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.

When I arrived opening night of the workshop, entering our dance dome above the sea, I was shy and overly anxious to gain the attention of my heroine once again! So many diverse people were in the room, some flocking from as far as Russia, Germany, Israel, Sweden, Argentina, and Korea. Not only was this an international gathering, but a truly inter-generational meeting of inspired artists and humans. Upon exploring some initial movement exercises and scores, I quickly noted a vast range of expression — exquisitely trained professional dancers mixed equally with novice and aging movers — and everything in between. Regardless of our differences, EVERYONE was made welcome, to dance and express and be as authentic as possible with each other. Part of the magic of Anna is her commitment to making the art of dance accessible and creatively interesting to all.

Early on in the workshop, we were instructed by Anna’s magnetic co-teacher, Dohee Lee, to actively and decisively choose who we wanted to be with (not just the people closest to us) as our support team. I had already clocked the Martha Graham dancer, the wild blonde German artist and the older male choreographer with dark curly hair as points of interest to me – so I grabbed them all. It turns out the choreographer, Dani, has a fierce resume that includes choreographing the Academy Awards and co-founding Momix. The Graham dancer is a professor and choreographer. The German is a filmmaker and storyteller. They became my home within the larger collective workshop home over the next many days. The creative exercises we engaged in during this time instigated a tremendous development of trust and transparency amongst us as we all found our expressive peaks and edges together. Not only were we sharing movement practice together, we were drawing and making sound (less cultivated arts for me), as well as being led into intimate dialogue sessions and wild improvisations. In constructing this central trusted core, there was a way in which the collective was also influenced. We were like concentric egalitarian support circles that created an overall atmosphere of experimentation, risk and trust. To me the workshop took on a life beyond creative practice into greater social commentary. We were listening more, following more, equal parts passive and active, present and engaged. At the same time we were also learning really pragmatic somatic techniques for healthy movement from a master of aging in the body.

Tomoko Hiraoka (left), An Halprin (center), Dohee Lee. Photo courtesy Mizu Desierto

Tomoko Hiraoka (left), An Halprin (center), Dohee Lee. Photo courtesy Mizu Desierto

One quality I have always appreciated about Anna, which I have witnessed in both my time spent with her and in the films made about her, is her no-bullshit approach to everything. She is inspired and compassionate, yet earthy, uncensored, and unafraid. Toward the conclusion of the workshop, we were preparing together to offer Anna’s Planetary Dance to the larger Esalen community. Part of what it means to participate in this dance ritual is to dedicate your dancing to something that is relevant to you, yet bigger than you. I was thinking about my own experiences with control, abuse and domination in my life. However, I often feel the need to be diplomatic (and thus unclear). When Anna asked me what I would be dancing for, I told her, “for the healing of the masculine and feminine energies in the world.” She immediately reproached me.

“What does that mean, masculine-feminine energy? That does not mean anything, really! You need to be more specific about what you are dancing for. It needs to be clear. It needs to be something we can all understand!”

A little wounded by the disapproval of my teacher, I pondered it all for a while longer and I got a little bit more honest. I decided that I would dance for “the safety and protection of women of all ages around the world.” Anna concurred this would work. Not only did she seem to appreciate my clarified conviction, she surprisingly asked me to begin the ritual that night, which was humbling yet also a significant affirmation of my presence there and the deepening of our personal connection.

As the larger community began to enter the dome and mix with the smaller and now intimate workshop community, we were led in a number of playful and almost tribal dances, joining hands with one another through rhythm and celebration. Once again, everyone was welcome – the 20-something anarchists who smelled of wine and marijuana, the 70-something men with stiff joints … kids, professionals, weirdo commune folk, and the rest of us.

When the time came for the planetary dance to begin, I proudly took my place as the initiator and called forth my intention loud and clear. As soon as I entered into the circle running, I could feel that I would offer every last ounce of my energy that night if it meant that my dancing made even the tiniest difference. I decided to let go of my inner skeptic and believe in the power of the ritual. Behind me entered at least 100 more people, all dancing for causes vital and important to their own healing as well as the planetary healing. Israelis dancing for peace … Germans dancing for forgiveness for their ancestors … it was all incredibly moving. As each participant joined, we created concentric circles of movement in opposing directions around the center of the drums and Anna. All of us danced for a good amount of time, constantly passing one another, planting our feet into the ground, following the rhythm, joining our eyes and movements — each dedicated to our particular cause for healing. I poured myself into every moment and was taken by the energy in that way when you know you are no longer in control and exhaustion becomes fuel.

At the point that Anna finally called an end to the ritual, I collapsed into a pool of sweetly enveloping sensation and emotion. In that moment, suspended from disbelief, I experienced a profoundly empathic state. I felt as though I was somehow able to feel and process the enormous suffering of women throughout the world and throughout my life, and my commitment to being part of the healing and protection of women took on a new vigor that is still with me today. Somehow and someway this ritual dancing was undeniably a catharsis…and not only for myself.

To spend a week around the spitfire that is Anna Halprin, with her penetrating artistic life force and a social will that is still unstoppable,  is a life-altering experience. I have no doubt that this grand-mere of revolutionary contemporary dance practice is the founder of a movement that will flourish for generations to come, and I hereby vow to carry the torch however best I can. Long after her mammoth presence, searing intelligence, no-bullshit ethics and prodigious wit are no longer with us, her work and legacy will go on. And if I happen to be so lucky to live to be the age of Anna Halprin today, I also hereby promise to continue on one of my favorite Anna mannerisms: as we were finishing our week together and the crowd reverently applauded and adored her, she grabbed her crotch in a perfected mimicry of Michael Jackson Thriller choreography. Life is Art. Long Live Anna.








Comments are closed.