Anna Halprin Becoming Legible in Marfa

Robert Morris, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961. Fair use. 

Robert Morris, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961. Fair use. 

This is writing with a blindfold.

Seeing with memory dance events I did not witness live but respond to via saved impressions and images. So, I begin where the Marfa Sounding honoring Anna Halprin in May of 2017 ended.

I start with memory and move forward though the traces and remains of performance.

Asked to respond to these 2017 Marfa Sounding performances past, focusing on Anna Halprin, is both daunting and liberating. Daunting because my impulse as a critic is to always try to hold the fleeting event in memory by intense viewing and yet these are events I did not experience in the live moment. Liberating because this option of reporting on a live event just witnessed is taken away at the start.

Write about what you did not see.

Write about what you did not see in its moment but which you have spent years watching, reflecting on and creating prose about: Anna Halprin and her dance. Invert the formula of criticism by putting the dance in a room, shutting the door and inviting someone to write about what they glimpse through the keyhole or conjure from the sounds behind that door. This is a spirit reminiscent of the strategy of Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making. Doubly fitting then because this was a work he made shortly after taking a summer workshop with Anna on the dance deck where he experienced the radical concept for the time of process as dance. His box reimagines this as performance sculpture.

Write about what you did not see.

This is a challenge that fits well with the work of Anna Halprin because at the core of her aesthetic is a denial of the predictable, the customary, the routine.

My first thought is how curious the ways are that Anna Halprin becomes legible fleetingly in the traces of Marfa Sounding. Juicy fragments: Claudia’s poetic notebook entries, bits of Stephen’s The Courtesan and the Crone, Silas and Rashaun’s desert dance, a Vimeo collage of these performances all backgrounded by the 18th-century Adagio from Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D Minor.

I am trying to imagine someone trying to imagine Anna’s work. Her body. The body of her work. In the desert in Marfa.

Which Anna body is it they are reaching for? The one of her youth dancing Jewish scented folk dance forms in the mustard weed meadows of Woodside, California? There is a photo of her at her parents’ redwood and glass home in Woodside, wearing an embroidered peasant top and skirt and dancing. Larry’s Zionist influence hovers around her form like a mist as she pounds her heels and raises her arms upward.

Or is it another “Anna body” that Marfa Sounding invokes? Not a body of a specific space but the Aged Body that moved her through life, always finding, and telling, a truth about itself?

Meet the elusively coy body of The Courtesan and the Crone.

In this brief solo Anna played with representation itself in dance.  She presented herself on the surface as a sensual young courtesan in a brocade cape and elaborate Commedia del arte mask her daughter Daria brought her from a trip to Venice. The rest is body affect and nuance as Anna constructs a plausible image of a youthful coquette. She then strips it away as she sheds her brocade cape and mask to reveal the withered body of her aged physical self, the crone. Anna’s longtime fascination with the natural body found new ground in this questioning of how does it age? After making The Courtesan and the Crone in 1999 she moved deeper in to looking unflinchingly through dance at the aging female body.

Stephen’s Courtesan takes us on a different journey, where not age but gender is the surprise the striptease discloses. His flirtation as the courtesan is a form of gender teasing while hers is temporal drag, a sampling of an old age her resilience and energy into her 90s effectively precludes. The stripping back is the constant, the “Anna aesthetic” across both dances, both versions – her Courtesan and Stephen’s. This hunt for who an individual is inside the dance has animated her work across her decades as a teacher, movement explorer and instigator of contemporary movement rituals and dances.

Other bodies, other Anna bodies, come into view at Marfa Sounding:

The aged one of Returning Home, half buried in sand and mud, the piercing blue eyes blinking against the stillness of decaying bark and moss. I see a glimmer of this in the red dust stains on Rashaun’s bright white pants and shirt in the Marfa Sounding Vimeo. He is marked by his contact with the earth, suggesting his easy impact with the ground as a partner. Here is a clear stylistic legacy to Anna: her strategies for making work: She and her work taught us to look off the stage and outside the studio and theatre—that dance had strong and immediate links to the larger world—that it had important and distinctive insights to offer about that world. I have never been to Marfa but the setting looks stunning—a desert-scape that is tough in climate yet fragile in the small things that live there.

The frolicsome Anna is also evident in the whimsical way Silas and Rashaun gift members of the audience with spindly trees plucked from the distant desert (they look already dead – which is reassuring that something that struggled so hard to live in this setting has not been killed for the sake of a prop…). I think of the comic Anna from the 1940s James Broughton film with her doing looney things on a bike riding around San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts with John Graham. No wait, that was later—the bike was in the late 50s? On a country road somewhere in Marin? And John Graham was in the 60s when she played a comical court dancer hiding among the massive columns of an outdoor faux Grecian temple.

What about other bodies set in motion by Anna over decades and decades of dancing, teaching dance, dance teaching? So many of these ripple through the Marfa Sounding documentation.

There is the body that always made one wonder “How serious was the play and how playful was her seriousness?”  During the 1960s and into the 70s there was a part of her that was in quiet dialogue with her more earnest colleagues working in that church on Washington Square on the other coast. Silas and Rashaun’s dance suggests they come out of the post-post of that era when one of the strategies of both the aesthetic and politics of the time for Anna seems to have been to deliver work with a deliberate light-handedness—a casual ease—perhaps again in contrast to the modernist sternness?

What finally is repeatable in Anna’s work that we might discover in the echoes of Marfa Sounding here? Is the dance or is it the dance as a catalyst for conversations that cluster around their own immediate pressing concerns of the moment in which they are performed?

Anna’s voice will be the most resonant here—a final rhetorical sound to the Soundings:

“It’s always been part of my art process to start a process and bring it to a point of completion—just as a performance is one kind of completion. I start a class by saying, ‘Let’s divide the class in half. Half of you are witnesses, and the other half— let’s see what you’ve done with this material.’ When you use a creative process, you bring it to some kind of fruition. There needs to be some integration, some sense of, ‘Well, what was this really all about? What kind of experience did I have? How is it going to affect my life or anybody else’s life? What did it mean to me to do this? What did it mean to you?’ So, for me that has always been a way of continuing with an art process. Trying to find a new way to perceive art—that was what I was searching for.”

"Anna Halprin: Becoming Legible in Marfa," 2018. Copyright of the author.