PRINT September 2018

Claudia La Rocco

Anna Halprin, Ceremony of Us, 1969. Rehearsal view, Merritt College, Oakland, CA, 1970.

IN THE PHOTOGRAPH, choreographer Anna Halprin and writer John Rockwell lead Halprin’s company, the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, in a procession along Market Street. Each participant holds an unmarked sign. Taken by the architect Lawrence Halprin, Anna’s husband and collaborator, the image documents her 1970 performance Blank Placard Dance—a demonstration that doubles as a conceptual invitation for audiences to imagine what words of protest could or should be expressed in that moment.

When I came across the picture in Janice Ross’s thoughtful and thorough book Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance (2007), I recalled another march through the San Francisco streets: Queer Migrants, led by choreographer Keith Hennessy and actor J Jha this past May. This, too, was a protest-cum-performance. The event began outside the US Customs and Border Protection building on Battery Street. When a guard told the artists they couldn’t demonstrate on federal land, Jha pointed out that their queer/migrant signs had glitter on them, which indicated that art, not politics, was afoot. The guard was stymied. The rest of us soon began walking and talking, among other things, eventually reaching the ocean. Art and action. Indeterminacy and improvisation. Amateurism and ritual. One could draw a line between Queer Migrants and many of Halprin’s concerns. But then one might never stop drawing lines of influence from Halprin, an early teacher of several of the artists who would go on to form the Judson Dance Theater. The origin story of the 1960s movement has long been enshrined: California dance deck + New York composition class begets art revolution.

The origin story of the 1960s movement has long been enshrined: California dance deck + New York composition class begets art revolution.

The reality is, of course, more complicated. Halprin was most critical for Simone Forti—who did not directly participate in the dance concerts at Judson but was a key stimulus for many of those who did and also inspired Yvonne Rainer, Robert Morris, and Trisha Brown. As the art historian Megan Metcalf wrote to me recently, Halprin’s workshops were “like a fantastic field trip to a rich land for only some of them. And the rest, who only got stories second-hand, were much more invested in Merce Cunningham, James/Jimmy Waring, Katherine Litz, John Cage, even the New York City Ballet.” Although Halprin’s influence is often characterized as springing from the natural environment around her home in Marin County, California, she was also part of a metropolitan nexus of makers, her ideas particularly informed by collaborations with pioneering architects, urban planners, and composers including Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, and La Monte Young. In 1963, the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop moved to 321 Divisadero Street, headquarters of the San Francisco Tape Music Center and the listener-supported radio station KPFA, a germinal, interdisciplinary coming-together during a period of countercultural movements and sociopolitical unrest.

In 1968, Halprin offered a counterproposal to James Woods, founder of Studio Watts, who had invited her to make work for young theater practitioners in Los Angeles. What if his Studio Watts and her San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop built something together, an experiment to see what could come of black and white dancers sharing time and space at a moment when the country was at war with itself and the rest of the world? (The more things change . . . ) What needed to come out of such an experiment? Increasingly, for Halprin, the answer had nothing to do with conventional authorship.

Anna Halprin, Blank Placard Dance, 1970. Performance view, San Francisco, 1970. Photo: Coni Beeson.

“OK, we’ve opened up all these boundaries. We’ve redefined—I have at least (and it’s had some influence)—redefined the body, redefined who dances, redefined how we can dance . . . but for what?” Halprin asks in the documentary Artists in Exile: A Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco (2000) to explain her turn away from a dance landscape she had helped to create. “How can dance look square in the eye at itself as some kind of ‘look at me’ kind of dance, ‘look how clever I am, look what I can do’? Who cares? I couldn’t care less.”

It’s a bracing inquiry, one that throws into sharp relief the mythology of the Judson revolution as dance democratization (a mythology I’ve parroted in writing about Judson, to my chagrin). They radically changed aesthetics, yes, in part by following Halprin’s embrace of task-based scores and pedestrian movement in lieu of codified vocabularies and narratives. But the overall system, the one that canonizes lone “geniuses,” privileges white, able-bodied people of means, and relies on institutions for validation, remains intensely, persistently, intact. This isn’t to discount these artists’ indelible contributions, but rather to put them in a wider context, one in which questions of access and equity come to the fore.

Queer Migrants is part of an ongoing duet series, begun in 2017, by Hennessy titled freedom?: The name reflects an ambivalence that is also part of the Judson legacy. Freedom for what? For whom? Have we answered this yet? Have we tried to?

Claudia La Rocco is a writer and the Editor in Chief of Open Space, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Interdisciplinary Commissioning Platform.