“Marfa Sounding: Anna Halprin,”
Performa Magazine, June 21, 2017
How does the body register the space between places? This question is a preoccupation of both choreography and minimalist art. The experience of some distances exceeds their measurement, like the 2000-mile trip from Brooklyn to Marfa, Texas. Three weeks ago, I traveled to the tiny West Texas town (population: 1,981) for Marfa Sounding: Anna Halprin, a three-day program (May 26–28) honoring the Northern California-based choreographer. The journey took me around 14 hours: two New York subway lines, a New Jersey Transit train, two flights, and a 200-mile drive. But the full enormity of the distance didn’t strike me until my flight’s final descent into El Paso. Roused from a catnap in my window seat, I snapped open the hot shade to reveal an area of gently gridded desert as far as I could see. A few minutes later, sparse shrubs and low-lying buildings zoomed into view. After landing, I jumped in my rental car and set off, amid the hardness of the Chihuahuan desert landscape’s flat-topped mountains and arid expanses Although Marfa’s outsize presence in the art world has been crafted by Donald Judd, this feeling of venturing to the edge where nature and culture met, felt in line with Halprin’s work of translating personal sensation to movement.
Marfa Sounding: Anna Halprin was the second of three yearly festivals devoted to performance practitioners whose work intersects with (and complicates) the history of minimalism. (In line with the “Sounding” title, the 2016 edition honored the experimental composer Alvin Lucier; next year’s program will include the work of the Paris-based sound artist Tarek Atoui.) Marfa is home to more a dozen permanent minimalist installations commissioned through Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation. Known since the 1960s for his “specific objects” of serially produced geometric elements, Judd purchased a tract of land in 1979 in Marfa—a town near the Mexican border with a railroad stop and a handful of former military buildings. Judd and his artist friends, including Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain, created site-specific works for Marfa’s architecture and landscape. Curated by Jennifer Burris Staton, Marfa Sounding: Anna Halprin brought Halprin’s choreographic practice into conversation with Judd’s art. Rather than simply presenting her work, the five events comprising Marfa Sounding included screenings, a movement class, an interpretation of one of her works by the New York–based choreographer Stephen Petronio, and a commissioned performance by dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener (with Phillip Greenlief). Marfa Sounding framed Halprin’s importance through a transmission of her ideas, across bodies, generations, time and space.
Halprin—now 96 years old—continues to inspire through her legacy and ongoing work (though unable to attend Marfa Sounding, on June 4th, she hosted her thirty-sixth annual Planetary Dance for peace on, and with, the Earth at Califronia's Mt. Tamalpais State Park.) Beginning in the 1960s, her exploration of task-based and everyday motion laid the foundation for postmodern dance. She moved to Marin County, California after World War II, where her husband, the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, constructed an outdoor deck attached to their home as a dance space framed by the forest just outside. There, Halprin started teaching dancers like Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer, as well as artists like John Cage and later, Carrie Mae Weems. Her company, the San Francisco Dancers Workshop, moved dance out of the proscenium theater, from city streets to airplane hangars. While some of Halprin’s students went on to form the Judson Dance Theater in 1962 and work with score-based performance in New York, Halprin remained on the West Coast, creating work addressing such themes as racial injustice, environmental degradation, AIDS, and aging. Her teaching practice has received as much recognition, if not more, than her own work. She was thus a fitting choice for Marfa Sounding, which was co-presented by the pedagogical organization Fieldwork Marfa (a collaboration between The School of Fine Arts of Nantes, HEAD–Geneva, and the School of Art at the University of Houston) and the performance organization Marfa Live Arts.
There’s an element of transgression in bringing Halprin’s work—ephemeral, collaborative, and engaged with questions of social justice—into a town dominated by the permanent installations at Chinati. These works uphold values of abstraction and timelessness as much as they deny certain aspects of the diversity of human experience (for instance, Roni Horn is the only woman represented in the Chinati holdings). Still, there are ties as bind Halprin’s practice to Judd’s. Like Judd, Halprin rejected the narrative grandiosity of modernism, epitomized in dance by such performers as Martha Graham. Both artists also adhere to site-specificity and took value in cultivating spaces that might inspire the creativity of other artists.
In Jacqueline Caux’s 2006 documentary on Halprin, Who Says I Have to Dance in a Theater?, Halprin details how she arrived at her somatic vocabulary. Trained in kinesiology as well as dance, she creates feedback between emotions and movement, considering “how that material could be shaped artistically.” In the 1960s, her dancers often performed ordinary movements in the nude (as in the score-based work Parades and Changes, 1965–67); following her 1969 performance Ceremony of Us, working with black and white dancers to process the racial divide following the Watts riots, her work of the 1970s and ‘80s engaged populations such as cancer and AIDS patients. In her 80s, she addressed such questions as “How can I die gracefully?” and “What’s the legacy I want to leave behind?” This documentary includes clips from works such as Embracing Earth (Andy Abrahams Wilson’s 1995 film of dancers on Halprin’s property, slowly moving through the woods or suspended from trees in amniotic-looking mesh), and Intensive Care (a dance from 2000 about illness and death). One of the several documentaries screened in Marfa, the film was projected in Building 98, an adobe structure that once served as Army bachelor officers’ quarters and a home for World War II–era German prisoners of war. Today the building serves as headquarters of the International Women’s Association devoted to art and healthy aging.
