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Richard Kostelanetz, Ann Halprin, Conversation with Ann Halprin (1968)


Richard Kostelanetz. The Theatre of Mixed Means. London: Pitman, 1970, pp. 64-77.

Universiteit Antwerpen, Theater- en Filmwetenschap, 2010

Belgium is Happening

What I'm for is a collective statement based on the need for audience and performers to be assembled; so that what occurs is a process that evolves out of both the moment and all the people there.

—Ann Halprin

Ann Halprin has long been acknowledged among the leading exponents of a contemporary dance that is stylistically post-Martha Graham, for she has eschewed all traditional syntaxes of the dance language for movements wholly natural to the human physique. Instead of choreographing dances of distinct character and repeatable pattern, she has constructed a series of fluidly formed mixed-means theatrical pieces faithful to her attitude toward human activity, and yet sensitive to theatrical demands. Her Dancers' Workshop Company, based in San Francisco, has toured across the United States and Canada, and has also performed at contemporary and avant-garde festivals in Venice, Rome, Zagreb, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Warsaw. In the spring of 1967, the group gave its first public recital in New York City.

Ann Halprin grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, where she was born in 1921. She attended the University of Wisconsin, taking her B.A. in dance and studying with Margaret H'Doubler, whom she regards

as her greatest influence. She also assimilated Bauhaus architectural ideas during the years her husband Lawrence studied with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at the Harvard School of Design. After leaving Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Halprins spent two years in New York, where Ann gave a dance recital and worked in the Broadway production of Sing Out Sweet Land (choreographed by Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman).

The Halprins moved to San Francisco in 1945 and have lived on the West Coast ever since. They have two teen-aged daughters, Daria Lurie and Rana Schuman. Mrs. Halprin is a close collaborator in her husband's work as landscape architect and city planner, as he is in hers; and in the following interview her use of the word "block" has architectural overtones.

Ann Halprin's theatrical pieces are largely developed in classroom situations or in improvisation sessions with her company. Each work is, so to speak, the continually evolving result of a lengthy process, and even after a first performance, continues to change, shedding decaying elements and developing new ones. Birds of America or Gardens Without Walls (1959), Ann Halprin's first major piece, is based upon her commitment to exploring the choreographic possibilities inherent in natural activity, and this bias informs her subsequent theatrical works: The Flowerburger (I960), Rites of Women (1961), Five-Legged Stool (1962), Esposizione (1963), Visage (1963), Parades & Changes (1964), Apartment Six (1965), The Bath (1966).

She generally works with artists originally trained in other fields, and her structures allow these collaborators to improvise in performance within a system of choice outlined in advance. John Graham, an actor, and A. A. Leath, a dancer, have been her closest working partners for ten years, while Patric Hickey, a lighting designer, and Jo Landor, a painter, have also collaborated in all her major works. Other associates have included the theatre director Ken Dewey; the composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, Folke Rabe, Pauline Oliveros, and Luciano Berio; the sculptors and painters Charles Ross, Anthony Martin, and Jerry Walters; the poets James Broughton and Richard Brautigan; and her architect husband.

Her pieces are densely filled and grandly conceived spectacles, rich in props, people, and activities, sometimes containing absurdly funny

incongruities. They generally assume an organic cast, as one activity usually relates to another and the segments flow into each other smoothly. Although each sequence, as well as each scene, asks to be perceived as a coherent whole, Ann Halprin resists such obvious strategies for achieving unity as unison movement. Occasionally, she will repeat a certain activity, such as bringing a box on the stage many times beyond normal tolerance—an exercise that induces both terror and comedy; and although she is personally highly articulate, her pieces use words not so much for their meanings as for their distinctive sounds. As theatrical constructions, her pieces are extremely impressive, achieving both a distinctly individual style and an effective kinetic communication.

The Halprins live in Kentfield, California, at the foot of Mount Tamalpais, in a compound of their own design. Their five-acre wooded area includes their house, an outdoor platform-theatre, and an enclosed studio. In dowptown San Francisco, the Dancers' Workshop occupies a modest building which contains a small hall and a studio. Members of Mrs. Halprin's current performing company are people from her classes; and, although several prominent younger dancers were once her pupils, her classes attract scores of non-dancers, particularly artists from related fields who want to learn about movement.

