Dear Anna

By Shinichi Iova Koga

Anna Halprin hula hooping with a young child

Photo by Shinichi Iova-Koga

Anna, I’ve been thinking about you. Our world breathes so strangely now. My dance becomes more and more quiet. As I write this, I “shelter at home” with my family to impede the spread of a virus in our community, in our world.

I am fortunate. The woods and hills remain. The rain comes. The air smells more clean now. And when I walk around, I’m on one of your sensory walks, noticing details- temperature, contrast, mood, shape… whatever my eyes, ears and skin attune to. My mind also wanders in time, back to you, your home, and the redwoods growing up around the dance deck.

Do you remember our first lunch together? Sitting together at your dining table, you asked questions about my work, my priorities, my process as an artist. My reply hovered around collaborative process and I remember your smiling reply: “where did you get that idea?” My answer (and many things that I consider “my” ideas) without doubt had roots in something you pioneered, passed along through several people and cultures before it reached me. Artistic “telephone” perhaps. I found the source of my sources in you.

Our work together began when you invited me to bring my collaborators into your studio for rehearsals (in 2007, working on c(H)ord). Larry [Halprin] would sit with us in the studio and sketch our forms and motions on his pad of paper. We shared bits of our creation. You questioned us and prodded us in the kind yet penetrating way you do. Our baby daughter Zoë joined us often, cradled in one arm while I danced, or snuggled up with Dana, or crawling across the Mountain Home Studio floor while we warmed up. Larry referred to her as “shorty.”

Over the years, Zoë interacted with your classes, arranging pillows through the space, walking in the midst of dancers, pointing, directing, watching. I looked to you, wondering if she might be distracting the students, but you seemed delighted to have this little wild card in your midst. Later, our son Niko joined as a participant, often clinging to my back. As they both grew in your presence, I reflected on how many generations of young people you have influenced, how many paths have been infused with your attention to the environment, community and social justice. I cannot express how grateful I am to you for the generosity and inclusion you extended to my family, to everyone in your circle of influence.

Time dances on, with many more lunches and projects together (Spirit of Place, Parades and Changes, Song of Songs). And then Wayne [Hazzard] approached me in 2013 with the proposal to create a performance work in honor of you. Whaaaaaaat??!!

In 2015, you turned 95 and inkBoat manifested Wayne’s initiative, performing 95 Rituals. That ended when, just before our last performance day, the National Park Service shut us down for nudity. Fitting, considering your own history.

Now, five years later, you’re turning 100. And I’m reflecting on the experience of creating 95 Rituals and the time spent with you.

I had started 95 Rituals by asking 95 artists to create 95 scores for performance. This was based on the process for making transparent the act of creation that you and Larry named the RSVP cycles (R = Resource, S = Score, V = Valuaction, P = Performance). The Scores (Scores = plan, structure, instructions, intentions) were then performed by the inkBoat collaborators, who each brought their own perspectives, experiences and culture into the translation from score to performance, idea to realization. The intent and structure of the score often changed over the course of our experimentation. Though we discussed purpose and meaning, asking why we do what we do, my own focus remained with the form or system of the RSVP cycles… which merely sketched the outline of a dance, addressing the direction and plan for our endeavor. But I realize now that while I concentrated on this I dropped something very important. The dance itself.

Anna Halprin and a person in a red suit
Photo by Pak Han

To me, your contribution to the world is more than a score, or system, or set of exercises. It is something that cannot be taught, but it can be learned. Maybe it’s “Chutzpa” (as you’ve enjoyed to say) or love or empathy that has always empowered your dance making. Maybe it’s the inspiration from your grandfather and his dance. Whatever propels you to share and innovate, to struggle for the healing of a people, a community or a planet, it’s that quality I’m looking at now. That un-namable element within you, the unique blend of inquisitiveness, brightness and fierceness, uplifting everyone in your vicinity. Such ability does not arise overnight. That skill cannot be taught. It grows steadily, slowly over time, with consistent practice in combination with a will to fundamentally transform.

As the world falls apart and rebuilds itself, I need the dance more than ever. I need to watch the clouds as I stand on the earth. Like many others, I’m looking to how I might focus my energies and skills to add to a healthy future for my children, for all children, for all beings.

I listen to the news, hearing polarizing notions ranging from totalitarian rants to socially sensitive wishfulness. I become outraged, frightened, hopeful, accepting and sometimes tearful… my feelings shifting from one polarity to another. And then I think of you again, describing how the instructions for a performance, a score, can be considered on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being an open improvisation with no instructions and 10 being a tight ballet choreography. You like to work close to 5, the middle place, but not “middle of the road.” It’s possibly the most difficult place to be, as flexibility, release, power and expansion must all co-exist simultaneously, neither giving in to nor overwhelming the others. 10 can feel locked, exact or taut to while 1 might be unstructured, open or sloppy. 5 places a weight at the center, steadying everything on the periphery.

Since our performance of 95 Rituals, the center point has attracted my focus. That spot sitting at the center of the compass-like 4 directions created by R and S and V and P. That spot does not have a letter or a name. Maybe it’s the “self,” ready to move in any direction.

On your 95th birthday you hoola’d the hoola-hoop around your waist 95 times while everyone counted. You had taken up hoola-hooping only a few years earlier to diversify your exercise routine. You’ve never stopped embracing new challenges, new perspectives. When we worked on Parades and Changes in 2011/12, you owed no allegiance to the scores of 1965 (year of first performance in Stockholm, Sweden). You assumed to transform that work and make it relevant to the time, for those around you, taking inspiration from what you might have noticed on the streets on your way to rehearsals. Or more recently, noticing that people are feeling a little stressed out, you developed a new physical routine to teach, aimed at bringing more calm and ease. You spot the needs and you lean in. You continually adapt to the changing times, as we all must do. With fire in the heart. With gratitude and great care. I love you Anna. Happy 100th.

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

Shinichi Iova-Koga is the Artistic Director of the physical theater and dance company inkBoat, founded by Shinichi in 1998. He has toured in North America, Europe, South Korea and Japan, often collaborating with local artists in museums, theaters, studios and site-specific locations.