Andy Abrahams Wilson

Andy Abrahams Wilson,  Positive Motion  (still), 1991.

Andy Abrahams Wilson, Positive Motion (still), 1991.

In 2017, Marfa Sounding focused on Anna Halprin’s impact on successive generations of artists, dancers, and choreographers. This question of influence is often made manifest at the intersection of pedagogy and film: encountering her work either through in-person workshops and communal experiences of embodied learning or through flickering images on a screen. The following conversation between Cate Cole Schrim, a Texas-based educator and founding member of Marfa Sounding, and Andy Abrahams Wilson, a filmmaker and frequent collaborator with Halprin, teases out these relationships. As part of Marfa Sounding, Abrahams Wilson’s experimental documentary Anna Halprin – Embracing Earth (1995, 23 minutes) was shown in the context of a screening program devoted to cinema’s engagement with the choreographer’s practice. This series also included two films by Jacqueline Caux: Anna Halprin – Who Says I Have to Dance in a Theater (2006, 50 minutes) and Anna Halprin – Out of Boundaries (2004, 53 minutes). 

Cate Cole Schrim:  At what point in your life did you begin working with Anna?

Andy Abrahams Wilson: I met Anna because I was interested in improv dance and the kind of work she was doing in using dance in a more unstructured way. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and going to grad school for visual anthropology. A friend told me about her work up in San Francisco. She was working with the HIV community. In particular, she was using dance as a way to address the AIDS epidemic. I thought that sounded really interesting, especially because of my background in anthropology and in looking at ritual and performance in that context. So, I went up to San Francisco and I met her. I was in her workshop, and I really just connected to the work that she was doing. Eventually, probably about a year later, I moved up to the Bay Area and I did my Master’s thesis on Anna’s work with people living with HIV. I got involved in filming the group she was working with over a period of time, and that resulted in a film I made called Positive Motion (1991, 37 minutes). Also, my Master’s thesis, which was entitled, “Ritual, Reflexivity and Healing in a Dance by Men Challenging AIDS,” looked at her work from an anthropological perspective.

CCS: How did Anna encourage those living with HIV to connect emotional content to physical expression?

AAW: Anna was encouraging a connection between what you’re doing and the way that you’re feeling. There was a certain emphasis on transparency of the movement. The word she would use is “authenticity.” So that what you’re expressing in movement is what you’re feeling. I think that is really important to all of us, but it is especially important to people with life-threatening illnesses and to those who have become disconnected from their bodies, or for those whose body has become, in some way, an enemy. So that alone is healing, to find a way of being connected to the body.

CS: As exemplified by the Planetary Dance, Anna sees dance not just as a healing force but also as a community-based practice. Do you see the opportunity for healing as being more impactful as a group process?

AAW: That’s an interesting question: the issue of personal versus communal healing. I think it works on both levels. I think that one of the points that Anna tries to stress is that there really is no difference. We are embedded in community. When we’re healing the self, we’re also healing the greater self, whether that self is the environment (and often it is because she’s very interested in the natural environment), but also the greater Self–meaning our relation to society. I do believe there’s a connection. Her work with the HIV community was exactly that: At the same time that the participants were healing themselves, they were also healing the group. The group was essential to the self-healing. In looking at it from a ritualistic sense, there is a bond between the performer (the individual) and the witnesses (the people who are watching). And when I say “performing,” I do not mean–and Anna does not mean–in the sense of entertainment or remembering lines. Rather, performance is embodying your role or your work in the ritual.

That’s something that I’ve taken with me in my work as a filmmaker: the sacredness of the fact that I’m not penetrating someone else’s experience or imposing my own experience. I look at the camera as a witness that’s receiving the experience or “performance”of the subject. It’s empowering for the subject. At the same time, it’s humbling for the viewer or, in my case, the “filmer.”That idea–which is so important to me–was profoundly influenced by my work with Anna. In terms of filmmaking, you have the subject that’s being witnessed by the filmmaker and then the larger witness of the viewers of the film. It ripples out from personal to the collective.