Ann Halprin is a slender, blue-eyed, handsome woman with high cheekbones, who looks like a neatly dressed suburban matron (which she also is). She speaks with a sure authority, an animated manner, and considerable charismatic charm. The following interview took place in New York City, just after she and her husband returned from a European trip.

KOSTELANETZ — As most of the important activity in mixed-means theatre takes place in New York, do you feel at all cut off working in California?

HALPRIN — No. However, I'm aware of the concentration in numbers of artists and activities that continually takes place in New York, but we have been doing multi-media theatre for many years, too. There's much talk about the nature-oriented West Coast art; this could make sense, just because we are closer to our natural environment, rather than the man-made environment.

I've been able to see many spontaneous mixed-means performances in the most unexpected places. In a small village outside Seville I participated in the most glorious fiesta which was the finest theatre event I've seen in years. I found similar excitement in Venice's San Marco Square during Easter, Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Guadalupe in Mexico. Actually, it isn't necessary to travel to be stimulated by such dramatic experiences. There is something going on all the time all around. It's just a matter of being aware—of looking and hearing and putting things together. Something is always happening. kostelanetz — When did you become a choreographer? halprin — Since my early youth I've been acutely aware of and fascinated by movement. I started making up dances when I was a child.

KOSTELANETZ — Would you say that you started off in traditional modern dance? halprin — Yes.

KOSTELANETZ — Where does the piece Birds of America or Gardens Without Walls [1959] stand in your own career? halprin — It was my first full-length work, and this was the first work that made a specific break with what I had been doing previously as a traditional modern dancer. kostelanetz — How was Birds of America different? halprin — The concern in this work was for non-representational aspects of dance, whereby movement, unrestricted by music or interpretive ideas, could develop according to its own inherent principles. The compositional approach allowed for group collaboration and improvisation. The music by La Monte Young was a series of single sounds, each surrounded by silence and produced independently of movement. Words spoken by a child performer, who was first Daria Lurie and then Rana Schuman, added another independent element; and, after the piece was composed, long bamboo poles were superimposed on the situation. Dancers were required to hold them as they moved, thus creating an ever changing visual environment as the poles made their own mobile in space.

I had been inspired to work on this piece as a result of a personal experience. One day as I was sitting for a long time outdoors in our wooded dance-deck, I became aware of light on a tree, a red berry that fell at my side, a fog horn in the distance, and children shouting; and

I wondered if they were really in trouble or just playing. These chance relationships, each independent of the other, seemed beautiful to me. I composed Birds of America or Gardens Without Walls according to that experience. Each thing was meant to take a long time, so stillness was an essential ingredient. It was intended for the audience to become so relaxed, if you will, that they could just see and hear and not have to interpret and intellectualize. They could let each thing be what it is as pure physical, sensory experience. Also, inherent in this personal experience was the possibility of discovering in chance relationships some new ways of releasing the mind from preconceived ideas and the body from conditioned or habitual responses. In Birds of America or Gardens Without Walls, each ingredient (light, sound, words, people, objects, etc.) was developed independently, according to its own intrinsic sensory nature, and allowed to relate to other elements in unpredictable ways. There was a deliberate avoidance of any beginning, middle, or end, and of fixed time. Instead, we used intervals of action followed by intervals of stillness. Hopefully, everyone in the audience would be able to perceive each element individually and yet discover relationships and events meaningful to his personal experience, just as I was able to do that day on the deck.

KOSTELANETZ — Didn't you conceive of Five-Legged Stool [1962] as a series of tasks?

