Anna Halprin

Dancer meets legend: a diary

Portland's Mizu Desierto went to study with the legendary Anna Halprin, now 94. What she discovered is ageless.

Portland butoh artist Mizu Desierto, of  Water in the Desert and The Headwaters Theatre, traveled to Big Sur over the summer to study with dance and movement legend Anna Halprin, who is still active at 94. She recounts her adventures for ArtsWatch readers.


When Anne Adams asked me to write a camp diary of my reflections on traveling to be with one of the most influential and pioneering artists of the day, the incomparable dance legend that is Anna Halprin, I had an absurd notion that this would be an easy assignment. Months later, I am still at a loss for adequate expression. For those who do not know the work of Halprin, let me simply start by stating that at 94 years old the woman continues to forge a prolific international legacy of political, social and transformative art-making, beyond anyone else I know of.

Anna was a movement virtuoso who politicized dance back in the days when most Americans were just beginning their love affair with bleach and polyester. Abandoning an enviable professional career in New York, she headed out west – not only leaving the urban context for modern dance, but also its overall stagnancy in form and repetition. From that point on, her work became a revelation of dance as social practice, with the creation of projects that first and fearlessly unpacked the most challenging subject matter of the day. Other notable developments in her work include the creation of an international educational institution, Tamalpa, and the “The Planetary Dance” – a community-based open-source ritual that continues to take place all over the globe.

Halprin (in hat) and acolytes at Esalen. Photo courtesy Mizu Desierto

Halprin (in hat) and acolytes at Esalen. Photo courtesy Mizu Desierto

Anna has been a hero of mine and an inspiration for nearly 20 years, and during that time I have had the opportunity to work with her on two other occasions. Once in my mid-twenties and then again more recently when she created and filmed a score with a number of local dancemakers at Lovejoy Fountain (designed by her late husband, Lawrence Halprin). On both occasions, Anna bestowed upon me that oozy golden fuzzy dream moment that any aspiring artist hopes for when confronted with a mentor and muse – she told me that she FANCIED ME! So what does one do when your hero fancies you? I personally am making damn sure that I get to spend as much time as possible under the influence of the source while she is still around.

When I found out Anna would be teaching at Esalen Institute over the summer – an oceanic terrain of hot springs and human potential pioneers in Big Sur – I jumped. I have wanted to visit Esalen for at least as long as I have been interested in the work of Halprin. Upon my arrival there, I felt as if I was entering into some kind of surreal and timeless dream-state – you know, where the plants glow with a communicative radiance and the people are almost iridescently vibrating, yet still intelligent. The thermal waters are housed in an architecturally astounding building perched just above the sea, and inside the tubs is a near-constant buzz of emerging creative and evolutionary ideas. I felt like an insider peering into the next waves of thinking in human embodiment and consciousness. During my stay, I made a ritual of soaking late at night, quietly mesmerized by the streams of words and stars surrounding me. Clearly, the works of the many great pioneers whose ideas were born of this place (Alduous Huxley, Alan Watts, Franz Perl, Moshe Feldenkrais, Ida Rolf) continue on here like evolutionary threads, into new and unchartered trajectories. No wonder Halprin is here, as she has also been an instrumental part of all of that history. She tells humorous and enlightening stories about her relationships with most of those trailblazing contemporaries.


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