How Anna Halprin challenged stereotypes and biases through dance
Anna Halprin, the leading Jewish American dancer and choreographer and educator for generations of experimentalists in dance and theater, died May 24 at her home in Kentfield, California She was 100. Her daughter, Daria Halprin Khalighi, cited old age as the cause of death.
Across the 80 years she taught and performed internationally and led workshops on her outdoor dance deck at her home in Marin County, Halprin was a pacesetter for her early disowning of the modern dance world – both its technical approach and its production system, and her abandonment of the proscenium stage. She challenged major dance orthodoxies and her radical dance theater events helped prefigure happenings, performance art and experimental theater works. Located at the boundaries between art and life, healing, ritual and performance, Halprin created participatory site-specific dances, situating art events in the midst of urban life.
Across these radical impulses Halprin’s Jewishness pervaded her pedagogy, work and social values. She modeled collectivity as an art practice and social justice as the goal. Her workshops and classes reflected her egalitarian belief that every body could be a dancing body and that each dance, if devised through true reflection, had the capacity to repair the world by reconnecting individuals to community and purpose.
Anna (Hannah Schuman) Halprin was born July 13, 1920, in Wilmette, Illinois, to Ida (Schiff), daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, and Isadore Schuman, a native of Odessa, Russia. Her father, who had no education beyond elementary school, transitioned from wholesaling women’s clothing into a successful real estate business moving the family into the upper-middle-class comfort of a non-Jewish neighborhood. Anna discovered the arts in the Winnetka public schools, but she also experienced antisemitism, recalling the tall “spite fences” neighbors erected around the family home. When she applied to Bennington College she was denied entry because of the school’s quota system for Jewish students. Instead, she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1937, where she was rejected from the first rooming houses she applied to because she was Jewish.
Seeking a Jewish community, and Jewish men, she became active in the campus Hillel led by Conservative scholar, Rabbi Max Kadushin. Advocating “organic thinking” as an approach to Judaism, Kadushin argued that religious experience should be thought of as part of the ordinary course of daily life, an outlook that influenced her, helping shape her wholistic approach of fusing life and art. It was also at Hillel that she met Lawrence Halprin, the son of Hadassah president Rose Halprin, and a graduate student in biology. They would marry in 1940 shortly before Lawrence left for graduate study in architecture at Harvard.
Moving from the Midwest to San Francisco in 1945 after Lawrence was discharged from the Navy at the end of WWII, Halprin began decentering New York as the locus of dance invention. Questioning the inherited boundaries between art and life, her classes reframed simple actions and tasks, like pouring water and bathing, as worthy of aesthetic consideration. Beginning in the early 1960s, Halprin offered a series of legendary dance workshops on the outdoor dance deck her husband built for her. Her students in these early years included Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown and Meredith Monk – artists who became influential in New York’s Judson Dance Theater innovations, building on Halprin’s structures for framing pedestrian actions as dance. “Being an artist for me is allowing yourself to be open to unexpected outcomes, about removing the armor from your movement and yourself,” Halprin once remarked. Over time this led into psychological territory for herself as well as the performers. She was influenced by her mentorship with the Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls and the human potential movement of Esalen where she taught for decades. The result was a formula for dance works that blended play, ritual, healing and art to show how dance can be both personally expressive yet socially aware.
Her signature work, “Parades and Changes,” created in 1965, introduced nudity in a section where the full cast slowly undressed and dressed three times. “It was a ceremony of trust,” Halprin called her deliberately unsensationalistic use of nudity. In the wake of the 1965 race riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles she drew on her own experiences with antisemitism to address racial bias. She recruited Black dancers from Watts and brought them to San Francisco to work with her White dancers, believing collective problem-solving in art could bridge racial tensions.
The resulting dance, “Ceremony of Us,” aspired to address racism by challenging stereotypes and sexual and class tensions though love and understanding, but unwittingly it also ignited some of these same tensions. Later, after Halprin survived colon cancer and its recurrence in the 1970s, she again used her own life experiences, this time mortality, creating the first movement workshops and performances for and with people diagnosed with cancer eventually extending this to include people with HIV/AIDS and the aged.
In 2010 and 2014, when she was in her 90s and still actively teaching and performing, she traveled to Israel to perform a peace walk in which scores of Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli women linked arms with her in a slow processional walk on the 1300-foot Haas Promenade, designed by her husband and overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.
The recipient of numerous awards including Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships, The Samuel Scripts Award and the Doris Duke Award as well as honorary Ph.D.s, Halprin also wrote several books about her pedagogy. Halprin was predeceased by her husband who died in 2009. Survivors include two daughters, Daria Halprin of Kentfield, California, and Rana Halprin of Mill Valley, California; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. The family plans to celebrate Halprin’s life at the annual international Planetary Dance ritual yet to be scheduled.
Janice Ross is a professor in the Theater and Performance Studies Department of Stanford University and the author of Halprin’s biography.