Monday, April 5, 2010

Amazing Anna Halprin

Last night Kristin, Mona and I went to see Breath Made Visible, a new documentary about the life of California, Marin county dance legend Anna Halprin ( She is 90 years old and still going strong, and the history of her career is impressive and inspiring. Her work in the 1950s and 1960s was very avant-garde and experimental - everything from social protest to nudity - but it went through a transformation when, in her 40s, she was diagnosed with cancer. In the movie she describes how she knew that something was wrong when she drew a self portrait of her body with a large dark spot under her belly button.

As a reaction to her diagnosis, she created a solo piece that demonstrated both her dark side, with her back to the audience, and her light side, with her front facing forward. In her "dark side" dance, she howls and shakes her fists and shudders, almost as if the illness is moving through her body and out in an intense form of catharsis. I'm reflecting now about how powerful our inner experiences are, and how, if we keep our emotions and perceptions stuffed inside and don't EXPRESS them, they get stuck in our body like poison.

Understandably, she went through quite a life altering process after being faced with her own mortality. The identity of her art (and her self I'm sure) was thrust into stark re-evaluation. In the movie she says, "Before I had cancer my life was about making dance and after I had cancer my dance was about making life." Her dancing life thus evolved into a healing ritual that she has shared with thousands of people, many who have been or are ill. She has even written a book on the subject: Dance as a Healing Art: Returning to Health Through Movement and Imagery. This is now on my "must read" list.

Because of this movie, I've been thinking again about the difference between art being one's ambition versus it being one's savior. It is easy to get wrapped up in the merit and success of your art "product" but if your ability to make your art as you have is compromised, the fear that it and you will wither up and suffer as a result can be strong. But what if we can transform the process of art-making to be less about gaining recognition and more about connecting to yourself and others in a visceral, honest and healing way. Hopefully this is partly what we've explored in Forms of Identification, and what we can continue to discuss as a community.

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