Conversations with Anna Halprin

By Janice Ross

Anna Halprin in a grey hat looking off to the side, smiling

Photo by Rick Chapman

As surely everyone must know by now, Anna Halprin turns 100 on July 13, 2020. Just as her work has celebrated the dancer in every body, and every age, for the past 75 years, she is an artist who isn’t inclined to stop generating ideas and movement just because she is nearing the century mark.

As a cultural icon, Anna has been eulogized with each landmark birthday from her 75th onward, with little risk of overexposure. The broad contours of her reputation as a contemporary dance rebel, inspirational educator and iconoclast have continued to evolve as the phrase “oldest living” increasingly frames each reference positioning her in the field of American dance. There is an irony in all this – for Anna has never made art for posterity nor has she put much stock in cementing her legacy. She is a champion of change.

For half of her life I have had the privilege of a front row seat to her flux and flow as she has negotiated and refracted shifting social orders through dance. I first encountered Anna live in 1970 when, as a UC Berkeley undergraduate, I attended the opening of the University Art Museum and peered over the spiraling ramps down to watch Anna and her Dancers’ Workshop perform her daring Parades and Changes on the ground floor. With its matter-of-fact full nudity and racially diverse cast it pushed aesthetic and social boundaries even for a campus in the midst of anti-Vietnam war and hippie upheavals. Six years later in 1976, now as a young freelance dance critic writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, I interviewed Anna for a feature about the upcoming premiere of her bicentennial tribute, City Dance. Thus began my 44 years of conversations with Anna. Some fractious, some intimate, but all revelatory of her high energy, unpretentious and visionary approach to life and art. Art as life. Life as art.

Several years into dozens of telephone and in person conversations and attending her classes, rehearsals, performances, lunches and dinners, I began jotting down notes. What follows are a sliver of excerpts from my 28 years of  conversations with Anna, exchanges that are still ongoing as I write this in early April 2020.

June 2, 1992, Kentfield, CA

Anna’s mother dies.

She had moved her from her Woodside home to a rest home 5 min from Anna’s house in Kentfield a few months earlier. Anna visited her daily and spoke with her attendants. She commented that she faded fast in the last several weeks. Anna spoke of how she seemed to be leaving her body, she lost control over it and its functions, (Saturday the 6th would have been her mother’s 99th birthday).

Then on Tuesday the attendants called Anna and said her vital signs were very low. Anna quickly gathered the family around, Larry, her daughters, her niece, grandkids, they went to Anna’s mother and all gathered around her and one by one whispered in her ear how much they loved her. Larry recited the 22nd Psalm. Then they all left and Anna stayed alone with her mother. She said she was almost in a coma by then, in and out of consciousness. And in order to be as close with her as she could Anna crawled into bed with her mother. And she held her and felt her breath grow slower and more erratic. And felt her struggle for air, take longer to get each breath and her pulse become erratic and then she very gently stopped breathing. “You do everything so perfectly for everyone,” Anna said to her then, as she had said often in life.  Anna said it was so peaceful. And she spoke of the Saturday night ritual the family had planned they would dance around her rocking chair and other of her favorite objects Anna would gather from the house in Woodside. It would be like a party to call her spirit into the circle and then release it. Anna’s brothers were coming too.

Anna has always had a phenomenal way of creating ritual out of life passages. She has deep comfort with the sad, the difficult, her pleasure in “working through” something. She spoke of how she prayed with her cancer group that morning and of “all the dances” she had been doing that day. Her child-like innocence at crawling in bed with her dying mother because that’s what she wanted to do and humbug to conventions or prohibitions. She paused a moment before relating this to me as if wary I might think it silly.

Feb 6, 1994, San Francisco, CA

Saw Anna in Nina Wise’s Traveling Jewish Theatre show. Anna was her first guest for a 16 evening series.

Feb 3, 1994 at the Magic Theatre, SF

Anna comes on stage and explains that this is the first time since 1972 that she’s danced before a public audience. She said at that time she asked herself why are you a performer? Whom do you perform for? What do you perform about? From this she segways into memories of her grandfather. My daughters has some chance to connect to the Yiddish culture and my grandchildren they missed it all. She explains that she is wearing as her costume her father’s black silk pajamas. and what looks like a thin white prayer shawl. Jewish klezmer music plays and she enacts for the next 20 minutes or so an almost drunken, joyous stepping dance, like Fiddler On The Roof.

July 12, 1995

The day before Anna’s 75th birthday. She’s in her anxious-before-a-project mode. She wanted to read me her text for the Berlin brochure. It said in part, “Our ritual will call upon a higher power every step on earth will be a prayer for peace… the intensity of this setting.. ritual is too often forgotten. We will explore through direct experience.” She wants to refer to the bunker where Hitler killed himself as being within sight of her performance. She is excited the Dali Lama will open the ceremonies. She said “this isn’t some New Age-y thing. I want to make that clear.”

