Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon

The 95-Year-Old Grande Dame of Dance and Her Daring Daughter

At the age of 95 and showing only minor signs of slowing down, Anna Halprin has been at least as influential as any other dance artist. As a pioneer of postmodern dance, she relocated from New York to San Francisco with her husband, Lawrence, a leading-edge Bauhaus environmental architect, after World War II. Together they helped redefine dance and performance with work that included children, the urban environment, voice, dialogue, and multimedia theatre—creating an art where any body in any place could take part.

By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Anna’s workshops, studio, and dance deck had become multimedia/cross-pollinating laboratories that drew into collaboration many of the great innovators, psychologists, poets, dancers, musicians, and designers of the day. Among them were Lamont Young, Meredith Monk, Fritz Perls, Joseph Henderson, Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, John Cage, Terry Riley, Michael McClure, Morton Subotonik, and Merce Cunningham.

Daria, who was born in 1948, grew up in this rich, creative environment both as daughter and
protégée. After dancing on the international stage as an early teen, at 18 she was selected to lead
Michelangelo Antonioni’s seminal 1970 movie Zabriskie Point, through which she met her first
husband, Dennis Hopper, and the disruptively tumultuous Hollywood scene that ensued. Together, Anna and Daria founded Tamalpa Institute in Marin County to serve as the educational and
workshop center for the Halprin work and its evolution. Their goal was to build a bridge between
dance/movement, the expressive arts, psychology, performance, and the developing field of somatics.

We chatted with this fascinating duo at their bucolic family studio in Kentfield.

Common Ground: How do you feel turning 95?

Anna Halprin: I’m concerned about my legacy. I spent a lifetime in dance—since I was a small child. But I’m concerned about what difference have I made, if any. What am I leaving behind? It matters to me, and I have been thinking a lot about that.

How do you want to be remembered?

AH: As one who showed that the lost art of dance can change lives.

You’re turning 95 and still perform publicly, and you keep a vigorous teaching schedule. How do you feel physically?

AH: I feel fine. I just came back today from teaching in Santa Barbara. I am just back from Israel.

What is your secret to staying so spry?

AH: I dance.

Daria Halprin: I need to add something here. She has great genes. [To Anna] Your mom lived to nearly 100. I think one of the things that kept you in such remarkable shape is that you take so much interest in wonderful things and surround yourself with interesting people. Because you are an educator and an artist and a performer, you keep going.

How would you encapsulate your mother’s creative spirit?

DH: Unrelenting and unafraid to try new things, to take risks, to keep learning. Even though she’s been dancing for 90 years and teaching just about as long, it’s always delightfully surprising and new to her. She never seems to tire of seeing what will happen with people when they dance. She’s a lifelong learner and true artist committed to her craft.

What did you most inherit from your mom?

DH: Like Anna, dancing is deeply embedded in my body-mind; it has taught me a great deal about human beings. I think I inherited not just a profound sense of connection with my own creativity but also a craft—and a healing art that has come to mean a great deal to me.

AH: Daria exposed the gaps in my approach. She developed a whole dimension to dance that I completely ignored.

What do you mean by gaps?

AH: The gap in the relationship between dance and real life. How do you connect what you do with your own creation Where did that come from, and how does that connect to who you are in real life? Some people may think of it as therapy, but I don’t because therapy makes it sound as if something is wrong and needs correction. Nothing maybe wrong. Nevertheless, Daria has developed her own approach for how to connect dance to life and how that matters. I didn’t do that.

Daria, how would you say your father influenced you?

DH: He had a very disciplined intellectual inquiry. He inspired me to question and to look for structure in a disciplined way. Because he was an architect and a naturalist, he always got me to explore my relationship to the environment. We used to camp and hike in the middle of nowhere in the High Sierras every weekend. I developed a relationship with my surroundings, whether urban or natural.

Conscious dance is exploding in popularity. Anna, I think of you as the god mother of this movement.

DH: There is no question about it. Anna is the great-grandmother of the movement.

I think people love the freedom of personal expression, that it’s not choreographed, that it’s a judgment-free zone.

AH: We are looking at people being able to have movement and dance experiences about their life experiences and things that matter. Life stories. Feelings, emotions. It is not just open whatever.

Is there a structure, a goal?

AH: Not a goal, we call it an intention.

DH: In that way it is different than conscious dance as a general approach. We are looking for ways for people to get in touch with their emotional lives. As the grandmother of this movement, she has asked people to work with their real feelings in movement and dance.

