Radical Bodies

How three choreographers impacted the art world, public space, feminism, and more

Art East
Anna Halprin, The Branch, the Halprins’ dance deck, Kentfield, California, c. 1957: A. A. Leath, Anna Halprin, and Simone Forti. Photograph by Warner Jepson. The Estate of Warner Jepson © by Warner Jepson - 2017. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Anna Halprin, The Branch, the Halprins’ dance deck, Kentfield, California, c. 1957: A. A. Leath, Anna Halprin, and Simone Forti. Photograph by Warner Jepson. The Estate of Warner Jepson © by Warner Jepson - 2017. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

While the creative cross-pollination between Lawrence and Anna Halprin has been in the limelight in recent years, the Radical Bodies exhibition (at the New York Public Library Performing Arts branch) and catalog places much deserved attention on Anna Halprin’s impact as choreographer, performer, radical teacher and activist, as well as that of ‘two’ of her students—Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer. The Radical Bodies story anchors around their encounter on Halprin’s dance deck in 1960 and presents a bi-coastal tale of three women choreographers whose radical visions of bodies impacted and entangled with the art world, political activism, and the cultural shifts between the Cold War and Vietnam War, civil rights and feminist movements.

The exhibition presents photographs, videos, and documentaries, and original scores and drawings by Halprin, Forti, and Rainer. Each of the co-curators—Ninotchka D. Bennahum and Bruce Robertson (both of UC Santa Barbara) and Wendy Perron (formerly with Dance Magazine)—has contributed an essay to the catalog. Bennahum’s essay foregrounds Halprin’s commitment to an “ethic of repair.” Perron discusses the non-dualistic, post-human, and playful currents throughout Simone Forti’s work. Robertson addresses Yvonne Rainer’s relation to minimalism and “play with objects and bodies.” In their introduction, Bennahum and Roberson point out further links between Halprin, Forti, and Rainer: their diasporic experiences translated into activism; their challenging modernist dance doctrine; abandoning narrative and exploring improvisation; acknowledging different identities, bodies and species of movers. Each relocated dance from the theater to alternative spaces and challenged boundaries between dance, performance, sculpture, time-based media, and activism, feminist critique, and political protest.

Anna Halprin, Ceremony of Us, San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop and James Woods’ Studio, Watts, Los Angeles, Calif., 1969. Photo by Susan Landor. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

The exhibition draws our attention to the importance of the dance deck, the relation Forti and Rainer, in particular, had to “the downtown NY scene in the 1960s,” their “actions in public spaces.” The dance deck, designed by Lawrence Halprin with Arch Lauterer, is sited in the forest steps away from the Halprin residence. While mimicking proscenium stage proportions, the deck presented a radically different working environment, enveloping movers in the sounds of wildlife and no mirrored walls. Workshops here cultivated a literal getting in touch with an “organic” understanding of bodies in continuity with the environment. After Rainer’s experience improvising in the wild on Halprin’s dance deck, she, not surprisingly, sought out an alternative environment in which to practice and more regularly and informally present work. The flat floor and non-hierarchical space of the Judson Church gym became the “deck” of the east coast where the downtown community saw and participated in experimental performances.



Ann Halprin’s Parades and Changes (1965). Photographer unknown. Collection of Daria Halprin.

Photographs in the exhibition make evident overlaps within the 60s downtown community between choreographers, visual artists, and composers; between west and east coast; and between those affiliated with pop, fluxus, minimal, and conceptual art. In addition to Rainer sipping drinks with Andy Warhol, we see visual artists Carolee Schneemann, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris as participants and authors of hybrid visual art-dance works. Forti’s Slant Board (1961) materializes the hybridizations of minimal sculpture and task-oriented choreography (and has been reconstructed in the exhibition where you are invited to performed it). Such minimalist sculptural objects and readymades also emerged in Rainer’s work, such as Room Service (1965). Video footage of her Continuous Project-Altered Daily (1970) shows a playful collision between human and material objects, and slow relinquishing of authorship, indexing a cultural shift towards participatory and ‘open’ works. One artifact in particular—a listing similar to Richard Serra’s List of Verbs (1967-68)—caught my eye: Rainer’s List of Actions, Score for WAR (1970). It reads:

Infiltrate                                                                         escalate

unite        (converge)                                                   sweep

subvert                                                                           pursue

liberate                                                                           remove

capture                                                                           swell…

Slippages between scores, instructions, poetry, sculpture, and choreography appear throughout the show, linking these three artists to their cultural moment.

The exhibition and catalog also highlight actions in public spaces linking their work to urbanism and political activism. Halprin’s Blank Placard Dance (1967), in which a procession through city streets by performers carrying blank protest signs, was an important step towards civic engagement performances central to Halprin’s current work. Rainer’s Trio A With Flags (video), Street Action, and WAR (all from 1970) responded to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and to arrests for desecrating the flag. These works nod and wink to Emma Goldman’s statement: “(i)f I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

Peter Moore, Photo of Simone Whitman (Forti), Steve Paxton, and Alex Hay in Whitman’s Two at Once, 1967. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. © Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Performances from Halprin, Forti, and Rainer initiated both the west coast and east coast exhibitions. Forti’s improvisation was full of witty allusions comparing species of fish to the behavior of politicians. At the UC Santa Barbara Rainer performed Concept of Dust (2017), literally a “Continuous Project/Altered Annually,” layering older choreographed fragments with her deadpan reading of recent news. These prepared audiences for the climax—Halprin’s Paper Dance from Parades and Changes (1966-7). The New York performance was particularly eventful given that its last New York appearance in 1967 led to her being issued an arrest warrant for public indecency. The slow undressing and re-dressing of the dancers, while far from shocking today, remains both an exquisite and politically poignant work. New York’s Jody Arnhold can be credited for bringing Halprin’s “radical bodies back to the scene of the crime.” Along with Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, she was radical, rebellious, visionary, and pro-actively dismantling hierarchies. They modeled engaged citizenship as a participatory choreography in public space, and there is no better time than the present to be reminded to get off our asses and dance, dance, dance.

Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955 – 1972 is on view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center through September 16, 2017.

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