A group of people stand still, equidistant from one another. Slowly and deliberately, as if in ritual, they begin to remove their neat black suits and white shirts until they are stark naked.
Petula Clark's upbeat anthem Downtown plays in the background. The contrast is simply stunning. This is a scene from Anna Halprin's seminal 1965 dance, Parades and Changes, quite possibly the most reverent to the body piece ever created in the canon of American modern dance. The iconic dance pioneer turns 90 this weekend. To celebrate and honor her extraordinary life, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is showing Breath Made Visible, a film by Ruedi Gerber and the sole documentary on Halprin, at 7 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 and 5 p.m. Sunday.
"When we performed Parades and Changes in Sweden I got a letter from a farmer. He said that the nudity reminded him of the innocence of a newborn calf. It was sacred," Halprin says, via phone from her California mountaintop headquarters. "Then I brought the dance to New York, and got arrested for indecent exposure."
Escaping to Cali
Controversy often followed in the wake of Halprin's mind and body expanding work. Early on, she left the New York scene for the broad expanse of the west. In California, she was free to create work outside of New York's sometime domineering trends.
"Had I stayed in New York, I am convinced I would not have done anything," insists Halprin. "I thrived in California."
Over the years, Halprin has investigated such subjects as AIDS, the Watts riots, cancer, aging, grief, environmental concerns and other subjects. Her Planetary Dance, originally created to heal a community when the Mount Tamalpais trailside killer had wreaked havoc on Marin County residents, has been performed in 46 places across the globe. In a strange turn of events, the killer was apprehended days after the dance was performed on the mountain.
Today Planetary Dance is performed all over the world as a form of earth healing. "I am floored by what's happened to that dance," Halprin says.
Halprin took H'Doubler's idea that dance could develop us as people, not just artists, into new realms.
"I added the emotional component," Halprin says. "I may be the only person who continued H'Doubler's legacy." Halprin won numerous accolades for her work, including the 1997 Samuel H. Scripps Award for Lifetime Achievement in modern dance from the American Dance Festival. In addition, the Dance Heritage Coalition named her one of "America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures."
Over the course of her multi-decade career, just about every dance legend made their way to Halprin's famous dance deck overlooking the breathtaking landscape. The dance world came to her. And now this film brings Halprin's life to the rest of the world.
Breath Made Visible has proved a profound experience for Halprin. "The film helped me clarify my approach to dance, and why it's been so controversial all my life," she says. "Ruedi tried to show how I responded to my life through dance."
Do it already!
When Gerber first suggested the idea of a making a film to Halprin, she responded, "Hurry up, I am 83." It took another several years to complete the film. Gerber, a former student and close friend, was perhaps the ideal and the only person to make the film.
"Ruedi lived in our studio for a while, he was part of our family," Halprin says.
The actor-turned-filmmaker sorted through 150 hours of archival footage and family films to create the intimate atmosphere of Breath Made Visible. "When she says 'Enter your body through your hand,' she's talking directly to the audience. She opens up her soul, which has such a powerful effect on the audience. Anna is a performance animal," Gerber. says. "I did not want to make a PBS-style documentary.
"I want the film to be viewed as a performance and show her incredible kinesthetic sense."
Indeed, Gerber's film places the audience right in Halprin's classroom, which is not an enclosed dance studio, but the world at large. The film also covers Halprin's relationship with her husband, the renowned architect, Lawrence Halprin.
When Gerber's film came across Marian Luntz's desk at the MFAH, she jumped on the chance to highlight Halprin's work on the weekend of her 90th birthday.
"I found the film completely captivating, and so eye-opening on her journey," says Luntz, MFAH's curator of film and video. "It's also within the MFAH's mission to focus on creative process. We want to give films like Breath Made Visible a big screen venue like the Brown Auditorium."
Luntz has featured several dance films recently, including The Red Shoes and Movement (R)evolution Africa. To engage the local audience, the MFAH will partner with the Jewish Community Center and Pink Ribbons Project for a special Nia Master Class with Helen Terry and a Pink Alive dance presentation related to the film.
It's been over a decade since I made the winding drive up the mountains to visit Halprin. Hanging out in Halprin's kitchen talking dance and life is a treasured memory.
Today, she's spunky as ever, full of ideas and reflective on her substantial career. Many of us body-focused dance people owe a debt of gratitude to Halprin for daring to chart a course far from the dance fashion of the day.
Looking back, Halprin may have left the New York hub, yet her influence permeates many aspects of dance we take for granted.
Watching Breath Made Visible, I am reminded of this extraordinary legacy that I am part of. Gerber captures Halprin's life and work with grace and reverence.
"I wanted to make a film about what dance can be without over intellectualizing," the Swiss filmmaker says. Gerber succeeds in creating an artful portrait of a completely original life in dance. "The movie has had its own life; even now, it still speaks to me."
The film is complete while Halprin's work continues. Spirit of Place, her most recent work, exemplifies her ongoing interest in dance in the natural world. "I am interested in helping dancers understand space as related to the environment. When I work on my outdoor dance deck I see the sky, the mountains. I hear the birds. I work within the sum total of life around me.
"I am not an object in space, I am part of it."