I observe dance modalities springing up the way yoga modalities did 10–15 years ago. Now in the Bay Area, there are conscious dance happenings everywhere, every day of the week.

DH: There’s a dance phenomenon. Not only in the Bay Area, but in Hollywood and popular media, with hip-hop and all kinds of dance competitions. The conscious movement has sprung up to include so many different approaches of people flocking to dance as a way to experience themselves differently.

But not just “do whatever you want”?

DH: No, we have not envisioned a body of work that is based on “do whatever you want.” We emphasize that there is a system and a structure and an accessible dialogue between body-mind. It is not just up for grabs. In particular, Anna bridged what she calls the science of movement, the art of movement, the philosophy of movement, and the environment of movement.

AH: I practiced human dissection for a year so I could really understand how the body works and how it moves, objectively. When we work with people, we study their anatomy. Do you realize how complex dance is? If you are a musician you go out and buy a violin or a piano. If you’re a painter you buy brushes and paint. For dancers the body is the sole instrument. That means everything you have ever experienced that lodges in your muscles and your nervous system is your instrument. It’s almost too much when you think of it—everything.

So what is creativity?

AH: Originality. Creativity is the process of exploring new ways. Of finding new solutions to old problems.

Originality for just for the sake of it?

DH: No. To bring light into darkness. I have this expression: “As your art expands, your life deepens. As your life deepens, your art expands.” For example, a movement situation might bring up some life experience. Then when you explore that—where change comes. That is when dance subtly makes a difference and creates change.

So what is the essence of creative movement?

AH: I will demonstrate. Reach out with your arm like that and push back against my hand. Now add your scapula to it. Now stay with it. Imagine something or someone in your life while you do this movement.

OK, let it be dear old dad.

AH: Good one. Now just push with a little force and release, and watch your body react. See how your head naturally flew back. Now flip your wrist. How do you react to that? This is creativity. Why? Because what we are doing is providing you with resources so that you can explore and experiment. We are not telling you what to think nor what to feel.

DH: I think creativity shifts people’s relationships with their selves. It encourages the feeling of participation and hope in our own lives.

AH: It is self-empowering. In order to have the freedom to be creative in this way, you need to understand your body and how it works internally. You have to know where your scapula is so if you want to throw your head back, you can support your head because you know that you are rotating your shoulders and your scapula is contracting. You are not just flying off. Of course, if you really want to know about creative movement and dance expression and what we do, you have to come take a class. It’s difficult with only word explanations.

The term “dance therapy” get bandied around.

DH: Dance therapy has been around a long time. If you want to define our work in terms of somatic psychology, absolutely. If you want to define what we are up to in terms of dance therapy, absolutely. If you want to define it in terms of expressive arts therapy, sure. If you want to define it in terms of postmodern dance, yeah. If you want to define it as a radical approach to performance art, okay.

But if you try to limit our definition to any one of those things, you miss the ballgame we’re in. Remember, Anna was working with all the people who originated a vast array of work fields—all in the same inquiry but coming from slightly different points of view. Fritz Perls or Maslow or Ericsson were coming from a psychological view. Feldenkrais from the bodywork perspective. George Brown from the view of confluent education. Expressive arts therapy was birthed out of the work of Marshall McLuhan and the Beat generation poets and visual artists. These people were her comrades in arms. Environmental design by Lawrence Halprin. This all goes back to the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, and the Human Potential Movement.

To answer what question?

DH: How do we bridge this important dialogue between human psychology and the human moving body? The truth is you cannot. They cannot be separated from one another. If the mind is not in the body, where is it? If the psychological life isn’t in the body, constantly moving us, where is it?

Did you cross paths with Gabrielle Roth?

AH: She studied here. I remember [Anna] dancing with her. Remember, our practice goes back to the ’50s.

DH: We became friends, and then of course she went in her own direction and came up with her own system that would frame dance in terms of modern shamanism and the Five Rhythms. She was a contemporary of mine who was after something similar and yet different than what we were doing. Our backgrounds were different.

Do you have a daily practice that you recommend for people to express their creativity?

AH: Yes, several. I work structurally, anatomically with my body, and I have what is known as Movement Ritual 1, Movement Ritual 2, Movement Ritual 3. One that opens up the joints, one that works with gravity, inertia, and momentum. Swinging. At one point my brain says, “Let go,” and I notice that I didn’t do that movement, so what did it? Gravity. Before you know it, dance is created. It is just that simple.