CCS: In “Returning Home,” Anna holds reverence for physical space in the form of nature, but also, especially, the physical body. As such, can you speak to how aging, illness, or other ailments can inform dance as an artistic process given the body and its limits?

AAW: I think what Anna is doing is making really deep connections between the human body and the natural body, embedding us deeply in the context of nature, looking at the human being and the human body as nature. If you do that, you don’t judge the body. You look at the body the same way as you would look at a tree that changes over time, or erosion, or fire in the landscape. I think that’s really essential to the way Anna looks at the body, and her work in general. If you take out that judgmental aspect, it’s just the body being itself. In the same way that we look at nature as being beautiful in all its many forms, we can also look at the body in that way.

CCS: In your essay “Breaking the Box: Dancing the Camera with Anna Halprin,” which was published in the book Envisioning Dance on Film and Video (Routledge, 2003), you imply that the act of capturing Anna working with others was, in effect, an extension of the choreography. Can you explain how filmmaking led to you partaking in the movement you were capturing?

AAW: I think it starts with what Anna teaches, which is about being in the body, being authentic in the body, being aware of the sensations in the body, and being aware of the relationship to what’s outside the body as well. It’s awareness inside and outside, and the understanding that we are always in relationship. I think that’s a really important aspect of Anna’s work. You’re always working with elements in nature, and connecting them to your own nature. If I’m doing that as a filmmaker, I’m using my camera to connect. So the camera is my instrument in the same way that Anna talks about the body as being her instrument. Of course, the body is also my instrument, but creatively I have the added instrument of the camera, with which I’m connecting to my subjects or to the world around me. That’s how it becomes a dance. Especially when I was filming dance, I became part of the dance. I would actually move my body in relationship with the dance and the dancers. In that way, you can also lose the sense of boundary between self and other. That is the artistic moment: art meaning to link or to connect. As Anna would say, that’s where the art comes in, when you’re making an association between self and other, between what’s going on inside the experience and its expression.

CCS: Have you been able to implicate Anna’s ideologies in your own pedagogy?

AAW: I teach a workshop at Esalen, which very much started with concepts drawn from Anna’s oeuvre. It’s called, “Intimacy and Exposure: The Alchemy of Photography.” [] I’m using the photographic camera to explore some of the themes we’ve discussed: to explore the natural world in similar way that Anna might use the body. I encourage students to look at the different aspects or relationships inherent in photography, all of which interact and interelate. There’s the descriptive level of what the photo is, and then there’s the emotional or affective level, as well as the associative level–what the photo conjures or recalls. Anna works on these levels in her teachings as a way of finding meaning in the dance, and I think I’ve adopted these principles from her.

CCS: In working with Anna throughout all of these years, which of her ideologies have been the most formative for you as an artist?

AAW: I think all of what we’ve talked about today is important. We talked about the relationship between the performer and the witness and, in my case, between the subject and the filmmaker. That relationship of how one supports the other, and how the very act of witnessing becomes a really important part of healing, enables me to look at what I do as a form of healing. I don’t think too many people do that in my field. And I don’t just think of healing in terms of how my films will help people, but how the process itself is healing. And that comes from working with Anna. Also the idea that art informs life. Anna inverts the saying that life informs art. She is firmly entrenched in the way that art can reveal something important about our own lives. Using this artistic process, we can learn about ourselves. For Anna–and myself–art doesn’t have much meaning apart from that.

I think that’s the great legacy of Anna … that she’s not just creating art for art’s sake. It’s not just a concept. She doesn’t start with an idea that is then illustrated in the art or in the dance. She starts with authenticity of movement–fully embodying the self and, going from there, she asks, “What is the body saying?” It is then that you start understanding the meaning that art has for your life. We don’t start with the meaning; we end with the meaning. That has been especially instructive for me in looking at my own artistic creations: What does my art tell me about my life? How does it make connections between inside and outside? How has it made me more whole? What possibilities does it have to heal others?

"On Working with Anna Halprin," 2018. Copyright of the authors.