When UC Berkeley's University Art Museum (now known as the Berkeley Art Museum, or BAM) first opened its doors in November 1970, Peter Selz, the new institution's director, wanted to make a big splash -- but not too big. He invited Anna Halprin, already a storied figure as the conceptual matriarch of postmodern dance, to present her signature piece, "Parades and Changes," as part of the building's inauguration. But as Halprin recalls, Selz was nervous about her use of nudity in the dance and suggested several remedies for potential controversy.
"We were very avant-garde, as everything in the Bay Area was, and we were introducing nudity and thought nothing of it," Halprin said in a recent phone conversation from her home in Marin. "Peter asked, 'Do you think you can put leotards on, or at least dim the lights?' As brave as he was, he was worried about his board."
The dancers disrobed as planned, and no scandal ensued. These days, nudity in dance rarely raises an eyebrow, but Halprin's approach to movement is still provocative, opening up new possibilities for dancers and choreographers to explore the creative process. Vibrant as ever at 92, she brings a new (and final) incarnation of "Parades and Changes" to BAM on Feb. 15-17 as part of MATRIX 246, a program that includes scores, photographs and other documentation of "Parades and Changes" history.
As the driving force behind the San Francisco Dancers' Workshop, Halprin pioneered site-specific dance happenings and introduced everyday movement into choreography, innovations often associated with artists who studied with her, such as Judson Dance Theater founders Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer. Those Workshop experiments in the late 1950s and early '60s rarely found their way to formal settings, which is one reason "Parades and Changes" made such a big impact.
"For all of us artists in the Bay Area at that time, it was of the utmost importance to disinherit what we had and find our own way," Halprin said.
"I wanted to disinherit modern dance, because it didn't suit my needs and express my philosophy. It was based on idiosyncratic movement styles. Why should I try to look like Martha Graham?"
First presented in Sweden in 1965, "Parades and Changes" crystallized Halprin's revolutionary approach to structuring a piece and showcased her gift for collaborating with other experimental-minded artists. Previous versions incorporated activities such as stomping, handling everyday objects, ripping paper, unfurling large sheets of plastic, engaging with audience members and, most famously, undressing and dressing.
In bringing "Parades and Changes" back to BAM, she's working with pioneering electronic music composer Morton Subotnick, with whom she collaborated on the original version. Her creative team also includes previous creative partners such as choreographer and associate director Shinichi Iova-Koga, lighting designer Jim Cave and vocalist/dancer Dohee Lee.
They've spent the past two months developing a new version of "Parades and Changes," often rehearsing at BAM in order to shape the piece to the building's contours and acoustics. Many of the artists involved have trained through the Life/Art Process she teaches at the Tamalpa Institute she founded in the late 1970s with her daughter, Daria. Consisting of nine episodes, the piece is a series of activities that take place over a given period of time.
"I don't show them a movement," she said. "I give them an idea and say 'What will you do with this?' It starts with introducing each dancer in their own way. Each does their own signature piece, so every performance has been different."
From the outside, her methodology can sound loosey-goosey, but Halprin doesn't believe in improvisation or leaving things to chance. Some dances are based on closed scores, where she and the dancers determine precisely what will take place in the piece. Others are based on open scores, where dancers have to make decisions at particular junctures, based on a predetermined series of options. Dena Beard, BAM's assistant curator, describes "Parades and Changes" as balanced, but "more closed than open."
"People consider her very touchy-feely, because she's such an effective emotional mentor and leader," said Beard, who programmed MATRIX 246. "But she's very rigorous. The entire workshop process is about creating parameters, instructions to discipline yourself. This process she started exploring more than 50 years ago has reached its epitome today. It's really about showing how you can interrupt habits."
At the 1965 Stockholm premiere of "Parades and Changes," Halprin didn't worry about controversy, safe in Sweden's more tolerant attitudes toward nudity. The disrobing only featured in one section of the dance, which she called "a ceremony of trust, an unmasking." Rather than adding shock value, the unclothed dance reached people who weren't normally moved by contemporary dance. She recalls a farmer who saw the piece on a national television broadcast writing to her that it "reminded me of my newborn calf, innocent and blessed."
Back in sophisticated San Francisco, the company was greeted by the headline "The No Pants Dancers Return."
While the Feb. 16 performance is sold out, tickets, at $7-$10, are still available for Feb. 15 and 17. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Details: 510-642-0808.
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
celebrated Barrio, the company presents "La Noche
Quebrada." Feb. 8, 8 p.m., Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, $22-$58, 510-642-9988, www.calperformances.org.