HALPRIN — Yes, introducing the idea of tasks liberated the dancers even further from cliched dance movement. Orienting to tasks, however, was related to a broader concern. A concern for super-reality or, to use a phrase coined by the German critic H. H. Stuckenschmidt in reviewing Five-Legged Stool, "sur-naturalism." Five-Legged Stool was a piece built out of ordinary life—of simple occurrences, physical images, and relationships between people. This realism or blown-up naturalism, which grew out of the use of tasks, was not simply a literal translation of life. In Five-Legged Stool a method of juxtaposing ordinary actions was employed in an attempt to break up conventional mental associations and predictions. What I mean is that each of us has an automatic stream of associating particular responses with certain actions seen or heard. For example, if you were to hear laughter, you would by nature expect to see a smiling face or whatever action would ordinarily be associated with laughter. Five-Legged

Stool took tasks that were based on ordinary life situations but juxtaposed them in illogical or unexpected relationships. By blowing the lid on logical or habitual mental habits of responses, feelings of multiple dimensions became possible. For instance, in Five-Legged Stool, Morton Subotnick recorded the audience's natural laughing and talking, coughing, shuffling in the lobby before they came into the theatre to take their seats. This same sound track of the collected material with subtle electronic manipulation was played back to the audience while simultaneously two performers, a man and a woman, were standing on the stage apron in static motion, staring at the audience, at one another, changing their facial expressions in such a way that the audience's sounds and the stage action were completely illogical and yet the mixture could evoke multiple responses on a purely emotional and sensorial level; or at the end of Five-Legged Stool, two performers are running toward each other and hitting their bodies in mid-air, falling and crashing to the floor. This violent, irregularly rhythmic series of collisions and falls is intensified by an enormously loud chaotic tape sound, and juxtaposed against all this is a chorus in the audience singing, in a steady volume and even rhythm, the familiar hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." This is quickly extinguished, without any logical resolution, and as the scene shifts suddenly into absolute silence, one by one tiny feathers cascade down from a single concentrated spot on the ceiling. In the meantime a large window onstage that opens directly to the street brings into the feather event the sound of fog horns from the bay, of clanging cable cars on the streets, and of pedestrians' clicking steps walking on the sidewalk. Breezes flow into the stage, moving the feathers, and beams from cars passing by and street lamps form a light through which the feathers pass. All of these elements from the realistic life outside are juxtaposed against the simple act taking place inside, of falling feathers. The feather episode makes no logical sense following the violence of the previous event; yet on a deeply ritualistic level and as pure theatrical dynamics, it makes all the emotional sense in the world.

Here was a direct attempt to prepare the audience for their own departure from the theatre to the outside—to have opened up their senses and attitudes and made them able to go outside into the streets with a sharpened awareness of the pure drama all around. Thus, bringing into the theatre itself the everyday real life, merging it with

the make-believe or fantasy of theatre, was meant to be a direct invitation to the audience to experience the drama inherent in the "outside real world." As Five-Legged Stool was meant to have no formal ending, the audience took the theatre over, hopefully, in their own lives. A theme, as well as an intention, then, was non-separation of art and life. The use of tasks was taken to its furthest development.

In Esposizione [1963, Venice], an evening-length work, each performer was given one task to do throughout the entire piece: to transport an enormous load of litter from one point to another. Along the way, from point to point, were placed the most outrageous obstacles. Three starting points were chosen for six different performers, and they all eventually moved toward one goal. The starting points were the Piazza Venetta outside the LaVenezia Opera House, the prompter's pit under the stage, and the top of a cargo net forty feet in the air, where Rana Schuman, then nine years old, began her line of action by edging her way to a rope and, swinging precariously in a large arch, spanning the space over the orchestra pit and back into the depth of the backstage spaces. Everyone's final goal was exiting off the stage.

Among the obstacles were the five tiers of balconies in the auditorium, the orchestra pit, the large imposing cargo net that formed a screen over the whole proscenium arch, and a ramp which slanted to the floor. The performers, and in some cases the musicians, were simply instructed to go from point to point, transporting their clumsy litter as they traveled, or playing their instruments. A space restriction was then established and Luciano Berio created a time score which determined the speed and thus also the quality of the event. For example, if five minutes were allotted to traveling up and over the steep cargo net lugging the litter with you, the event would be frantic and hysterical. If twenty minutes were allotted in that area, the task would slow down and become laborious. In this way Berio's decisions controlled many aspects of the piece, just as the selection of pathways shaped the use of environment. Jerry Walters' use of ramps and cargo nets controlled the scale of movement, as Jo Landor's selection of litter determined how each performer actually moved, and Patric Hickey's use of light, which he was free to select at will, very often controlled not only what the audience could choose to see but at times the spots to which the performers had to go. As you can see, Esposizione allowed each collaborator the use of his skills to actually determine and shape the piece, and each performer the freedom to invent his own unique manner of accomplishing his task within the physical obstacles and time limits.

