UCSB Dance Company in the "Paper Dance" by Anna Halprin, photo Reiko Yanagi

New York City Loves Anna Halprin

The Radical Bodies evening broke all attendance records at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse on May 31. People were lining up in the courtyard almost two hours before curtain, and the mood was festive. All 650 seats were filled, more than 100 people were turned away and about 60 went across the street to watch the live stream.

Why such a hubbub? The admission was free and the event was historic: It had been 50 years since Anna Halprin caused a scandal when she brought her Parades and Changes to Hunter. The "Paper Dance," which involves disrobing calmly, methodically and completely, was labeled "indecent exposure" in 1967 and led to a warrant for Halprin's arrest.


I am a co-curator of "Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955–1972," the exhibit now at the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts. Last week's performance at the Kaye Playhouse was a related public event, presented by Jody and John Arnhold and performed by the UC Santa Barbara dance company. Simone Forti, one of those celebrated in our exhibit, was a guest artist.

Simone Forti in News Animation, Kaye Playhouse, photo Matt Capowski

It's rare that a student concert would cause such a commotion. But dancers and teachers of all styles were curious about this infamous piece. Choreographers like Stephen Petronio and Doug Varone were in the house, as well as artistic directors Virginia Johnson of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Eduardo Vilaro of Ballet Hispanico.

The "Radical Bodies" exhibit takes the viewer through the lineage of Anna Halprin, who pioneered task improvisations in California; through Simone Forti, who carried that approach to New York in her inimitable art/mind/body; and Yvonne Rainer, who absorbed some of the Halprin/Forti aesthetic before cofounding Judson Dance Theater. And that's the creation story of postmodern dance in a nutshell.

UCSB Dance Company in Chair/Pillow by Yvonne Rainer, photos Reiko Yanagi

Here in New York, Halprin is often not fully recognized for her role in the development of postmodern dance. The "Radical Bodies" exhibit seeks to rebalance that perception. For the performance at Kaye Playhouse, the UCSB students embodied this historical trajectory by dancing Halprin's "Paper Dance" from Parades and Changes (1965) as well as Rainer's Chair/Pillow (1969). The "Paper Dance" culminated in a beautiful moving sculpture, with the UCSB dancers tossing the paper upward in a perfect storm of joy. (José Limón's Dances for Isadora was also performed.)

USCB Dance Company in the Paper Dance, Kaye Playhouse, ;photo Reiko Yanagi

Co-curator Ninotchka Bennahum and I led a post-performance panel that included Halprin, still feisty at 96, on Skype. When the audio failed to work, a wave of disappointment went through the audience. Finally, at the moment the sound came through, squeals of delight erupted in the house. Anna Halprin, rock star.

Halprin spoke of how, when she made the "Paper Dance" with composer Morton Subotnick in 1965, she wanted to see the dancers' skin against the paper so "they had to be nude." The paper looked and sounded like water to her. When an audience member asked how she reacted to the warrant for her arrest, she said, "I got out of town." Which is true. The esteemed critic Jack Anderson, who was on the panel, said that the two main critics at the time, Clive Barnes and Walter Terry, colluded to hold their reviews until Anna could leave New York to avoid arrest. Also sharing their memories on the panel were Charles Reinhart (a 2003 Dance Magazine Award recipient) and dancer/educator Alice Teirstein.

Anna Halprin on Skype, Ninotchka Bennahum standing. Sitting from left: Jack Anderson, Charles Reinhart, Wendy Perron, Alice Teirstein, photo Reiko Yanagi

I invite you to stop in at the Vincent Astor Gallery at the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (Amsterdam Avenue entrance) before September 16. You will learn about the dance revolution that started in California and swept to New York via these three extraordinary women rebels.

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Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

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What brought you to The Joyce?

That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

Diversity is so important in dance leadership today. How do you approach this at The Joyce?

Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

Is drawing in new audiences and maintaining longtime supporters ever in conflict?

Of course. I call it the blessing and the curse of our mission. We do present more experimental companies that may attract a younger audience. But it's very tricky. You're not going to tell your long-term audience, "Don't come and see this because you're not going to like the music." We've had people walk out of the theater before, but it's a response. It's important to spark those conversations.

What experimenting have you done?

We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

Do you have advice for other dance presenters?

Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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