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Dancing Outside 

Anna Halprin's 80th Year Retrospective

Wednesday, May 31 2000
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It's 10 p.m. on a weekday morning and Anna Halprin is, as usual, in her favored state: nude. "I'm so sorry, I'll be right down," she shouts, full frontal, from the top of the stairs as she races around the upper level of her famously secluded Marin home. She slips on a bright orange and white silk kimono before traipsing down the steep wooden steps. At age 80, she is as sinewy, agile, and unembarrassed as ever, and you know it is her tardiness, and not the au naturel confrontation, that she's apologizing for.

It's easy to believe her, then, when she insists that she never gave so much as fleeting consideration to shock value when she created her notorious 1965 work, Parades and Changes. She walks out the back door of her treehouselike abode, built 40 years ago by her architect husband, and down a wood-and-gravel-paved hillside. She is barefoot but the small sharp stones seem not to touch her feet. She alights on a sun-drenched redwood platform surrounded by trees, the renowned dance deck where luminaries like Merce Cunningham once gave informal performances and where Halprin's most illustrious students, Yvonne Rainier, Meredith Monk, and Trisha Brown, trained.

"We created Parades and Changes right out here," she says. "You know, you're in the sun. It was the '60s and everyone took their clothes off to express community love and to shed capitalist trappings. It was quite innocent."

That fabled version of Parades and Changes (there are, typically of Halprin, 12 versions of the evening-length work) has only been performed four times, twice in the 1990s. This weekend will mark its fifth re-enactment, when the once-controversial segment opens a special 80th birthday retrospective of Halprin's groundbreaking work at the Cowell Theater.

Part of the reason it has only been performed four times is because Halprin's naiveté about nudity didn't last long. In 1967, two years after the work's much-lauded Stockholm premiere, Halprin's company took the complete, nudity-inclusive version of Parades and Changes to New York. The performance marked the first time naked bodies had appeared on a major stage in the United States, and resulted in mocking press coverage and a warrant for Halprin's arrest.

"I couldn't go back to New York for a year," Halprin says, clearing off a seat in her cluttered personal office. "It ruined our company's career. Nobody would touch us after that. It was too risky for presenters. And that was all right. It just made me move on."

Of course, today, it's likely no one will even lift an eyebrow. And over the last three decades, time and again, Halprin did move on. Her lack of complacency led her, in fact, to anticipate most of the seminal developments in postmodern dance years before their time. Ask her to talk about her work in the 1960s and '70s and you'll hear, repeatedly, "Back in those days ...." "Back in those days, the word 'workshop' wasn't in vogue." "Back in those days, it wasn't called 'performance art.'" It sounds quaint now, but at the time her experiments just about amounted to career suicide.

"There was a short period when I couldn't get any support and people were I felt ridiculing and misunderstanding of what I was doing," she says. "The head of the dance department at UCLA at that time said I had set dance back 100 years. Dancers didn't even think of me as a dancer anymore, but I was accepted with open arms by the theater people. It was more than disappointing. It was devastating. It made me very rebellious and I just kept doing what I wanted to do."

Halprin broke with any semblance of the proscenium arch and, with her collaborative workshop of loyal dancers, including her two young daughters, created works in which absurdly costumed performers hung from cargo nets (1963's Exposizione) or cooked pancakes (1965's Apartment 6). She was perhaps the first choreographer to champion natural, task-oriented movements.

When audiences shouted and hurled their shoes at her during performances, their energy inspired her to explore unprecedented levels of interaction. She collaborated on experimental "environments" in which audience members would perform alongside trained dancers, passing through cellophane mazes and past people making love.

If that had been the whole of Halprin's creative arc, a retrospective of her work would be remarkable enough. Instead, in 1972, Halprin's explorations took a detour -- some would call it a derailment -- that makes this weekend's concert as much a full circle as it is a culmination. In that year, Halprin had a vision of a ball inside the pelvic region of her body. She drew this ball, and then she danced it, but she still felt uneasy about it. The next day she made an appointment with her doctor. The diagnosis was cancer.

So Halprin began working with people diagnosed with cancer or AIDS, working through life-threatening illnesses by creating drawings and dances, and in the process danced her own cancer into submission. The final dance on this weekend's program, Intensive Care, deals with her patients', her recently hospitalized husband's, and her own confrontations with death. Halprin makes clear that she is a dancer and not a "therapist," just as she insists she be considered a "creator" and not a "choreographer." Still, the issue of whether something belongs in the hospital recreation room or on the stage is important to her.

"This is very unusual, for me to be returning to the stage," she says. "For me to be 80 and do this cycle and return to the stage is a challenge. Call it the mental as it's connected to the body. What I do with my workshop patients is real -- these are real symbols that, if not expressed, not revealed, can live in the body as a destructive force. But the challenge for me is to take this into the theater. Each piece represents years of search, and whether I succeed or don't succeed ... I feel that at the age of 80, if I don't do it now, when will I?"

Anna Halprin's 80th Year Retrospective runs this Friday and Saturday, June 2 and 3, at 8 p.m. at the Cowell Theater in the Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $15 for students and seniors, $20 for general admission; call 441-3687.

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Rachel Howard

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