Anna Halprin

Judson at 50: Anna Halprin

Left: Anna Halprin, Parades and Changes, 1965–67. Performance view: Hunter College, New York, 1967. Anna Halprin. Photo: Nicholas Peckham. Right: Anna Halprin, The Paper Dance, 1966, from Parades and Changes, 1965-67. Performance view: Hunter College, New York, 1967. Photo: Peter Moore.

Born in 1920 in Illinois, Anna Halprin studied modern dance and later abandoned her training in favor of improvisation and other investigative movement practices. Considered one of the pioneers of postmodern dance, Halprin founded the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop in 1955, hosting and collaborating with many of the dancers and artists who later founded the Judson Dance Theater. For decades Halprin has been at the forefront of the expressive arts healing movement and continues to teach workshops at the Tamalpa Institute in Marin County, California—an organization she founded with her daughter in 1978.

As part of’s interview series celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first dance concerts at Judson Church, Halprin gives a brief account of the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop and reflects on what dance means to her.

AFTER WORLD WAR II there was an explosion. All the old value systems were no longer appropriate. It didn’t happen all at once. It was a gradual coming together, in which like-minded artists began to move in a similar direction—rejecting European influence, searching for something new, and not quite knowing what that meant. There was no central meeting place here in San Francisco. It was as if each artist was on her or his own. As a result, many artists began to collaborate, and that’s where the word “workshop” came from. That word, for me, was influenced by the Bauhaus: the idea that art could be something that was for everyday use, something that was not esoteric or museum- or gallery-oriented.

I began to search for a way to rediscover movement, which is the basis of my art. I found that modern dance no longer felt appropriate. It was too stylistically oriented toward personalities—like the Martha Graham style or the Doris Humphrey style. Also, ballet was beginning to be incorporated and none of this felt quite right. I thought, “Well, I have two possibilities.” First, I began to study how the body works with anatomy and kinesiology, and I did human dissection while taking anatomy classes to further my research. Second, I began to use ordinary task movements, like carrying, lifting, or piling something, or just walking.

I was starting from scratch, and this was attracting young people, like Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, and Meredith Monk—just to mention a few names that are familiar to the East Coast. It attracted people from Europe, too, and we started doing workshops in 1959 that were very exploratory and experimental. Out of these experiments emerged new information that became part of a method, and then issues came up that had to be solved which meant we needed a language for collaborating. Ultimately we developed—with the enormous influence of my late husband, Lawrence—something called the RSVP cycles, which was a method of collective creativity. The RSVP cycles led to the idea of scoring, which was very different from choreography, because scoring is based on process. Choreography is a more fixed way of working, but a score is a series of activities in space, over time, with people. Scores are recycled. You might spend a year recycling a score! It would always be a process, and it would involve all the people connected with it—the lighting person, the musician, the dancers, et cetera. And this was quite liberating.

Merce Cunningham performing on the deck at Anna Halprin's estate.

Eventually I developed a core group that was dedicated to creating new works, and we took our work all over the world. The piece that was the most talked about was Parades and Changes. When I did Parades and Changes at the Hunter College Theater in New York in 1967 I was arrested. Arrested! I couldn’t believe it. You know, sophisticated New York City, and they arrest me because I use nudity. We were all just shocked. But that’s what it was. I personally had no connection to the Judson Theater, though Simone Forti worked with my group and me for seven years. My connection was more with Fluxus, where I began to share scores. I would send a score to Yoko Ono, for example, and then she would send me a score, and then we would interact with each other through Fluxus networks.

I think of dance as a science, as a philosophy, and as an art. There doesn’t seem to be anything so different or new anymore. I think we’ve gone a long way from the Judson Theater, and from my early workshops. But those early years were exciting, a dynamic experimentation that became a foundation for where many of us are now. Experimentation was called improvisation. And what I was doing in movement now has a name: It’s called Somatics. But in 1965, that didn’t have a name.

When the Watts riots happened in Los Angeles, I was asked to come do a performance. I said, “I’m not going to do a performance. I’ll come down there and work with the African Americans at Watts Studio, and I’ll work with the white group here. Then we’ll get the two groups together and we’ll see what reconciliation’s all about.” So that’s when I started my multiracial group. I would just incorporate challenges or things that are going on in the world when they come up. I’m ninety-two years old and I’ve just finished another series of workshops. Dance keeps me stimulated because I’m relating it to what’s real for me in life. Dance has a certain kind of realism to it. Healing is one thing that was very powerful for me, personally, and continues to be, so it’s simply incorporated as part of our palette. But I don’t consider myself a healer. I hate that. It sounds so self-important. It’s just ways of expanding dance so that it’s part of life.