Anna Halprin (1920–2021)

May 26, 2021

Pioneering choreographer and dancer Anna Halprin died at home in Kentfield, California, on May 24 at the age of one hundred. The news was announced by her daughter Daria Halprin on Facebook. Known for innovating what is now called postmodern dance in the early portion of her wide-ranging career, and for her participatory choreography involving the audience, Halprin devoted her life to “expanding dance so that it’s part of life,” using it to explore social conditions and the importance of communion as well as healing, teaching the form to senior citizens and AIDS and cancer patients. In 1966

Born Ann Dorothy Schulman in Winnetka, Illinois, in 1920, Halprin was studying dance at the University of Wisconsin when she met her future husband and sometime collaborator, noted landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (1916–2009), to whom she remained married for nearly seventy years. Following a stint in New York, the couple relocated to California in the late 1940s, in a move that was considered highly unusual given New York’s locus as the center of the dance world. Halprin in 1955 established the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, whose members—including future luminaries Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Meredith Monk, and Yvonne Rainer—rehearsed on a “dance deck” her husband built outside their home in Kentfield, just north of San Francisco. Collaborating with artists including composers John Cage, Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young, the group performed in unusual locations, including rooftops, gyms, and public parks.

Deeming modern dance of the time too fussy and rule-bound, Halprin in her choreography focused on simple, natural movements that were often improvised. One early work, 1961’s Five-Legged Stool, featured dancers performing random tasks in a spontaneous, unscripted fashion. In 1965’s Parades and Changes, perhaps one of her best-known works, dancers performed nude, repeatedly dressing and undressing; on premiering at New York’s Hunter College in 1967, the work was promptly banned and arrest warrants issued for its participants, among them composer Morton Subotnick, who had written the score. Ceremony of Us (1969) centered on the theme of unity, bringing together Black and white dancers—a publicity shot graced this magazine’s September 2018 cover—while the participatory Planetary Dance (1987), a community dance geared to groups of varying sizes, was structured in such a way that it could be performed almost anywhere by almost anyone. Seniors Rocking (2005) called for a large group of seniors to perform in rocking chairs outdoors.

“As the leader, I will throw out an activity,” Halprin explained to Art Practical in 2013. “I tell them what to do, but I don’t tell them how to do it. That way, I gather more resources, and as an outside eye, I can shape those resources in a way that satisfies my aesthetics. In their choices, though, you see real people, not trained dancers with stylized movements. When performers are so committed and so authentic in themselves, the audience feels that. I honestly believe that when audiences see activities that are so meaningful to the person doing it, they are affected by it.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Halprin led a series of workshops with her husband called “Experiments in the Environment,” which convened dancers, architects, and artists in various settings to explore group creativity in relation to the environment. In 1970, Halprin used an NEA grant to establish the Reach-Out program, with the intention of providing minority artists with opportunities to teach and perform dance. Following a bout with cancer in the early 1970s, she began focusing on dance as a healing tool, devising workshops aimed at helping people struggling with cancer or AIDS, whom she led through body-awareness and self-visualization exercises. In 1978, with her daughter Daria, she founded the Tamalpa Institute in San Rafael, California, in order to teach movement ritual and to train students in various therapeutic techniques incorporating dance and theater.

Over the course of a career spanning more than six decades, Halprin choreographed some 150 dances and wrote three books. Among other awards, she received the Doris Duke Impact Award, the Isadora Duncan Dance Award, the French Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the NEFA NEA American Masterpieces award, the California Arts Council Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Samuel H. Scripps award for lifetime achievement in modern dance from the American Dance Festival.