KOSTELANETZ — Didn't you extend this idea into Parades and Changes [1964] ?

HALPRIN — Yes. Parades and Changes stresses the collaborative aspects of working together with artists of different media. This has allowed a new development. In Parades and Changes, the influences from the collaborative artists have been stronger than before. The result is really a collective theatre piece. kostelanetz — What other categories of artists are involved? halprin — Two musicians, a lighting person, a sculptor, a painter, myself, and, of course, each individual performer plays a creative role too. Right now we are trying to incorporate a film-maker. kostelanetz — How, for instance, do you work with a sculptor? halprin — Charles Ross has been a collaborative sculptor. He, like all the others, is in on all the planning from start to finish. He will define the over-all structural qualities of the theatre; i.e., when we went to Hunter College to look at two theatres, he looked at one and said "This is an open meadow"; the other, "This is mountains." Chuck would continue to analyze the total space and set for all of us a visual image which is based upon the essence of the spatial statement of the theatre. He may go further and envision ways of creating a large-scale environment for an independent event that would engage himself and other performers. For instance, one time Chuck directed the performers to bring all the separate parts of a scaffold plus horrendous sheets of plastic and several extension ladders through the aisles, up onto the open stage area; and he then began to construct a mammoth object out of these materials. The performers were directed to move up and into the materials as he continued to build. Every performance would be different depending on the theatre and the materials and also how far the management would let us go. In Stockholm we were able to mount the battens and be lifted as we moved on them all the way up and out of sight. We haven't had permission to do that anywhere else. In Europe we have more freedom to use the theatres in ways we choose. Here, we have been terribly restricted.

KOSTELANETZ — If the sculptor sets the stage, how, say, does the painter fit?

HALPRIN — In different ways. Jo Landor very often will function as a general coordinator. She has a good eye, and her ideas, like Patric Hickey's, extend into every area of the production. kostelanetz — Who did the music for Parades and Changes? halprin — Morton Subotnick. Also, Folke Rabe composed pieces for the Swedish performances. Morton had a lot to do with evolving systems of scoring that gave us freedom to mix our media in many different ways. The scoring systems are highly technical and too difficult to describe briefly. The important thing is that group collaboration plus the openness of the over-all formal structure creates a marvelous complexity and diversity produced by many different attitudes interacting together. The results are often new forms not one of us alone would have found.

KOSTELANETZ — How is Apartment Six [1965] different from this? halprin — Apartment Six is a piece developed by A. A. Leath, John Graham, and myself as performers; Patric Hickey on lights and Charles Ross, who shapes the element of time by beginning, in view of the audience, to build a papier-maché animal and finishing it at the end. We used a domestic setting familiar to anyone. We listened to the radio, cooked food and ate it, read the newspaper, and carried on conversation. Inevitably, because we are ourselves, something happened between us. We may have laughed or argued, cajoled or teased; and, because we are dancers by training, we moved considerably. Apartment Six is a fiction; but all the while, the fiction was real. The whole piece was a curious use of the element of realism. In rehearsals, John Graham, A. A. Leath, and myself had to devise a special signal to indicate that we really had stopped. The distinction between what was real in life and what was part of the play was completely broken down. We improvised entirely for the whole evening, eventually giving sixteen performances of the piece. However, it took ten years of training together, developing specific skills in use of movement and voice, as well as an understanding of an entire system of aesthetics before we were able to do this piece. Parades and Changes depends on more external process than Apartment Six, which is unstructured and depends on an internal process. The intention of the work was to remove any separation from life and art in a very personal and individual way. The project had echoes of psychodrama in it, and I'm still involved in learning how to integrate these elements into an art process.

KOSTELANETZ — How many people are in your entire group for, say, Parades and Changes?

