- Postmodern Dance:A Feminist Lineage
Ninotchka Bennahum, Wendy Perron, and Bruce Robertson, eds.
University of California Press
192 Pages; Cloth, $55.00
I'm standing in line at the entrance to the Piazzoni Murals Room in San Francisco's de Young Museum, a bit sweaty after a brisk walk across Golden Gate Park from my home. I tell others in line how blessed I feel, plucked last minute from the waitlist. Their luminous grins tell me they feel fortunate too, while their accents communicate how far they've traveled––it's an international crowd. Having signed in and been given a pair of yoga socks, I cross the room to the far end near the picture window, where dancer-choreographer Anna Halprin chats quietly with co-facilitator Tomoko Hiraoka and a few helpers while percussionist Miles Lassi tinkers with a vast array of instruments. The workshop they're about to lead will launch "Anna Halprin: Body Radical": two weekends of performances, film screenings, and participatory experiences in and around the museum celebrating the 98-year-old artist's life and work.
The name of the 2018 De Young extravaganza is likely a riff off the book Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955–1972. Edited by Ninotchka Bennahum, Wendy Perron, and Bruce Robertson, it accompanied a 2017 exhibition at the Art, Design, and Architecture Museum of the University of California, Santa Barbara and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. I missed the exhibition, but the book––featuring essays by the editors, composer Morton Sobotnick, and music and dance critic John Rockwell, as well as letters from Forti to Halprin––is an important addition to the growing body of literature about these three pillars of postmodern dance. It foregrounds the pivotal contributions of Halprin (along with her husband, architect Lawrence Halprin) and the West Coast art scene in shaping contemporary dance in general and the work of Forti and Rainer in particular. In doing so, it rebalances a tendency among art historians and cultural critics to favor the impact made on Forti, Rainer, and their peers by East Coast figures, especially composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and musician-choreographer Robert Dunn. Dunn taught choreography classes based on Cage's theories––classes that were attended by Forti and Rainer and that spawned the postmodern dance collective Judson Dance Theater, of which Rainer was a founding member. Such New York–based stories have dominated the narrative, but now thanks to Radical Bodies, even Rainer acknowledges that Halprin was much more important to her development than she had previously recognized.
The book documents bidirectional influences between the California and New York art scenes from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. It notes common ground, including the influence of the Bauhaus movement and its cross-disciplinary approach both on Halprin and her husband and on Cage and Cunningham. Halprin and Cage also shared an interest in the use of scores to generate performances. Halprin and Dunn held a similar pedagogical stance of nonjudgmental curiosity toward their students' choreographic exercises, and both included non-dancers in their classes. At the same time, the book delineates differences between the two scenes. Cage, Cunningham, and Dunn emphasized conceptual rigor and the use of chance operations in the compositional process. Cage was heavily influenced by zen and dada, while Halprin's mentors were dance pedagogue Margaret D'Houbler––who developed a theory of movement grounded in the study of anatomy, biology, and kinaesthesia–– and Reform Rabbi Max Kadushin, who saw sacred Jewish texts as living embodiments of thought and ethics (Halprin applied his theory to the body, which she saw as a living text). Halprin taught and still teaches task-based improvisation with an emphasis on a connection to nature––both interaction with natural surroundings and natural, unstudied body movement. These approaches were transmitted to the New York scenes via artists who worked with her closely, such as Simone Forti and sculptor Charles...