Who are some of the other great choreographers you worked with?

AH: I studied with Martha Graham, but it didn’t work because she had very long, silky black hair. Her modern dance was based on her body and her technique. She was very flexible because of the joints in her anatomy. Mine aren’t. I will never be able to do what she does with open legs and putting the chest way down. She based her technique on contraction and release, but if you watch her dance, she uses her long, silky black hair as an extension that would fly around as part of the release. But I had very kinky, stiff hair. So I would contract my head and nothing would happen up there. It was discouraging.

DH: This is for real. What influenced [Anna’s] entire approach to dance is based on kinky hair. Her kinky hair did it; it’s true.

I believe it. That’s a great story.

AH: I also grew up experiencing intense antiSemitism—even here in Kentfield. This again influenced me to want to teach people to understand and accept their differences and diversity. So I worked with a black company during the Watts riots. I just came back from Israel, where I was working with Israelis and Palestinians, Ukrainians and Russians. Your personal life and your personal experiences will certainly direct where you want to go. My approach to dance might have been called outsider art. I wanted dance to be for everybody—for a fat dancer or a skinny dancer or a black dancer or a white dancer.

What is more powerful, the creativity that emerges from adversity or from joy?

AH: Whenever I see injustice, that inspires me to do something about it.

DH: Great question. For me it’s the challenges that generate the greatest creativity. When we have the resources to meet those challenges, it gives something to rub up against. It gives you motivation and real material.

How did World War II inform your vision of the world?

AH: Oh, God. My husband was on a destroyer in the Pacific, and it was hit by a kamikaze. Two hundred other men died instantly. That was a very traumatic experience because he almost got killed. There’s the Jewish thing, but to bring that in is a little complicated. It did influence me philosophically because in the Jewish philosophy, you don’t bow down to authority; it’s a very democratic religion.

DH: Anti-Semitism—that is a toughie. I know it influenced them to move to the West Coast. Just being on the West Coast changed the way that they were able to work as young social activists. Then Anna had cancer, which was particularly harrowing for her. It almost killed her. That opened up the whole notion of dance as a healing art. Cancer opened up the whole thing.

What about for you, Daria? What adverse experiences prompted your creative growth?

DH: It was not a physical wounding, but it was a psychological wounding. Abusive relationships that were outstanding and dramatic and interesting. It was cumulative but with a traumatic culmination.

AH: Are talking about your marriage to Dennis?

DH: I was married to Dennis Hopper. We have big stories that are difficult to narrow down. It wasn’t one isolated event but cumulative wounding—my being in relationship with provocative, powerful artists but where the experiences weren’t always healthy.

I imagine he was destructive to himself and to everyone around him.

DH: That is well known about Dennis. I was young, but the relationship caused a crisis of faith that defined who I later became. Because I really had to question everything and rebuild myself from the underground up.

How did you meet Dennis Hopper?

DH: We met at a film festival where I was getting the award for Zabriskie Point, and he was getting one for Easy Rider.

I want to commend you for your roleplaying, Daria, in Zabriskie Point. I admire that movie. Were you even acting or just being you?

DH: Yes and no. I was playing myself and I was not playing myself because I was dropped into a culture and an art medium that was completely foreign to me. I was a college student at UC Berkeley; I was a dancer. There is also the complexity of what it’s like to work with [Michelangelo] Antonioni. If you are not a highly skilled actor, that is challenging.

But in that film he wanted raw humanity, not trained actors, no?

DH: Exactly. There’s my point. Antonioni picked me because he felt that some aspects of me could convey a prototype that he wanted to convey. He used people as much for their outward aesthetic. He wasn’t so compelled by the inner life of the actor. If you are asking, was Antonioni’s envisioned character, Daria, really who I was? Yes and no.

What was that experience for you?

DH: Remarkable for sure. I was only 18 years old and certainly a fish out of water, exposed to a different culture and milieu of people.

AH: Daria, you had been performing at the Venice Opera House.

DH: But I was a nonverbal performance artist, a dancer. I was working on my inner imagination. I had a tremendous amount of experience and great fluency for somebody so young, and Antonioni obviously saw something in me. He wanted untrained actors because he was trying to make a point about every young person of the ’60s. To some extent he succeeded.

When was the last time you saw the movie?

