Thursday, February 11, 2016

Anna Halprin: “Jews Are a Dancing People”

Anna Halprin: “Jews Are a Dancing People”

Anna Halprin Leading a Women’s Peace Walk on the Rhoda Goldman Promenade, Israel, 2014
Courtesy of Sue Heinemann
Anna Halprin (front row, center) leads a peace procession on the Rhoda Goldman Promenade designed by her late husband, the renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. Next to her (our left) is Susie Gelman, daughter of Richard Goldman, who commissioned the promenade.
Photographer Sue Heinemann remembers traveling to Israel with the postmodern dance legend Anna Halprin in the fall of 2014: “There she completed her trilogy Remembering Lawrence, honoring her late husband, who helped found an early kibbutz and designed several Jerusalem landmarks. Anna led over a hundred Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze women on a silent peace walk along the Goldman Promenade, designed by Larry, situated between East and West Jerusalem.”

This interplay between Anna’s dances and Lawrence’s landscape designs was one of the hallmarks of their marriage and professional relationship. That it occurred in Israel is a natural expression of the Halprins’ global connections and relationship to their Jewish heritage.
“In the Bible it says, ‘Thou shalt praise the Lord in timbrel and dance.’ Jews are a dancing people.”
—Anna Halprin
The Grandfather Dance

Themes from Judaism have influenced Anna and her work since her childhood, when she watched her Hasidic grandfather in prayer:
“I remember at age five watching my grandfather praying at shul. He would jump up and down with great energy and joy, throwing his arms into the air as if he were possessed by some higher spirit. With his white hair and long, white beard he looked like God to me, so I thought God must be a dancer. This experience gave me the image of dance as something special, and inspired me to spend my life looking for a dance that would mean as much to me and others as my grandfather’s dance meant to him.
The Grandfather Dance grew out of Anna’s desire to celebrate her relationship with her grandfather, an immigrant who escaped the pogroms (massacres of Jews) in Russia. In it, Anna wears a black silk outfit and pearl-white tallis (prayer shawl), re-creating her memories in dance to klezmer music—a musical tradition from Eastern Europe.

The Grandfather Dance is part of Anna’s series Memories from My Closet, which she performed at her 80th birthday retrospective in 2000. Two of the dances in the series recall her Jewish background. In making the series, she says, “I took different articles of clothing out of my closet that evoked memories and also became my costumes.” For The Grandfather Dance, “A pair of beautiful old silk pajamas led me to talk about my grandfather, who was a tailor.” Anna had premiered the dance on February 2, 1994, at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Theater, dedicating it to her grandchildren as a way of helping them understand their heritage.

Julie Lemberger (Photographer), The Grandfather Dance, 1999
Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design
Watch a preview of The Grandfather Dance

 The Prophetess

Anna’s autobiographical expressions of her culture and religion are also illustrated in her choreography of the 1950s, particularly The Prophetess, Emek, and Daughter of the Voice. As her biographer Janice Ross writes, these dances “focus on Jewish heroines who became inspirational leaders for their people [and] fit into the post-Holocaust dances that Naomi Jackson describes as creating ‘uplifting, timeless images of a positive Jewish identity.’”
“My connection to Judaism, the idea that you don’t bow down before a golden idol, implied for me a sense of intellectual freedom, artistic freedom. It gave me the sense of being myself and acknowledging other people to be who they were.
Edloe Risling (Photographer), Anna Halprin in The Prophetess, 1955
Anna Halprin Digital Library, Courtesy of the Museum of Performance & Design
The Prophetess premiered in 1947 at the Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. With her headpiece and costume designed by her husband, Lawrence Halprin, Anna created an interpretation of Deborah, a fearless heroine of the Hebrew bible for whom Anna had been given her middle name. She later performed it at the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) festival, sponsored by Baroness Bethesbee de Rothschild, in New York in May 1955.

Watch a 2015 re-staging of The Prophetess

Ceremony of Us

“Anna’s Jewishness,” Douglas Rosenberg notes, “is written on her body. It is written in her commitment to community and to repairing that which is weakened or broken.” Anna has applied this concept of repair and community, known in Judaism as Tikkun Olam, to dance.
“I don’t think it [Tikkun Olam] is inborn. I think it is trained, from the time Jewish children are sent home with tzedakah [charity] boxes. I think it is a way in which Jewish children learn to legitimize their choice of art as a profession. A commitment to making the kind of dance that is going to affect social change.”
Following the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, Anna began a series of workshops in Los Angeles with the all-black Studio Watts School of the Arts, headed by James Woods, and a corresponding series with all-white dancers from her San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop. In 1969 she brought the two groups together in a dance of healing called Ceremony of Us. It was the Dancers’ Workshop’s “first confrontation with a major social issue,” according to Libby Worth and Helen Poynor.

