Breath Made Visible

Breath Made Visible
Photo: Ken Otter

Anna Halprin Documentary
A Film by Ruedi Gerber
Documentary 80 minutes
Not Rated

This is more than a disclaimer. Anna Halprin saved my life. I found my way to her dance space, a studio and deck on a redwood-clogged hillside below her house in Marin County, California, after moving to San Francisco at the age of 39, where I discovered I was too old to start over in a new city as a professional dancer. On Tuesday nights, for several years, Halprin gave me a space to grieve the end of my career in a way that was organic and profound—through movement. She was in her 80’s.

In “Breath Made Visible” a new documentary about Halprin, the Swiss film-maker Ruedi Gerber brilliantly captures the essence of what Halprin discovered as an artist, and what she gave to me—that dance is not just a performing art, but is, or can be, a transformative act. The Tuesday night class I attended during those difficult years was called, “Movement Ritual”.

As a journalist, I followed Halprin with her company on a trek to Paris, in 2004, where she was booked at the Pompidou Center. This engagement is documented in the film, as are performances given by Halprin through the seven decades she has been dancing professionally. It seemed ironic that her California-style touchy-feely experiential work was finally getting the attention that had been given, by the European art cognoscenti, for decades, to the more rigorously abstract and technical work of New York-based modern dance artists like Merce Cunningham. In fact, Cunningham once studied with Halprin. So did many of the leading choreographers in New York, like Tricia Brown, Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer, and Simon Forti.

At the Pompidou Center, Halprin and her dancers performed two works. One, a new piece, in which the artist appeared, was called “Intensive Care”. It explored, appropriately enough, death and dying.  The other, from 1965, “Parades and Changes”, was Halprin at the other end of the spectrum, using young, beautiful, clothed and unclothed bodies, the tearing of paper as music, and Beach Boys tunes. Paris loved it.

Gerber’s film traces the parades and changes of a long, fascinating life. Although starting out a follower of Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman (modern dance contemporaries of Martha Graham), dancing on Broadway and discovering a “flair for the comedic”, Halprin may not have become the artist she is, if her husband Lawrence, the renowned landscape architect, wasn’t deposited in San Francisco at the end of his service in the Navy during World War II. As he recounts on film (he passed away at the age of 93 in 2009) his wife was reluctant at first to join him, but was finally won over by the potential to connect to the natural beauty of the Bay Area. “I never could have stayed in New York. An urban environment is not my nurturing place at all,” she said.

Indeed, throughout the film, Gerber cuts away to scenes of Halprin, in her 80’s, dancing in nature, disguised with sticks, wrapped in muslin and rolling in the tidal bath of the Pacific (which must have been a bracing experience in the icy waters of Northern California) or naked and covered in mud. This may strike some as stereotypical California tree-hugging nonsense. There is no sense, however, that Halprin is self-indulgent, that this is some superficial activity, or that there is a shred of vanity left in her aged body. As Halprin, who narrates her own story in the film, recounts, it was only after barely surviving colon cancer and a recurrence, in her 50’s, that she became an artist for whom dancing meant humanity, spirituality and community—not beauty, not performance, not acclaim.

Other sequences in the film demonstrate how Halprin, through the decades and wildly changing American politics from the 50’s onward, made original creative responses to the people she was with, and the times she was in. A well-documented section recalls a workshop with black dancers from Los Angeles collaborating with white dancers from San Francisco, shortly after the Watts Riots in 1965. Interviews with her two daughters, who were frequently included in Halprin’s performances, and film clips from the 60’s, help contextualize the role Halprin’s dance played during the wild, boundary-pushing days where San Francisco was, for a moment, the center of the universe. “Suddenly it was hip to be weird,” said Daria, the older daughter. “It was hard, as a kid, to separate what was art from what was life,” said Rana, the younger one. The Halprin compound became a gathering place for experimentation of all kinds.

In a later period, Halprin enlisted the participation of gay men during the onset of the AIDS crisis. Here, as is the case throughout the film, Gerber has woven short excerpts of performance footage into a fascinating chronology. Dozens of clearly terrified men are briefly shown shouting, “I Want To Live”, in a mass ritual attended by hundreds. Her “Planetary Dance”, another public participatory ritual, began in 1981 after six women had been murdered on the hiking trails of Mt. Tamalpais, near Halprin’s home. The killer was eventually captured, but the dance continued, with a focus on peace and healing not just locally but globally. This year, the Planetary Dance will be performed in dozens of locations around the world.

“Breath Made Visible” successfully bridges the gap between a film made for dance aficionados and a documentary that deals with artistic process. What elevates the work to an even higher level is the extraordinary respect shown by the film-maker for aging and its artistic ramifications as manifest in the body, mind and spirit of one remarkable woman.

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Mr. Simpson has a BA in Journalism from the University of Southern California and worked as an advertising writer in Los Angeles before moving to New York to pursue a different passion: dance. He danced professionally in New York and Boston before founding a community-based modern dance company, Small City Dance Project, in Newburyport, MA. His fiction has appeared in literary journals and anthologies. He was a teaching fellow at Smith College, where he received his MFA in choreography. While living in the Bay Area for 15 years, he wrote about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle and other periodicals. In 2005, he was a NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival. For, he reviews dance, theatre and film. He moved to Santa Fe in October, 2008. He writes for "Pasatiempo," the Arts magazine of the "Santa Fe New Mexican."