Anna Hal­prin: Expe­ri­ence as Dance

Jan­ice Ross
  • Review
By – March 23, 2012

This metic­u­lous­ly writ­ten biog­ra­phy opens in an Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue where the very young Anna, then known as Ann, sits, hid­den behind a raised sec­tion with the oth­er females behind a high par­ti­tion. Anna, unlike these women, who are pas­sive and unin­volved — is watch­ing intent­ly the mov­ing bod­ies of the men below, the sway­ing, the bend­ing of the knees, the dance move­ments as the boys fol­low in ser­pen­tine lines. These ear­ly images were to be of last­ing impact for Anna, brief as they were, in an immi­grant fam­i­ly in 1930’s Chica­go, where blend­ing and fit­ting in” was to dic­tate the rapid denud­ing of reli­gious prac­tices for her fam­i­ly, as it did for so many immi­grant fam­i­lies. This was the Anna, who at five began to feel her way into the world of dance, which was to become her life. Fast for­ward to 2003 and the film Return­ing Home,” where we see an eighty-year-old Anna naked, set­tling into the earth, her whole body drenched in mud. Her voice speaks the sen­tence that tells us how she has so seam­less­ly woven her life with what she believes: We’ve been alien­at­ed from the nat­ur­al world. We need to find a way to reen­ter.” Indeed, her phi­los­o­phy is to be found in how she inte­grat­ed space, art, rit­u­al, play, and heal­ing into the world of dance, which she expand­ed beyond the world of pro­fes­sion­al dancers to include her inter­est in her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, the phys­i­cal­ly and men­tal­ly ill, the aged, and the very ordi­nary. Her major con­tri­bu­tion to the world of dance would become known as post­mod­ern dance.” 

Ross’ fas­tid­i­ous­ly researched biog­ra­phy is orga­nized into ten chrono­log­i­cal­ly pre­sent­ed chap­ters which span the many var­ied peri­ods of Halprin’s pro­duc­tive life, and con­tain such intrigu­ing titles as The Secret Gar­den of Amer­i­can Dance,” West­ern Spaces,” Cer­e­mo­ny of Mem­o­ry,” and Chore­o­graph­ing Dis­ap­pear­ance.” The biographer’s cre­den­tials include a doc­tor­ate in Mar­garet D’Houbler, Anna Halprin’s men­tor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin. Ross is cur­rent­ly an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at Uni­ver­si­ty of Stan­ford and has to her cred­it an addi­tion­al two pub­lished books on dance. She has done a mas­ter­ful job of cap­tur­ing the life of Anna Hal­prin, who inci­den­tal­ly con­tin­ues to work as a dancer, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, and heal­er, even as she moves up into her mid-eighties.

Ruth Seif is a retired chair­per­son of Eng­lish at Thomas Jef­fer­son High School in NYC. She served as admin­is­tra­tor in the alter­na­tive high school division.

Discussion Questions