DH: About 25 years ago. This is a cool story. Antonioni had had a stroke, so he couldn’t talk. He was 80 and was brought out here for a retrospective commemoration. There was a screening of all of his films at the Palace in San Francisco, and he wanted me to speak for him. We sat together; my daughter was on one side of him and I was on the other side. My daughter had never seen the film, and then I got up on stage and I spoke about what I imagined was Antonioni’s point of view, politically, in terms of the ’60s scene and all that was going on, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was just a great gestalt moment for me, of reclaiming that whole experience.

That was the last time you watched Zabriskie Point?

DH: Yes. With Antonioni and his wife, Monica, and my daughter. Then we took them out to meet George Lucas at the ranch and then to Francis Ford Coppola’s place up in Rutherford. Then he went on to Los Angeles and received a lifetime achievement award.

Not many can name-drop at that level: Antonioni, Lucas, Coppola. You’re accustomed to being around great talent.

DH: Nonstop. I was around a lot of great talents through my parents, so I was used to that. I was born into it. Which is why I diverged at a certain point and kind of said, “Enough is enough.” Psychologically it’s all over the place; it was not healthy for me or anybody else.

I am intrigued by the question of what the creative demons are that haunt creative geniuses.

DH: Tremendous creative demons on everybody’s part. I became determined to slay my own before they killed me.

It seems you grew up integrated and healthy.

DH: I grew up very creative and then looked for a way to bridge this gap between outward creativity in the world and my own personal demons.

You seem healthy today.

DH: I’ve worked hard and am still working on it. Right? We are all working on it. Anna’s worked very hard too. She did an incredible dance confronting her cancer that was saying, “Look, you have the shadow side that you need to dance with as well.” Creativity can’t protect us from the demons we have to learn to dance with. I am almost 67 and a much more conscious dancer than I was yesterday.

Anna, were you proud of Daria in Hollywood?

AH: The whole time I was scared. I felt she was losing her identity, and she didn’t have time to go into who she really was. I was scared she was on a very wrong path. As a matter of fact, I said “That’s enough.” Larry and I went to New York and said, “You’re coming home.”

What makes you most proud of your daughter?

AH: The originality of her work; it’s very original and life-giving. She has found something very unique. There’s not even a name for it. Just the life-art process—that’s the closest I come to giving it a name.

Daria, what are you most proud of in your mom?

DH: That she has never given up in her commitment to her art and her commitment to sharing it with others. That she is so forgiving of people and their nonsense. Mine too.

At 95, you’re facing mortality, are you afraid?

AH: Yes. As I mentioned before, on one hand I want to find my legacy because after so many years dancing, I think I have discovered something meaningful to people, and I want to pass it on. Not only do I want to use dance as a way to find peace in the world, I want to find peace in my family as part of my legacy. The two are interconnected. My work is not as important to me as my family. That is a big one.

DH: I’m going to challenge you on that. I think it is okay if your work is as important as your family. I think that for a woman who is 95 years old and so accomplished, that it’s okay to stand up as a woman and say, “My work is as important as my family.”

On your deathbed are you going to be thinking about your work or your family?

AH: My family.

Would you have done anything differently?

AH: [Long pause] Probably. I mean, wouldn’t we all? I didn’t always know where to step in and where to keep out. At times I thought I have no right to do this, but in retrospect, I think I should have taken more liberties to step in and prevent some bad choices that my kids made. I was a little too liberal.

What are you most proud of in your careers?

AH: The beautiful planetary dance, and that is being done in 46 different countries. It’s community-oriented and everybody can do it. It’s a prayer dance that we do every year on the top of Mount Tam. It was started 35 years ago as a response to five or six women being murdered on the trails. We had not been allowed to go on the trails for two years because the trail killer was still on the loose. But we wanted our trails back. To make a long story short, we did a dance while the police made sure the killer was not going to pop us off. A week after the dance, they caught the guy. The big question came up: Did our dance catch the killer?

DH: My thing is the Tamalpa Art Corps because it invests in the next generation of students and artists and leaders to take our work in a way that empowers them into the world to effect change.

What makes you happy?

AH: I really love it when I see people connecting with dance in a way that touches them emotionally but also excites them creatively. That combination is so exciting; every time it happens, I just fall over like I have seen it for the first time.

I saw you perform last year, with Nina Wise. Wonderful.

AH: “The Courtesan and the Crone.” See, that is about my life.

Is there a parting word you might share with our readers?

DH: When in doubt, dance.

AH: If you can move, you can dance. Dance can change your life.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

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