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Reviewed by:
  • Anna Halprin, and: Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance
  • Ramsay Burt
Anna Halprin by Libby Worth and Helen Poynor. 2004. London: Routledge. 196 pp., illustrations, index. $28.95 paper.
Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance by Janice Ross. 2007. Berkeley: University of California Press. 445 pp., illustrations, index, chronology of performances, videos and films, index. $34.94 cloth.

While Anna Halprin is recognized as an extraordinary and charismatic artist, surprisingly little has been written about her until recently. Although Halprin's 1995 collection of essays and interviews, Moving Toward Life, is informative about particular aspects of her work, it does not cover her career as a whole. This is a gap that Libby Worth and Helen Poynor's 2004 Anna Halprin and Janice Ross's 2007 Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance both now amply fill. Reading them together for this review, I have been surprised to find that two such different books could have been written at roughly the same time about the same person. Ross's book is a lengthy biographical study of Halprin's life and work as a dancer and teacher. As a very detailed piece of scholarly and archival research, it is a considerable achievement. Worth and Poynor admit that, as British performing artists who both trained with Halprin in the early 1980s, they are insiders, and their book focuses more on Halprin's processes and practices. Thus, whereas Ross evaluates Halprin's dance work from the point of view of a dance scholar and critic, Worth and Poynor, coming from performance studies, investigate what she has to offer practitioners working in a wide variety of performance forms, particularly those interested in somatic practices. The difference between the two books, then, is between dance and performance, and between scholarly history and an analysis of practice by scholarly practitioners. The problem both books try to address, from these different points of view, is that Halprin does not fit easily into any particular category. She is more than just a dancer choreographer. She has developed influential ways of using movement in community contexts to bring about social change; she has also worked in healing contexts and devised what could perhaps be described as contemporary religious rituals. These two books each chart their own courses among Halprin's diverse achievements.

While, for much of her life, Halprin has been involved in social activism, both books avoid reducing her work to no more than this. Ross's biographical approach to Halprin's work places it alongside both her pedagogical philosophy and the importance of modernist aesthetics for her artistic development. She suggests Halprin's social involvements grew out of her early life experiences. It is sobering to realize that Halprin's family fled Russia to escape anti Semitic pogroms, only for their daughter Ann, as she was known until the 1970s, to experience anti-Semitism growing up in the 1920s in a wealthy Chicago suburb. Having discovered the work of Graham and Humphrey while attending an early Bennington summer school, Halprin applied to study at the college only to be rejected because their quota of Jewish students was full. The silver lining to this cloud was that Halprin went instead to the University of Wisconsin, where she came under the influence of Margaret H'Doubler. The lifelong relationship between Halprin and H'Doubler is in effect a central theme in Ross's book. H'Doubler, the subject of Ross's previous book, Moving Lessons, was committed to developing experiential learning through somatic investigation. This was enormously important for Halprin, and a photograph in Ross's book of [End Page 91] the two women together in Halprin's Bay Area home in the 1970s demonstrates their long friendship. Halprin met her husband Lawrence at a university Zionist club, and, after a visit to Palestine, they decided to live in a kibbutz. For Ross, Halprin never gave up on this radical idealism, applying it throughout her life to a variety of different causes. The kibbutz plan was scuppered by the outbreak of war, so Lawrence Halprin instead accepted a scholarship to study architecture at Harvard with Walter Gropius and other ex-lecturers from the German Bauhaus. Ross emphasizes the importance of this...


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