and I was never comfortable in an urban environment. And Larry started a kibbutz in Israel working the land, and was originally getting his PhD in biology.

AM: So you both knew open space?
AH: Right. I remember something Larry wrote. He said: When I was a little boy I used to go to a tree, and I’d hide in the tree to get away from all the adults and their problems.

AM: So you went and hid in a tree in another way?

AM: Anna, I know that when you performed Parades and Changes at Hunter in 1967 you had to get out of town fast.
AH: Very fast!

AM: Tell me what happened.
AH: Well, when I did Parades and Changes originally, it was commissioned by a music festival in Sweden, and I knew ahead of time the cultural attitude about nudity—they took saunas together—nudity wasn’t a cultural taboo in Sweden. So when we did it there, the dressing and undressing scene was received with the following comment by a dance critic. He said that “it was like a ceremony of trust.” Then it was presented on national television. Well, 43 years ago imagine performing something like that on our national television. Then I got a letter from this farmer that said—oh it was so beautiful to see the naked bodies. It reminded him of his newborn calves—sacred and innocent.

Pictured: "Parades and Changes," Berkeley 1970, Photo by Paul Fusco
Pictured: “Parades and Changes,” Berkeley 1970,
Photo by Paul Fusco

Then when we did in New York I was a little naïve. I made an assumption that New Yorkers are very sophisticated, and it didn’t even occur to me that it was going to create a problem because it was so well accepted in Sweden. But I began to wonder when I saw a couple of policemen back stage. I’d never seen that before. Well, it turned out that they were actually security people who were supposed to keep the police out, because the Director of Hunter College anticipated something of this nature. So sure enough, they issued a warrant for my arrest at the hotel the next day for indecent exposure. But I wasn’t there.

AM: You were warned?
AH: Yeah, I was. And as a result of that I didn’t go back to New York for years, and it affected my reputation. At the time I had a group and we were touring but nobody would touch me. For years and years it was all they talked about even though it was one score amongst ten different scores, yet that’s all they ever talked about, so we stopped touring. But that was good, because then I could really focus on rituals, and ceremonies, and working with people and their issues, and AIDS and healing, and racial conflict. It gave me an opportunity to be completely liberated from any expectations. It was a disaster that turned into a blessing.

Pictured: "Parades and Changes," Sweden 1965 Photo by Ove Alstrom
Pictured: “Parades and Changes,” Sweden 1965
Photo by Ove Alstrom

AM: So Anna, I know that you have changed Parades with the time, the setting. How is this particular context shaping the score for you and this particular moment in time?
AH: The theme––and this may sound a little Pollyannish––but the theme for me is peace. Peace with yourself, with your naked body, unadorned, unmasked–be real–and peace with each other. You are part of something bigger than yourself. I’ve incorporated into the score the shooting and the stomping and the anger and the rebellion of the Occupation Movement, and then a final Planetary Dance, which is hopeful. It has a sense of “if we can be one voice, this is what we would ask for.” Ultimately, as a grandmother and a great grandmother, if I leave any legacy at all to my children and their children, it’s an awareness of how to take responsibility to create peace in their lives and the lives of others. I feel that Occupy was an outcry by our young people to deal with the corruption, to deal with the 1% because it’s going to destroy us all, and it’s going to destroy the planet. Occupy was a very brave thing to do, and I feel bad that it hasn’t gotten the full support it needed to grow, and develop and cultivate its clarity.

AM: Do you think it still might?
AH: Oh yeah, I do.

Anna Halprin’s Parades and Changes will be presented at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Februrary 15-17.

This article appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of In Dance.

Ann Murphy, a long-time Bay Area dance critic, is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at Mills College in Oakland.