Halprin’s ideas were shown and also enacted. At the community space the Crowley Theater, dancer Nina Martin held a morning workshop based on the tenets of Halprin’s practice: that movement can be a way to relate to one’s environment. A Marfa resident, Martin has created postmodern dance and experimental theater since the 1970s. “I am the body, and the body wants,” Martin said, as she introduced the participants (myself included) to two movement exercises. For several minutes, we writhed intuitively on the stage like fussy babies, redirecting our movements to avoid choreographic completion. For the “sibling dance,” Martin threw open the stage’s back door. Sunlight and dry heat flooded the black box, erasing the illusion of an imaginary theatrical space. We chose partners and pushed each other, back to back; rather than traditional mirroring exercises of improvisation, we challenged ourselves on the level of weight and balance.
Later that evening, Stephen Petronio (a longtime friend of Martin’s) embodied Halprin’s spirit, dancing The Courtesan and the Crone (1999). Lit from behind, Petronio approached the audience, moving downstage in a cape and mask. He executed dramatic, angular gestures of seduction: beckoning with his hands, then revealing fishnet stockings and red bikini briefs under his golden cape. At the conclusion of the performance, he stripped to a white slip. Horrified with his elderly appearance, he looked to the sky, hands clasped to his face, before crumpling to the ground. Later, in a conversation with Martin and curator Jennifer Burris following the performance, Petronio explained that Halprin had selected the score-based dance for him to perform after visiting her in California. He has since performed it at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia (as part of a collaboration with Halprin and artist Janine Antoni) and in the multipart series Bloodlines at the Joyce Theater, a kind of “autobiography through dance,” in which his company stages historical works that shaped his artistic development. The program has also included works by artists like Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, who hired Petronio as the first male dancer in her company in 1979. Since the 1980s, Petronio has developed his own work on themes such as gay sexuality, the AIDS crisis and aggression, abandoning the anti-spectacular doctrines of the Judson Theater. In Petronio’s interpretation, the message of The Courtesan and the Crone—that sexuality can function as a site of both power and loss—becomes radically reconfigured.
The weekend concluded with a new improvisational work by Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, accompanied by experimental musician Phillip Greenlief. Formerly dancers for Merce Cunningham—a friend of Halprin’s—Mitchell and Riener have collaborated since 2010. A generation removed from Petronio, they carry on a legacy informed both by ‘90s body politics and ‘70s dance. Their improvisational performance, roughly structured in three movements, took place just outside Marfa, on 20 acres of land purchased by Fieldwork Marfa for art studios and housing for resident artists and students. Based on Claude Bragdon’s architecture in harmony with nature, Mitchell and Riener’s sunset performance included movements based on animals (jumping like jackrabbits), extensions, contact improvisation, and voguing. Greenlief moved with them through the field, blowing lightly through his saxophone reed, the majority of sound coming from his fingers on the keys. In the work’s final minutes, Mitchell performed with a disco ball, swinging it like a low pendulum and then holding it tightly between his legs: the clock, sex, birth. Riener passed yucca branches to members of the audience, recalling a scene from Anna Halprin’s performance of Still Dance, and bringing us into dialogue with the dancers and the field. This unity between performers and audience honored Halprin’s ethos.
After leaving Marfa, I spent a few days in Miami, trying to reconcile my time in the bleached-out desert among tropical vegetation, brilliant skies, and unrelenting humidity. There, I binge-watched I Love Dick, Jill Soloway’s TV adaptation of Chris Kraus’s 1997 epistolary novel-as-feminist-theory. Transposed to Marfa (the book is set in LA, among other places), the series played upon the town’s cinematic cowboy image. Love-interest Dick—evidently modeled on the stereotype of a minimalist artist—was manly and dismissive; narrator Chris—an avatar for Kraus—was a tortured woman hysterical with desire. The feminism of Soloway’s show was not always triumphant, and the depiction of Marfa is reductive, but the final scene held some promise. Chris walks into the desert, failed but defiant, menstrual blood dripping down her leg. Her fluids marked the space between her body and the land, much like Halprin’s dancers sought communion with the nature that surrounded them. I pondered whether Soloway knew Halprin’s work, but decided it didn’t matter: either way, her message carried through, of movement as performance, of performance as political.