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November 10, 2006

Audience and dancers are one in a repeat of a 1960s dance experiment

When dance historian Janice Ross, associate professor of drama, first went as a newspaper critic to write about dancer and theater artist Anna Halprin's pioneering experiments in participatory dance, Halprin took Ross' notebook away from her.

The dancer, who left the world of mainstream modern dance in New York City in the 1950s, was breaking new ground by erasing the boundaries between trained dancers and untrained spectators and reconfiguring their roles through audience participation.

When Ross arrived with her reporter's notebook, "Anna told me, 'Put that thing away. Nobody is taking notes. You're dancing with us,'" Ross recalls.

Although initially skeptical, Ross, author of a soon-to-be-released biography of Halprin, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, came to see Halprin's innovations as leading to an entirely new framework for thinking about dance. Halprin's interest and ambition lies in "dance that changes the dancers, which is different than dance that impresses the audience," Ross said.

The 86-year-old Halprin is on campus as a visiting artist this quarter, working with Ross and dancer Diane Frank, a lecturer in the Department of Drama, to teach her participatory methods to students and members of the community. The three are leading a class that is reconstructing Ten Myths, work that originally was produced in the late 1960s and that helped launch the participatory theater movement.

Originally presented over 10 evenings in a Haight-Ashbury studio, with members of the San Francisco Dancers' Workshop and audience participants that included businessmen, architects, psychotherapists, dance students and tourists, Myths was an experiment in mutual creation, Halprin has written. "The central idea … was to release people's buried creativity by answering one of their basic needs through ritual."

Over the years, "the idea of audience participation has evolved into an approach to dance that has enabled people of all ages and backgrounds with no previous training to mutually create their own rituals and myths," Halprin wrote in the program for a dance event Nov. 1 titled Storytelling, the first of three public events to be held on campus this fall.

At Stanford, students and community members are reconstructing Halprin's process, not the unchoreographed, unrehearsed and sometimes chaotic performances from the 1960s. "We are not learning the exact steps because that wasn't what it was about in the beginning anyway," Ross said. The reconstruction received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts through the American Masterpieces: Dance program, which typically supports projects that meticulously recreate past performances step by step, using technically proficient dancers, Ross said.

"I think we are kind of breaking the mold" for the grant program, Ross said. "No one has pulled back anything as wild from the sixties—nowhere close—nor have they had an 86-year-old stage it."

For the Nov. 1 event, Halprin, Ross and Frank invited senior citizens, recruited at senior centers in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, to join the 15 enrolled members of the class for five weeks of dance seminars. Future public events will include Masks on Nov. 15, which will include students from acting, directing and performance arts classes, as well as artists and writers, and students from the Structured Liberal Education Program, who study classical literature and mythology. Environment, on Dec. 6, will include graduate and undergraduate students from Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.

The three themes correspond to Halprin's engagement over the years with social issues, including race relations, illness and aging, as well as her collaborative work with her husband, Lawrence Halprin, the noted landscape architect and educator.

"I've always been interested in 20th-century dance where there is a social activist dimension," said Ross, who teaches a class where students go into prisons to dance with and learn from inmates. "It's still great art, it's compelling art, but it's about connecting art to life."

For many of the students, the classes with senior citizens represented the first time they had danced with three generations at once, Ross said. "To see a 17-year-old doing lead-and- follow hand dancing with an 87-year-old former Lindy-hopper from Harlem—I found it very touching and very, very tender."

In most cases, "the aged are invisible socially, let alone the centerpiece of a dance," Ross said. "No one is dancing about their experience, let alone what it's like to dance as an 86-year-old."

Dance generally is constituted on the values of youth, such as strength, speed and endurance, Ross said. On the very first day of class, Halprin asked everyone to say their name and age. "Nobody does that," Ross said. When Halprin gave her age with pride, "for the first time in your life, you felt bad you weren't 86," Ross said. By privileging age and wisdom, Halprin "immediately flipped the tables on what gets valued," she said.

For Frank, who teaches Stanford's most technically advanced classes in modern dance and has been taking classes with Halprin, the experience has reconnected her to a more foundational conception of dance, she said.

"There are lots of performing protocols or ideas about performance that are softened, deflected and redirected in this work," she said. "It makes you come to think of dance quite differently.

"In going up to work with her, I personally feel I am coming home again," Frank added. It is as if she were rediscovering the original purpose in dance through a profound sense of one's own kinetic and emotional resources, accessed from deep in the body, she said. "Sometimes I feel like the first impulse for dancing is that and then it gets squeezed out of us by self-imposed technical striving."

Little technical striving was in evidence during the performance as a group of about 150 people circled, swayed, stomped, clapped, chanted and moved together during two hours of unscripted dance, guided by Halprin.

It was a different kind of form and format, played out in ways that aren't congruent with traditional performances, Frank said. Participants left "very happy and, it seemed to me, people had some sense of having passed through something together," she said.

As in the original 1967 event, no spectators are allowed, but everyone is welcome to participate. The project is co-sponsored by the Stanford Center on Longevity and received funding from the President's Fund.



Barbara Palmer, News Service: (650) 724-6184,


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