HALPRIN — Originally we had a small, unchanging company of people ranging in age from eight years old to forty-four years old with five to eight people performing. The nucleus of performers was John Graham, A. A. Leath, Daria Lurie, Rana Schuman, and myself. Simone Whitman performed in several of our major works. Now the performing company consists entirely of young people between eighteen and twenty-five. Being young, the group is forever changing and this forces me to find new ways to work. However, the Dancers' Workshop Company is constantly drawing upon new people in music and the visual arts. Change happens so fast that what I'm describing now about the group may change again by the time this interview is printed. This seems a reflection of a period we're in; and adjusting to such rapid changes in the group will lead to changes in the kinds of things that will begin to happen.

KOSTELANETZ — In what directions will the mixed-means theatre go? halprin — Two fantastically important phenomena have burst upon the scene within a few months of each other, and these most clearly and colorfully indicate an answer to this question. One took place in San Francisco and the other in New York City. I'd like to tell you first about the one event in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park [January, 1967] by quoting lines from an article, "The Tribes Gather for a Yea-Saying" by Ralph Gleason, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle the next day.

There they were. At least 20,000 and maybe mote, in the greatest nonspecific mass meeting in years, perhaps ever.

The costumes were a designer's dream, a wild polyglot mixture of Mod, Palladin, Ringling Brothers, Cochise and Hells Angels' Formal.

No one was selling anything. The lone refreshment wagon was 'way down in the underpass at mid-field. There were no drunks. That's right. No drunks.

As the sun set and the bands played and the people glowed, Buddha's

voice came over the sound system, asking everyone to stand up and turn towards the sun and watch the sunset. Later, lie asked everyone to help clean up the debris and they did.

And so it ended, the first of the great gatherings. No fights. No drunks. No trouble. Two policemen on horseback and 20,000 people.

I am aware of similar happenings that have taken place in New York City, such as in September [1966], the attempt in Central Park. The difference was that, where the event just didn't come off in Central Park, something really happened in the Golden Gate. Here the scene is //. No one has to put on a performance or make it happen. It happens of its own accord. Here in San Francisco people aren't afraid to let go, have fun, and show their feelings even if it is naive.

The other important event I'm thinking about was the nine evenings in theatre and engineering that began October 13, 1966 in New York City at the 69th Regiment Armory. As the brochure points out, "One of the problems of the contemporary artist is that everyone knows what art is." To experiment in the meshing of art and technology is, like the "Human Be-In Happening" in San Francisco, to me a direction of enormous potential. It appears to me that artists and audience are at a threshold of a most exciting period. James Brough-ton, a poet friend of mine who has known my work for the past ten years, said to me after the recent happening at the Golden Gate, "They've caught up with you. Now how do you define your task?" kostelanetz — Which is what?

HALPRIN — I feel like I'm taking a risk to talk about what hasn't happened yet. Therefore, I can only speak in very general terms. For the past few years I've been more and more concerned about redefining the role of the audience. Ideally, each individual person in an audience should be deeply affected by what takes place in the theatre. I've spent a lot of time and energy exploring the internal processes of a work that deeply affect the performers; now I'd like to find more ways and means of defining processes that affect the audience. What I'm against is a personal statement that remains so introspective, private, esoteric, and abstract that it leaves an audience playing guessing games. What I'm for is a collective statement based on the need for audience and performers to be assembled; so that what occurs is a process that evolves out of both the moment and all the people there.

KOSTELANETZ — Do you want more direct reactions from your audience?

HALPRIN — Yes, I do. But I don't mean that a performance should flip someone out and send him charging onto the stage, crashing into the performers, snatching a lantern and nearly setting us afire. This actually happened when we performed recently at the University of California in Berkeley. I once attended a midnight performance in Zagreb given by John Cage. I hardly heard anything that Cage presented because the audience heckled him with such noise. This kind of hostility is not what I consider desirable, either as a performer or an audience member.

