Famed dancer marking her 80th with a retrospective

There was a time when Anna Halprin was dancing for her life.

Following a 1972 battle with cancer, the renowned dancer-choreographer began using movement as a healing tool, first for herself and then for others. She began writing extensively on the subject and has led numerous collaborative dance programs for terminally ill patients.

Now Halprin is dancing out her life in an 80th birthday performance that not only marks her illness and recovery, but also celebrates the Jewish roots from which she grew.

Set for Friday, June 2 through Sunday, June 4 at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco, the program includes the world premiere of "Intensive Care: Reflections on Living and Dying," featuring the octogenarian dancer herself. Also on the bill are "Memories From My Closet," a trio of dances set to various music, including that of a klezmer band, and the 1965 "Parades and Changes."

Two of the "Memories" pieces deal with her Jewish background.

"One I call my 'grandfather dance,'" said Halprin, a Kentfield resident who has been called the dance world's "mother of postmodernism."

"My father came from a little town in Odessa," she continued, "and my connection to Judaism is rooted in an Orthodox, traditional, Old World culture. Jews today are very different, more assimilated. I made this dance to teach my grandchildren where they came from."

In the piece, the choreographer draws on memory to incorporate gestures used by her grandfather when he prayed.

"Gratitude," another section of "Memories," deals with Halprin's first trip to Israel, in 1948, shortly after statehood was declared.

"There were birds flying all over the airport — it was open then, not enclosed like now — when I got off the plane," she recalled. "It felt like some kind of spiritual message to me, this tremendous feeling that I was coming home."

Halprin and her husband of 60 years, famed environmental architect Lawrence Halprin, met at a Hillel function at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, she was working on her undergraduate degree. And he, having been among the founders of the first American kibbutz in what was then Palestine, had returned to the United States to study horticulture — ostensibly to bring his knowledge back to the kibbutz.

He got married and settled down in the States instead. However, the couple returned to Israel many times over the years, and his contributions to the Jewish state have been important and far-reaching. He designed the Walter and Elise Haas Promenade in Jerusalem, as well as the original entrance and main plaza of the Israel Museum there.

Like his wife, the architect remains fully involved in his work. At the time of this interview, he was in Washington, D.C., fitting the new and controversial statue of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his wheelchair into the environment of the national memorial.

"We've influenced each other a lot in our work over the years," Anna Halprin said. "I've given him an appreciation of movement. How you move in an environment influences how you feel.

"And he influenced me to see the environment as a part of the whole, to place the human figure in the world. This is not a self-centered philosophy. It's very profound. You are not an object in space. You are a part of space. It has to do with relating to the animals, to the birds and to all of life. And that's a very Jewish concept."

Judaism also entered into her recovery from cancer, she said.

"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."

That was nearly 30 years ago, and, on the eve of her 80th birthday, Halprin is still working — teaching, writing, choreographing and, incredibly, dancing.

That may seem unusual to others, but it is no mystery to her.

"Your body holds all your life experiences," she said, "and there's something about dance that enables me to keep moving, to be continuously learning about experiences that I have no words for.

"It keeps me in a constant state of exhilaration and discovery that is so life-enhancing."