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A 94-Year-Old Choreographer's Life on the Move

Anna Halprin shares the things she has carried with her. 

Anna Halprin

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“My lighting designer, Patric Hickey, gave me these gloves. They were worn at President Lincoln’s famous speech, the Gettysburg Address.”

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“My husband and I collected masks from all over—Japan, Korea, and Africa. Masks are representations of the gods.”

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“This shofar is made from a ram’s horn and covered in inscriptions. Tribal leaders used to blow it from the mountaintop to announce the New Year.”

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“A former student of mine made this instrument. You can bang it, slap it, or pluck it—each nail makes a different sound.”

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“My parents brought this samovar with them when they emigrated from Russia. It’s probably close to 200 years old.”

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“I made these dolls out of dried seaweed. Larry was the real artist—a landscape architect and painter—but I make things from time to time.”

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“This ancient copper amulet is from Israel. It’s inscribed in Hebrew and worn for protection.”

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“The puppet is a gift from Italy. We did an exposition with the Italian composer Luciano Berio at the opera house in Venice.”

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“This yarn painting was given to me by a Huichol shaman, Don José Matsuwa, who was part of our community performances.”

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"The artist Sylvia Fein painted this portrait of my husband and me at the University of Wisconsin, when I was 19 and he was 23. She was just starting out as a painter then—now she’s very well known.”

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“I’ve had this music box since I was five years old, growing up in a honky-tonk town in Illinois.”

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“I’ve been using tribal powwow drums for the past 35 years when we do the Planetary Dance.”

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“My younger daughter, Rana, lived with gypsies in Spain for two years to learn flamenco dancing.”

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“I have 16 Palestinian dresses covered in incredible embroidery. Each one is a masterpiece. I used to wear them in the ’60s.”

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“This 2,000-year-old ancient glass was discovered at burials in the Judean Hills. It’s so precious.”

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Postmodern dance legend Anna Halprin, 94, has always been moved to perform by forces greater than herself. As a child growing up in Winnetka, Illinois, she often visited her grandfather, a Hasidic Jew, at synagogue. “I would sit in the balcony and watch him below—clapping, jumping, and singing with his long white beard,” she remembers, “and I thought that was what God looked like. I said, ‘Oh, God’s a dancer.’”

Though she studied dance as a child, Halprin didn’t develop her signature experimental style until entering the University of Wisconsin. There, an epiphany was spurred not by a fellow dancer, but by a biology professor. “We were required to do dissections,” she says. “That was what gave me a real understanding of flexion and extension and rotation.”

Over the ensuing 70 years, Halprin’s radical, expressive approach to dance has spawned 150 full-length dance theater works and inspired thousands of students, many of whom attend training programs at her Kentfield studio—its 6,000-square-foot open-air dance deck was designed by her late husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. This July, students from around the world will perform 95 rituals in honor of Halprin’s 95th birthday. (As might be expected of a woman with five honorary PhDs, her admirers are legion.)

“I’ve always used dance as a way to praise, mourn, celebrate, and connect in a very primal way,” Halprin says. In the slideshow above, she shared a lifetime’s worth of worldly keepsakes in her Marin home, from a stone Yoda (a gift from George Lucas) to her mother’s wedding dress, worn in the photograph above.

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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