An experiment that I once did with an audience of fifty people explored a way of using direct reactions from an audience. A. A. Leath, John Graham, Patric Hickey, Daria Lurie, and I selected some ideas and materials and interacted in a spontaneous manner, evolving a performance as we went along. The audience was given paper and pencil and asked to write whatever was going on in their minds as a direct reaction to what we as performers were doing. At the end of the performance we collected their responses and invited any of them to a subsequent session where their responses would be read aloud and organized into a script. We selected responses, put them on separate cards, indicated time intervals; then we decided that at the next performance we would select a person from the audience, costume him, place him on a platform, and have him read from these cards. The performers would in turn respond to what the cards contained as their directions for selecting whatever was to be .performed. The person from the audience was called "The Mouth." If a card contained a direction like "Make me cry," this would cut into whatever was going on and force the performers to use that direction in some way. In essence, this experiment was an attempt to allow the internal process of creation to be shared by the audience. Audience and performer mutually evolved their own production. This worked fine with an audience of fifty people. Other ways and means need to be found for audiences of 1,000 and in formal theatres. I'm still searching. The larger the audience, the more I think we are forced to cope more specifically with external processes.

KOSTELANETZ — Throughout this piece the audience retained its spectator's position?

HALPRIN — Yes, they did. However, their seating was arranged in groupings that permitted the performers to use a multiplicity of areas scattered like islands throughout the space.

KOSTELANETZ — This raises the question of where and how your art ultimately relates to life.

HALPRIN — I wouldn't dare attempt to give an absolute answer to that question. I can describe a project my husband and I did with our respective summer-school groups, that touches upon this question. About fifty of us were at a driftwood beach on the seacoast. My husband planted a stick in the sand and gave a simple direction. "Use only driftwood as your material and build a structure for yourself to use. Stay within a 150-foot radius of this center." Some people chose to work by themselves, some in teams, or couples. In each instance a unique statement evolved—a personal and imaginative driftwood structure. As the momentum and energy of the work process built up, more and more connections between structures were made. Finally, in only three hours, a city was built. What I got out of this process was that while each individual was working with maximum freedom to build his own individual structure, all these diverse individual parts came together into a total structure on its own accord, without any formalized planning. The city that took form evolved as a natural flow of the process, and the result was a configuration, a structure by itself independent of the many independent individual parts within. Like Nature in its inner operation, this process from start to finish gave to every moment its own validity, excitement, involvement, and interest. There was constant discovery, change and flux; performers and audience were the same. The main idea which impressed me was that the working process was both a life process and an art process, the two being interchangeable.

KOSTELANETZ — Do you regard one of your works as being better than another?

HALPRIN — No, I don't. That question resembles evaluating a human being's growth—is it better at eighteen than five, or better at forty or twenty? For me it isn't better or worse—just different. kostelanetz — How do you evaluate other people's works? halprin — I don't evaluate other people's work. I'm not a critic. But I do analyze my own work all the time. I have my own criteria for selection and decision-making which is based on my attitude

toward the evolving schemes that allow process to become form. Process must include the possibilities of change, flexibility, diversity, growth, interaction, and a lot of other notions yet to be identified. To me, anything, anything at all, is beautiful if it generates process or is useful in some way. Of course, all of this hinges on what your intentions are to begin with.

KOSTELANETZ — Do you consider your pieces dance or theatre? halprin — I prefer not to categorize at all. Certainly, in the traditional sense, however, my work is not considered "dance." kostelanetz — Are most of your pieces, in my categories, staged happenings?

HALPRIN — Many of the pieces, like the one I described we did this summer, are not staged at all. They are events that take place usually out-of-doors, like the fifty automobiles on the Embarcadero, Union Square at noon, a day of silence for fifty people, a walk through the woods, the slope, Hyde Street, the bus terminal, McClure's Beach, driftwood city, bathing, etc., etc. It's only when I perform in an actual theatre building that I do staged happenings. One critic in Stockholm called the performance presented there "a disciplined happening." kostelanetz — Are your pieces preordained? Can they be repeated in more or less precise patterns?

HALPRIN — None can ever be repeated in a precise pattern, but different pieces have different degrees of unpredictability. Apartment Six is completely unpredictable and changes enormously each time performed. Parades and Changes can be fairly well preordained once a sequence has been agreed upon, but it will, in turn, completely change each time it is done in a different theatre.