Anna Halprin — 80th Year Retrospective

June 2, 2000

Anna Halprin
?80th Year Retrospective

Cowell Theater, Fort Mason
San Francisco, California

June 2?4, 2000

Reviewed by Rachel Howard

When Anna Halprin began, after her diagnosis of cancer in 1972, to turn away from concert dance and toward what came to be known as “the healing arts,” many of her admirers were understandably aggrieved. Since then, Halprin has danced with thousands of AIDS and cancer patients in therapy sessions, but rarely has appeared on stage. Each time, over the last five years, that she premiered short dances from her series “Memories from My Closet,” her audiences were newly astonished at her inextinguishable stage presence and integrity. But Halprin’s 80th Year Retrospective proved even more remarkable, as it brought the arc of her career full circle in the new piece  Intensive Care: Reflections on Living and Dying.

Like many of Halprin’s dance-theater pieces from the 1960s and ?70s,  Intensive Care is slow, deliberate, drawn out through a series of sometimes infinitesimal motions, yet relentlessly compelling. Halprin, Lakshmi Aysola, David Greenaway, and Jeff Rehg sit wrapped in white sheets, shrouded like corpses. Joint by joint and limb by limb, to Miguel Frasconi’s eerie, otherworldly score, they begin pulling at their coverings like disturbed ghosts. But as they emerge we realize that they are not yet dead, and they are terrified. Now conscious of one another, they cling together for protection, wheeling around the stage, still seated, and into shifting groupings?youth with youth and elderly with elderly?then in rearrangements that seem to acknowledge that their experience knows no demographics. Their final passage, though peaceful, does not erase any memory of the horror they have endured.

Performance, in this kind of work, is nearly everything, and Halprin has trained her collaborators well in the ways of expressive truth. Theirs is a carefully considered form of acting in which the dancers do not portray characters or even roles, but rather themselves as they would react to the material’s emotional tumult. This kind of communication, though rooted in the body, applies to more than dancing, and it was easy to see why, decades on, so many people of so many varied creative endeavors still come to the greater San Francisco Bay Area to train with Halprin.

Of course, Halprin’s work no longer looks cutting edge, but that only attests to its inevitable acceptance. And it still provokes in less titillating ways. The “Undressing and Dressing Dance” from 1965’s  Parades and Changes, performed for the fifth time in its history of controversy by an ensemble of beautifully healthy young dancers, touched off a refreshing volley of interpretation among the audience, none of it questioning or sexualizing the piece’s nudity.

“Memories from My Closet,” Halprin’s series of autobiographical solos, was only enhanced on the show’s second evening by technical difficulties that necessitated a string of off-the-cuff remarks. Frustratedly removing her microphone from beneath her costume, Halprin asked, “Do you want to see what 80-year-old legs look like?” The audience cheered in appreciation as she removed her tights. It was a fittingly unguarded celebration for a dance pioneer of such deep honesty.