As Judith Brin Ingber notes, “Anna’s work creating manifold rituals for communal and individual healing . . .  seems to flow naturally from a religion and history that emphasizes compassion and social justice.”

Tylon Barea (Photographer), Ceremony of Us at the Mark Taper Theatre, Los Angeles, 1969
Courtesy of Anna Halprin
I think that my Jewish heritage is why I was drawn to the Watts project. . . . Our approach was to maximize the differences, and to find the common ground.”


In 1970, Anna choreographed Kadosh (“Holy” in Hebrew), which incorporated Judaic traditions. She premiered the dance as part of a Friday night service at a Jewish temple in Oakland. Created during the time of the Vietnam War—protested heavily in the Bay Area—Kadosh “challenged the relevance of Judaism and God in contemporary society at the time of the Vietnam War,” notes Libby Worth and Helen Poynor. 
Alan Becker (Photographer)Kadosh, c. 1970–71
Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design
In 1972, at age 52, Anna sketched a view of her body with a dark circle in her pelvis. Frightened, she went to her doctor, who found a malignant tumor of the same size and in the same place as her drawing and diagnosed ovarian cancer. Judaism, Anna said, entered into her recovery.
"I think it had to do with putting my faith to work for me. At one point, after my surgery, I was in an altered state of pain and confusion. I wasn't sure I wanted to go on. Then I saw a black bird and I thought it was the Angel of Death, come to take me to Zion. . . . That was kind of a wake-up call, and I knew I wanted to live. I couldn't give up."
And so began Anna’s journey into self-healing through dance, a concept she has shared with communities on a global level. 

Israel 2014

Anna’s work in Israel has spanned decades. Most recently, in 2014, following the Women’s Peace March illustrated above, she taught a workshop at Moa Oasis, an ecological retreat in the desert in southern Israel, along the ancient spice trading route, at a kibbutz in the valley where David fought Goliath, and at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
Sue Heinemann (Photographer), Moa Oasis Workshop, 2014
Courtesy of Sue Heinemann
“There’s such an intense desire for peace, the women in particular.”
Born Ann Schuman in 1920, after surviving colon cancer Ann changed her name to Anna, which, she told the San Francisco Chronicle, was closer to her Jewish birth name, Hannah.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

  • Roland Barthes, Why She Danced: 1920–1938) in Janis Ross, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance (Berkeley: UC Press, 2007)
  • Anna Halprin, “God Must Be a Dancer,” interview, Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, July 21, 2005
  • Eri Herschthal, “Anna Halprin’s Dance Therapy,” The Jewish Week, April 26, 2010
  • Liat Ishay/Peaceful Living, Highlights of Anna Halprin’s Recent Trip to Israel,
  • Drew Himmelstein, “Marin Dance Pioneer Anna Halprin Reaches Out to Israel,”, March 12, 2015
  • Rachel Howard, “95th Birthday Tribute to Anna Halprin, Postmodern Dance Pioneer,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 30, 2015
  • Judith Brin Ingber, ed., Seeing Israeli and Jewish Dance (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2011)
  • Joyce Morgenroth, Speaking of Dance: Twelve Contemporary Choreographers on Their Craft (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2004)
  • Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000)
  • Douglas Rosenberg, “Tikkun Olam: To Repair the World,” College Art Association Conference, Boston, February 24, 2006
  • Janice Ross, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009)
  • Suzanne Weiss, “Famed Dancer Marking Her 80th with a Retrospective,”, May 26, 2000
  • Libby Worth, Helen Poynor, Anna Halprin (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2004)
Learn more about Anna Halprin at the California Historical Society’s exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971 (January 21–July 3, 2016) and at

“I am delighted that Experiments in the Environment will be coming to its home base in San Francisco, the home of radical, humanistic, and participatory innovation. The exhibit excites me as well because it is including a new section describing my collaboration with Larry and our work beyond the Experiments. As Larry inspired me with his sensitivity to the environment which influenced my experiments, I influenced him in my use of movement audience participation as I pioneered new forms in dance. This combined exhibition shows the impact we had on each other throughout our lives and I hope it helps people understand our work better.”
—Anna Halprin, 2015

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