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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La vieille dame qui a tout inventé

by By Muriel Steinmetz, special correspondent in Lyon

The Old Lady Behind the Invention of Postmodern Dance

Translated by Helen Robertshaw

Translated Saturday 22 April 2006, by Helen Robertshaw

Exhibition. Anna Halprin, the eighty-six year-old, little known pioneer of postmodern dance who is at the forefront of liberating modern dance from the "noble gestures" of classical ballet (1)

Thierry Raspail, the curator in charge of the exhibition, informed us that "Anna Halprin always gets just a brief mention in art-history books". This relative injustice has now been corrected. The exhibition, which is very well arranged over more than 1000 square metres, includes photos from the archives, film loops projected onto television screens or onto enormous picture rails, press cuttings from the period, illustrated partitions, interviews with Simone Forti, La Monte Young, Terry Riley...

A departure from classical ballet

The Californian Anna Halprin (86 years old), granddaughter of Jewish Russian emigrants, unleashed a radical new form of dance. Her predecessors, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), Ruth Saint-Denis (1878-1968), Martha Graham (1894-1991) and Doris Humphrey (1895-1958), who were exceptional figures in modern dance, actively moved away from classical ballet, dancing barefoot during improvisations, drawing inspiration from the most primitive human emotions.

Anna Halprin, who had settled on the East coast, far away from the influential publicity-machine operating at the time in New York, was able to free herself, from an early stage, from the stylistic preoccupations which restricted her elders.

Subverting traditions

Anna Halprin’s work is very different from that produced by Merce Cunningham, who was based on the west coast during the same period and who provided a major contribution to modern dance. While he earned a reputation as a classical ballet dancer, as a talented formalist in terms of movement, she concentrated on the workings of the anatomy, she subverted tradition and the habitual points of reference "which suffocated me," she said: "As if I was wearing a costume which was too tight for me".

Her training as a choreographer was, to say the least, unusual. She studied at Wisconsin University with the biologist Margaret H’Doubler, who was a specialist in movement and gesture. It was Margaret who encouraged Anna to dissect dead bodies in order to study, in an objective manner, the functioning of the muscles and the skeleton.

From the 1950s onwards, she danced in gym shoes or stiletto heels, wherever the mood took her, in the streets, in hangars, warehouses, on treetops, on beaches, under bus shelters and even on the back seat of a car, before astonished audiences. She thus influenced all the exponents of postmodern dance, those who went on to found the Judson Dance Theater, in 1962, in New York, including Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, as well as Simone Forti and her husband at that time, the minimalist sculptor Robert Morris, who were all former students.

Performance dance: a new style

In retrospect, it could be said that she invented performance dance, that ephemeral form of artistic expression which is still highly valued today. She gains more satisfaction from the process of creating an art form than she does from the resulting art form itself.

Anna Halprin explains it this way: "I don’t like repeating the same thing; dancing a routine not only bores me but the fact is that each year my body changes, each year I become a different person". During her so-called "events" she was the first to juxtapose disparate actions, like those we find in real life, by emphasising the movements and gestures associated with everyday life. In order to achieve this, she invented the term "tasks": washing oneself, getting dressed, getting undressed, eating, carrying objects ... These "tasks" then became one of the founding principles of postmodern dance. The aim in fact is to avoid noble gestures, and to take away the sacred aura of dance by disassociating it from any subjectivity, via a demystification of the ego. With Anna Halprin art is produced as a group and becomes collective.

Collective art, respecting the individual

She has absolutely no intention of imposing her own style on anyone. The lessons she gives at the San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop - her company - are democratic. The individuality of each pupil is respected. In fact, her slogan is: "Give them something to do but don’t tell them how to do it".

This notion of collective art is far removed from the romantic vision of the solitary artist, and this is equally due to the influence of the theorists of the Bauhaus in Dessau, who became refugees in Chicago. Her husband, the architect Larry Alprin, was a pupil of Walter Gropius, at Harvard.

Following the example of Merce Cunningham (along with Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and David Tudor), she also combines different art forms without maintaining a predictable cause and effect relationship between them. Her workshop in San Francisco provided the location for the rehearsals of the first minimalist musicians, and for those who invented repetitive music (Terry Riley, as well as La Monte Young who created extraordinary sounds from the friction produced by ordinary everyday objects against the walls of the studio; they used objects such as beer cans, dustbins, tables). Anna Halprin asks us to look at the body in a new light, just as these musicians encouraged us to reconsider sounds.

(1) Retrospective Anna Halprin (organised for the Biennale festival of Stage Music) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 81, quai Charles-de-Gaulle, Lyon. Tel. : 04 72 69 17 17. Wednesday to Sunday. Until 14 May. Entrance fee is between 2 and 5 Euros.

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