Monday, July 13, 2015

Choreographing the Environment: The Counterculture of Anna and Lawrence Halprin

Anna Halprin; photo by Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle
Anna Halprin; photo by Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

San Francisco Magazine called her a “postmodern dance legend.” The San Francisco Chronicle declared that she “essentially invented postmodern dance.” Today dance pioneer Anna Halprin turns 95. To celebrate her birthday, fans worldwide in fifteen countries are staging hundreds of events this summer, including last week's "95 Rituals" in San Francisco 

Anna Halprin has won numerous awards, most recently a Doris Duke Impact Award in 2014. That award—for artists who have influenced and are helping to move forward the fields of dance, jazz and/or theatre—acknowledged her work in revolutionizing dance and extending the impact of the performing arts “to address social issues, build community, foster emotional healing, and connect people to nature.”

Over the decades, Anna has created more than 150 dance-theatre works. She remains an arts educator through workshops and the Tamalpa Institute, an international movement-based expressive arts training program. As she has explained: “I want to integrate life and art, so that as our art expands, our life deepens, and as our life deepens, our art expands.”

Experiments in Environment

In California, Anna and her husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, created a new way of thinking and moving through the physical environment. During the 1960s and 1970s—decades of experimentation and radical social and political change—these two cultural leaders in their seemingly unrelated fields of landscape architecture and dance were at the forefront of a sea change in how we experience public spaces.


(Left) Col. Arthur Roth (Photographer), Hippies in Powell and Hyde St. Phone Booth, San Francisco, c. 1969–70, California Historical Society, CHS2013.1238; (right) Photographer unknown, Vietnam War Demonstration, February 19, 1965, Federal Office Building, San Francisco, California Historical Society
(Left) Col. Arthur Roth (Photographer), Hippies in Powell and Hyde St. Phone Booth, San Francisco, c. 1969–70, California Historical Society, CHS2013.1238; (right) Photographer unknown, Vietnam War Demonstration, February 19, 1965, Federal Office Building, San Francisco, California Historical Society
In the explosive place and time that was San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s, free love and drug cultures intersected with free speech and antiwar sentiment. Experimentation and open-mindedness ruled the day. The Halprins found common ground—the environment—in which to explore their fields in a transformative way: a series of experimental, interdisciplinary workshops called Experiments in Environment.

Set in the streets of San Francisco, on the shores and cliffs of Sea Ranch (a coastal community in Sonoma County designed by Lawrence), and on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais in northern California, the Halprin workshops brought new environmental awareness to artists, dancers, architects, designers,  and others.

From movement sessions on a dance deck, to blindfolded awareness walks through the landscape, to collective building projects using driftwood and choreographed urban journeys, participants engaged in multisensory activities in alternating environments. “We were trying to break down the aesthetic barriers that we had inherited,” Anna told the Chronicle in 2013. 


Men’s Dance, Kentfield, CA. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 7, 1966. Courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.
Men’s Dance, Kentfield, CA. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 7, 1966. Courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.
Blindfold Walk, Kentfield, CA. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 2, 1968. Courtesy of the Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.
Blindfold Walk, Kentfield, CA. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 2, 1968. Courtesy of the Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.
Driftwood Village—Community, Sea Ranch, CA. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 6, 1968. Courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.
Driftwood Village—Community, Sea Ranch, CA. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 6, 1968. Courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.
Market Street Walk, San Francisco, CA. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 8, 1966. Courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania. Photograph by Joe Ehreth. 
Impact

In January 2016 the California Historical Society (CHS) will examine this seminal period in our history—50 years after the first Halprin workshops were held. The exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971, along with a series of public and educational programs and events, including dance performances, will explore the impact of the 1960s counterculture on California and the nation by examining the significant contributions the Halprins made to their fields.  CHS will be collaborating with the Museum of Performance + Design, which houses the Anna Halprin archives, and other groups on this effort.

At a time when we are rethinking and reactivating our public spaces—in our parks, streets, plazas, business districts, and communities—and exploring the role of art and artists in cities, a renewed awareness of the Halprins’ groundbreaking creative process and their legacy on city planning and the arts contributes to the ongoing public discourse about how we create, use, and value public space.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
skale@calhist.org
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