Feb 16, 1996 San Francisco, CA

Watching Anna rehearse a group of eight contemporary dancers, Keith Hennessey, Jess Curtis, etc. in the dressing and undressing section of Parades and Changes, at Footwork, it was riveting! One of the most beautiful dance spectacles I have seen in recent years! There is such a studied innocence and immense theatricality. The stark black and white of their costumes, white shirts and black pants, and the very intense way they focus on a member in the audience and then slowly strip away their clothes. It is not at all sexual and at the same time intensely so. As John Berger says, there is then a relaxation that they have a body just like any other when they finally undress. Yet the tempi are so staggered that one is undressing while the other is putting on clothes. They do it three times. The other work, especially Circle The Earth’s, Restore Me section, pales by comparison. Parades and Changes has no self-consciousness about what it is doing. Fantastic!

Watching Anna-the-director as she shapes this retrospective, I see her try to tell the young dancers of the history of what they are stepping into. Remy Charlip was there and he tells me he saw it at its American premiere at Hunter College in 1965. He said afterward the director of Oh Calcutta asked him to choreograph this whole nude show, a direct steal from the beauty of Anna’s nudity.

Feb 23, 1996

More Discussion with Anna as she pulls together her retrospective at Footwork. A Third show has been added and it is already sold out also.

Dec 3, 2001, Kentfield, CA

Yesterday Anna hosted a performance by Min Tanaka on her dance deck. It was freezing and rained a little and yet a capacity crowd of people filled the seven rows of benches overlooking the dance deck to see Min and four of his dancers from Japan perform. Anna spoke at the start, looking very glamorous in a golden raincoat and cowboy hat. She said that she first met Min in 1978 when a friend of his was the translator for Larry for work he was doing in Japan. Min performed on the dance deck and he began by rolling down the whole hill from the house to the deck and ended with his focus over the railing to the bay and San Francisco beyond.

June 22, 2006, Portland, Oregon 

Anna receives a DANCE USA leadership award and I introduce her. She gets a standing ovation and reads a beautiful prayer for the next generation. She looks gorgeous in a white tailored Maoist suit she bought in Paris when she was there a few months earlier for her show at the big gallery in Lyon. The French want to buy her original scores for millions of dollars she tells me. I tell her I wish she would reconstruct the full Parades and Changes. But she is more interested in doing new things she says. And describes to me a new dance on Rodin’s images of Love. Larry isn’t up to traveling to Jerusalem for opening of his big Haas/Goldman project there.

June 29, 2006, Kentfield, CA

We speak at 9:15am she will teach at 9:30 then immediately pack and leave for Sea Ranch in the afternoon where she is overseeing a big family gathering for Larry’s 90th birthday on July 1. Extraordinary energy! On July 13 she will be 86.

Dec 19, 2019, Kentfield, CA 

I had been thinking about Anna all Autumn and when I e-mailed her (Stephanie and Sherri replied) I was invited to come for lunch at 12:30 on Wednesday Dec. 18. Driving there in the downpour I realized I have been making the trek to Anna’s home on the side of Mt. Tam for nearly 30 years. I am shocked when I arrive and see her – she seems to have suddenly aged from a beautiful and vibrant 80 year old into a 100 year old woman, with limited sight, hearing, mobility…

But she greets me happily and Sherri is there by her side – we chat and eventually move to the table where she eats a bowl of salty chicken broth and some romaine salad and dark chocolate pieces. I ask if she will go to Sea Ranch for the holidays and new year and she says oh yes, and next to her Sherri silently shakes her head back and forth “no.” She is speaking very softly about her memories of her work and particularly Miss H’Doubler as I prompt her with questions and potential answers. I eventually show her several keynote slide decks from talks about her I have given. She watches attentively, as if for the first time. She laughs most heartily at the 1970s photo of her, Larry, Paul Baum and Charles Amerkanian nude around the dining room table having a business meeting. It is a performance of just how comfortable they are with nudity, seemingly.

Daria arrives at the end and greets me warmly. I feel as if this may be the last time I will see Anna, she seems so frail and wispy as a presence – but Sherri says she continues to teach the Thursday night class – and she shows me cell phone photos she took the previous week of Anna commenting on a score with the skeleton they have created an improvised dance to – inspired by her recounting of how she first walked into H’Doubler’s classroom and was ready to dash out after seeing the skeleton and being shocked. We say goodbye – she thanks me again for the bouquet of pale orange heritage roses I brought her. It has been two hours and she doesn’t seem to tire or want me to go – I feel it has been entertaining for everyone and so after 2 ½ hours I rise to leave and hug everyone goodbye. It feels like the end of an era. The end of a certain history.

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

Janice Ross, Professor, Theatre and Performance Studies Dept., Stanford University, is the author of four books including Like A Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, (Yale Univ. Press, 2015) and Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, (UC Press 2007).