Arts: Marin dance pioneer Anna Halprin reaches out to Israel

Clad in a flowing green tunic and shawl, Anna Halprin lifted her hands skyward and danced alongside more than 200 women — Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze — facing the vista of Jerusalem.

Anna Halprin photo/drew himmelstein

The pioneer of postmodern dance, now 94, led the group, beating on a tambourine. She staged the dance on the Haas Promenade last fall for two reasons: to call for peace and to pay tribute to her late husband, Lawrence Halprin, a legendary landscape architect who designed the popular Jerusalem promenade.

“I really personally was interested in how dance as an art form could bring people together and bypass all of our prejudices, and it worked,” said Halprin, who lives in Kentfield. “I really feel strongly that dance is a way to heal. It’s a very powerful art form.”

On the promenade, the group, brought together by Trust-Emun, an Israeli women’s nonprofit that builds bridges between cultures, first walked in silence as a statement of peace before breaking out into dance.

The procession was the third piece of “Remembering Lawrence,” a trilogy Halprin created in memory of her husband, who died in 2009 at the age of 93.

Anna Halprin leads a procession on the promenade designed by her late husband, Lawrence. Susie Gelman (front left) is the daughter of Richard Goldman, who commissioned the Goldman Promenade, also designed by Halprin.photo/sue heinemann

Anna and Lawrence Halprin, longtime Marin residents, were an artistic power couple. A lifelong dancer, in 1978 Anna co-founded the Tamalpa Institute for movement-based expressive arts in San Rafael. Lawrence designed the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, Sea Ranch in Sonoma County and a number of sites in Israel. The first piece in Anna’s “Remembering Lawrence” trilogy was performed in 2011 at San Francisco’s Stern Grove Amphitheater, which her husband also designed. The second was inspired by a series of erotic drawings Lawrence created when he was in the Navy during World War II.

Anna Halprin now needs a hand when walking down the steep steps to the wooden dance deck her husband designed amid the trees at their hilltop home. But she is still very much a dancer, teaching three public classes a week at her home studio and hauling out a full-size skeleton to give young dancers detailed anatomy lessons.

It is particularly fitting that she staged a tribute to her husband in Israel, where Lawrence Halprin had a nearly lifelong attachment. When he was a teenager, he founded a kibbutz with other young Jews from Brooklyn, even before the State of Israel was established, his wife recalled. Though he moved back to the United States (the couple met as students at the University of Wisconsin), he traveled to Israel frequently during his life, where he designed both the Haas and the Goldman promenades.

“Paper Dance” with Israel’s Vertigo Dance Company photo/maayam hotan-vertigo dance company

In addition to staging her tribute on the promenade, during her two-and-a-half-week visit to Israel, Halprin taught a five-day workshop in the desert for people from Israel, Palestine, Ukraine and Russia, using dance as a vehicle for peace.

“[The dancers] would have a bonfire at night, and they would share their songs and their dances. It was wonderful to see people who were at war together dancing peacefully and ecstatically,” Halprin said.

She continues that work at home. Through the Tamalpa Institute, Halprin brings dancers from countries in conflict to study with her, including a woman from Ramallah, who also participated in the desert workshop.

Halprin has firsthand experience with discrimination. Born in Winnetka, Illinois to immigrant parents, she faced blatant anti-Semitism growing up. Neighbors kept the shades pulled down over the windows that faced her family’s home, and friends’ parents wouldn’t allow her to visit their homes. Her experience taught her to identify with people facing persecution, and she believes strongly that dance can be a healing force.

During her time in Israel, she also spent five days working with the Vertigo Dance Company, based at Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed-Hey. Her visit concluded with an informal performance, which included pieces from Halprin’s repertoire — “Paper Dance” and “Stomp Dance.” In the latter, set to a score by Morton Subotnick, dancers stomp loudly on boxes to create a variety of sounds.

“It was a very angry score to do, so it brought up their feelings of frustration over the situation in Israel,” Halprin said. “It’s not a comforting situation to be alert all the time for a rocket or … shooting.”

Halprin said that Israelis, and Jews in particular, are receptive to dance as a means for powerful expression.

“In the Bible it says, ‘Thou shalt praise the Lord in timbrel and dance,’ ” Halprin said. “Jews are a dancing people.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.