A Ladder To Anna

By Daria Halprin

Anna Halprin

Photo by Shinichi Iova-Koga

I climb an extension ladder placed in the patio below my mother’s balcony, while she sits in her wheelchair looking down at me. This is how I have to visit her every day. COVID-19 makes it too risky for both of us to be in close physical contact.

When Anna first lost the use of her legs three months ago, she turned a corner into stillness and quiet, a kind of peaceful calm that I had never before experienced in or around or with her.

My mother had always been a mover, a doer, a go-out-and-grab-life-by-the-horns creator. And people were drawn to her: students, dancers, choreographers, visual artists, musicians, actors, choreographers, educators, psychologists, architects, and collaborators. There were times she drove our family crazy with all her coming and going, with people constantly coming and going, to and from the deck, in and out of our home.

My mother has always loved life, loved dancing, loved creating, loved witnessing people in the studio dancing the real stuff of their lives. She used to say that what happened in the studio was more riveting and entertaining to her than anything she had ever seen on stage.

She was always astonished by the idea that people all over the world knew her and admired her. When I’d say, “Ma, you’re famous!” She’d smile and say, “I am?”  She never let up aspiring. On the morning my father passed away, she immediately walked downstairs to the studio and led a class on breathing. “Dance as if you are taking your last breath,” she said. I didn’t know whether to be offended or amazed. Nothing ever kept her from going for the deeply human dances.

My mother has always breathed as if every breath might be her last. Every adventure was an opportunity to encounter more, learn more, use more for creating dances that matter. Every student was a friend.

She never liked being called a healer or a therapist. She wanted to be called an artist and a teacher. From the start, she has been a boundary crosser and a boundary breaker. Believe me, no one who met my mother would forget her. She is unforgettable.

Now I climb an extension ladder to visit with her. I ask her, “Ma, do you remember why I’m on this ladder to visit you?” And in a soft, sweet voice she answers, “Not really, dear.” I ask her, “Do you remember why I’m wearing this mask?” “No, not really.” And so we revisit this strange new reality as if we are facing it for the first time every single day.

She has had an inexhaustible and impassioned interest in the world and has allowed herself to be surprised by life anew over and over again. She has witnessed innumerable people dancing in the studio, and she is always stunned, as if each dance was the first of its kind as well as the most beautiful.

The other day on one of my ladder visits, we moved our hands in an echoing duet, our fingers reaching skyward, wrists rotating like wing tips of birds, softly swaying and clapping, stretching our arms out toward each other, across the distance. She slowly lifted each leg up one at a time, as if getting ready to bound out of that wheelchair and walk straight down the stairs to the studio, again.

Anna is a mover, a lover of dance, of people, of nature, of creativity itself. Even as she sits ever so quietly with nothing more to do, nothing much she wants to say, nowhere to go, I imagine she too is climbing a ladder, on her way home to dance with the great spirit.

Daria Halprin

This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of In Dance.

Daria Halprin: dancer, poet, teacher, and author, is among the leading pioneers in the field of movement/dance and expressive arts therapy. Following a career in stage performance as a member of the Anna Halprin’s Dancers Workshop Company, and in film, most notably Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, she turned to the healing power of the arts. With her mother Anna Halprin, she co-founded the Tamalpa Institute where she directs training programs in movement/dance and expressive arts education, therapy and performance. Her work bridges the fields of somatic psychology, movement/dance therapy, expressive arts therapy, and performance. Published writings include: Coming Alive; The Expressive Body in Life, Art and Therapy; contributing author Expressive Arts Therapy: Principles and Practices, Poesis: Essays On the Future of the Field; Dance, Somatics and Spiritualties: Body Ensouled, Enacted and Entranced. She teaches in educational, health and art centers throughout the world.