Lunch Break

Claudia La Rocco on Anna Halprin

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

Last week, I had lunch with Anna Halprin. On her deck, in a little screened in gazebo, surrounded by a cathedral-like cluster of redwoods. She made a really good salad, which I ate more of than she did.

The hillside around us was buzzing with insect and bird life. The water pitcher was cool to the touch. Her hands, it should go without saying, were amazing, thick with ropey wrinkles, tanned and strong. She wore two gold wedding bands on her left hand, one on her middle finger—I didn’t ask, but I assume, that the larger one belonged to her late husband, the architect Lawrence Halprin.

I want to say something clever about My Lunch with Anna. But of course it wasn’t like that at all. Well anyway that’s a New York artifact, that film, and this was West Coast art royalty all the way, which is another way of saying it was at times difficult for me to let go of all my East Coast art ideas and be fully present. We don’t like what has a soft belly, what is vulnerable, my notes say. I think we get scared, and impatient.

“What we were doing with the San Francisco Dancers Workshop was the forerunner of Judson Dance Theater,” Anna said. “There was such a division between what was happening on the East and West Coast—and there still is.”

She and I were sitting on the bleacher steps ascending from the wooden deck below her house. This is the deck, of course—the one designed by her husband, the one traversed by just about all of the folks involved in changing the world’s ideas about modern dance (the part of the world that had any ideas about modern dance, at any rate), and helping to lay the foundation for so many of the ways in which we think about contemporary performance and how it gets made: scores, task-based choreography, improvisational structures, interdisciplinary collaboration, pedestrian movement. On and on and on.

Plus, the woman gave us nudity on stage, for god’s sake, the kind that gets a girl into trouble (as in full on, calmly, while staring the audience in the eye). “It had nothing to do with sexuality,” she said of the 1967 performance of Parades & Changes in Manhattan. “But we got arrested anyway.” (Or, almost: As Janice Ross tells it in her excellent book Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, the city’s two major dance reviewers—eat your hearts out, twenty-first century critics—colluded to hold their reviews until the performers had time to skedaddle.)

In Paris they throw things and yell. In New York they issue warrants. And in Marin County, where the energy feels very muted, as if napping? I dunno. I was just visiting.

I can’t believe how big this country is. I can’t believe how anybody feels they can ever say anything coherent about it as an entity (I do it all the time). As a thing.

It isn’t in my notes, but that’s maybe some of what I was thinking while watching Halprin work with a small group of women, young to middle aged, who had come to study at her Tamalpa Institute. They were doing partnering exercises to work out what it is to be physically passive, so that your whole body eases into trusting someone, and also what it is to be the active one, to take responsibility for that. Only someone who has never once tried to do either of those things would say they are easy, or simple.

She was emphatic on the subject: “Every day we live through our eyes. And we’re completely out of our bodies. There is no internal education. I have to spend so much time on step one.”

Her words traveling airily around, subject to subject, sequiturs be damned, in that way only old people manage with any true authority or charm. She had turned ninety-four the Sunday before, and she had a few complaints, which all seemed pretty reasonable to me. There was, for example, a mice infestation that was going to cost $3000 to fix.

“Where am I going to get $3000?”

And there was the lack of recognition commensurate to her contributions.

“Everything is Merce Cunningham, and Rauschenberg blah, blah, blah.”

That was maybe my favorite line of the afternoon. Certainly there couldn’t have been a truer one. I suggested that this had as much to do with gender inequity as it did with New York parochialism, and she nodded in a noncommittal way.

Her right hand was resting on my left thigh, just above the knee, warm and calming through my pants.

The sky was full of action, clouds running interference between earth and sun. Birds wheeling and darting around everywhere—including, as it should be, the Anna’s hummingbird (named after a nineteenth-century Italian duchess, but let’s not quibble).

You can see why people come here (often women and often older, in my admittedly very limited experience, drawn to and orbiting Halprin in a way that makes me think of a sort of nonthreatening cult, though when Halprin talks it’s pretty no-nonsense, pretty non-cult-leader).

You can see why people stay. I so liked that calming hand above my knee.

The women below us were moving so slowly, so carefully with each other and themselves. Halprin, who also moves carefully and slowly, but not that slowly, and seems to ask for help at the right times, twice noted that it was boring to watch this work. I disagreed, though maybe only to myself. We think we keep secrets. But everything is there in plain view, isn’t it? If only we would know what to look for.