Confessions on a Dance Floor

New York

Left and right: Anna Halprin’s workshop at Judson Church. (All photos: Ian Douglas)

HAD YOU WANDERED into Judson Memorial Church on Saturday morning you would have heard at least one of the following:



“I am a buzzing dolphin.”

It would have taken a minute to extract such utterances from the cacophony that came from several dozen people growling, chanting, and yelling while dancing improvised solos that ranged from minute shifts to fluid phrases to spastic contortions.

In the middle of all this organized mayhem stood a compact woman with a weathered face and frizzy gray-brown hair, who looked to be in her late sixties. She is actually eighty-nine, and one of the most important figures in the history of American dance: Anna Halprin. A harmonica in one hand and a microphone in the other, she was running a one-day workshop (organized by Movement Research and presented with Danspace Project) framed by the question “Does dance make a difference?”

In the 1950s and ’60s, Halprin’s San Francisco workshops were a formative influence on choreographers like Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk, and Simone Forti. Amazingly, last weekend's event was Halprin’s debut at Judson, the place where a generation of young dancemakers—including Rainer, Brown, and Steve Paxton—exploded conventional notions of dance in the ’60s, redefining the form through genre-defying experimentation that involved numerous collaborations with similarly minded visual artists and musicians. “When they say I’m a pioneer of postmodern dance—to tell you the truth I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” Halprin told her students. “I just dance.”

As she led them through an exercise in which drawings and words were used as dance scores, I thought of what Art Guerra, the founder of Guerra Paint and Pigment, had texted me about his time at her workshops in 1967: “Most of the time it looked like a mental ward.” And: “It almost broke up my marriage.” Half a century later, some things have changed (certainly no public sex, which once reportedly happened between two unruly Bay Area participants). Others haven’t.

Left and Right: Anna Halprin’s workshop at Judson Church.

“None of this is a radical break from her San Francisco days,” noted the longtime New York Times critic and editor John Rockwell, who danced with Halprin in the ’60s. “But there was more of an emphasis on performance then. She’s evolved to stress more and more the connection between dance and healing.”

Besides Rockwell, the ninety or so participants and auditors at Saturday’s sold-out event included established choreographers (Eiko and Koma, Juliette Mapp), influential artistic directors (Dance Theater Workshop’s Carla Peterson), successful young dancers (Trisha Brown Company’s Leah Morrison; Liz Santoro, whose résumé includes Ann Liv Young and Jack Ferver), and people who looked as though they’d never set foot in a studio. “I love the fact that there’re old ladies here,” said the choreographer Moriah Evans. “Anna Halprin looks hot as hell as a ninety-year-old. Screw plastic surgery, screw Botox.”

Evans and Santoro had mixed feelings about the actual content of the workshop, musing about a lack of sophistication yet feeling a charge from the mere fact of proximity to such an iconic figure. Both can now say they have danced with Anna Halprin: The seven-hour event ended with a simple, rhythmic work consisting of four circles moving in alternating directions and varying speeds. Each participant had to dance for something particular, which they announced as they joined the circles. Halprin named her husband, the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who died last fall.

At the day’s conclusion, the writer Wendy Perron asked whether the workshop’s question had been answered. Halprin looked puzzled. “Well, that’s up to you. Of course I think dance makes a difference; otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it.”