The quintessential Left Coast choreographer, Anna Halprin has helped push the boundaries of modern dance since the late 1930s, introducing elements of multimedia, nature, ritual, art therapy and more. Still highly active as an octogenarian, she has her long career and indefatigable personality ably profiled in Swiss director Ruedi Gerber’s “Breath Made Visible.” Engaging portrait is skedded for Stateside release next year by Argot Pictures in conjunction with other events celebrating the subject’s 90th birthday.

Halprin began her professional career in Manhattan, reluctantly leaving that then-supreme U.S. cultural center to join her husband and close collaborator, famed landscape architect Larry Halprin, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet well out of the spotlight and away from an East Coast art establishment’s orthodoxy, her own unconventional ideas soon flourished.

Working (even today) on a vast outdoor stage built on her forested Marin County property, she created sometimes controversial avant-garde pieces in long partnership with A.A. Leath and John Graham (both also alive, well and interviewed here), until she and the latter duo parted ways over her evolving emphasis on dance as ritual. Reunited with them today, she still mourns that separation, saying “I never (again) had the right playmates” to equal their creative partnership.

Yet on her own — albeit with an ever-shifting roster of collaborators including composers, artists, authors, psychotherapists, plus spouse and two daughters — Halprin continued to innovate. She developed a work about racial tensions using African-American dancers from Watts (just after the 1965 riots), which then led to her to found the nation’s likely first multiracial company.

Her children, Daria (Antonioni’s female lead in “Zabriskie Point”) and Rana, make interesting, sometimes rueful comments about growing up in the Halprin household, which became a sort of hippie commune they both participated in and were kept separate from. Expected to maintain good grades, come home at reasonable hours, etc., they nonetheless took full part in myriad performances — including the mid-’60s “Parades and Changes,” whose nudity brought press notoriety and arrest threats.

After Anna suffered near-fatal bouts of cancer in the 1970s, she withdrew from public performance for a time, focusing on developing ideas about dance as healing art. Those are very much present in the latter-day works glimpsed, including ones about AIDS (“Dance for Your Life”) and old age (“Intensive Care,” “Seniors Rocking”), or others danced amid fields, forest and ocean surf. An autobiographical text-with-movement solo threaded throughout the pic records her first New York performance in 28 years. While some of this material looks more cathartic for its participants than rewarding for the spectator, it’s all illustrative in excerpt.

The brisk editorial package covers a lot of ground, and indeed could have been lengthened a bit to fill in biographical blank spots and allow diverging opinions about Halprin’s art. (She has not infrequently attracted critical brickbats.) Assembly is smooth, highlighted by a treasure trove of hitherto little-seen archival performance footage going back more than 50 years.

Breath Made Visible


  • Production: An Argot Pictures (in U.S.) release of a ZAS Films production. Produced by Ruedi Gerber. Co-producer, Mike King. Directed by Ruedi Gerber.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Adam Teichman, Gerber; editors, Francois Dumoulin, C. Peters; music, Mario Grigorov; music supervisor, Beth Rosenblatt; sound (Dolby), Tony Volante; sound editors, Margaret Crimmins, Greg Smith. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival (Valley of the Docs), Oct. 12, 2009. Running time: 80 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Anna Halprin, Lawrence Halprin, John Graham, A.A. Leath, Daria Halprin, Rana Halprin, Merce Cunningham.