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Film Review

'Breath Made Visible
A film about dance pioneer Anna Halprin by Swiss director/producer Ruedi Gerber
Screened at the Washington Jewish Film Festival at the Embassy of Switzerland

reviewed by Carmel Morgan

Anna Halprin, who is now 91 years old, is a monumental figure in the contemporary dance world, and director/producer Ruedi Gerber’s documentary film about her life, “Breath Made Visible,” is an impressive tribute to this amazing woman. The film covers her dance career, which remains ongoing. It features plenty of archival footage of Anna Halprin’s dances, which takes viewers on a fascinating historical trip through decades of social change and creativity, with Anna fearlessly moving forward with the times. The film also focuses closely on Anna’s relationship with her incredibly supportive husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who built Anna the famous redwood deck/stage where dance classes, workshops, and performances have long taken place. Her late husband has to be given a great deal of credit for helping to make marriage and raising a family compatible with a Anna’s passion for dance.

The film opens with Anna Halprin alone on stage, masked and robed and gloved. We do not see her age, until she begins to peel back the layers. Similarly, the film peels back layers, showing us the heart of a creative genius who has dedicated her life to her art. Some common threads in Anna’s work are her concern for our connection with nature and her exploration of death/illness through movement. Her vibrant personality never fails to shine, and that may be the most striking thing about the film and the woman it captures. Anna Halprin is a force of undeniable power. She offers matter-of-fact opinions without apology, but she also shows an extremely gentle side and a real flair for comedy, which in addition to her important contributions to dance combine to make a fantastic film that honors her icon status.

It’s easy to see that Anna was meant to be a dancer. She relates how she was always attracted to movement. She did not, however, successfully fit into ballet classes as a child (no surprise). Instead, she eventually found love when she enrolled in modern dance classes inspired by Isadora Duncan’s technique. We journey with Anna in the film. As she learns and grows, we benefit from her accumulated wisdom. She expresses with genuine enthusiasm that we are all dancers. When there is an opportunity to bring black and white dancers together in the nation’s first integrated dance company, or to present choreography to senior citizens in rocking chairs, Anna is there. She broke through boundaries quite literally, and quite consciously. For example, at a performance in Venice, she ventured from the stage out into the auditorium, evoking a very hostile reaction that resulted in her smiling with delight in retelling the story. Her mission in dance has been to explore limits and go beyond them. Nudity was not a problem, as her troupe was once christened as the “no pants dancers,” which again elicited a huge grin from Anna in the film.

When Anna was diagnosed with cancer, she understandably wanted to dance the disease away, and with fervent effort, she did so. In sharing her personal experience with cancer, she taught others, including AIDS patients, how to use art to cope with illness. It may be as a teacher that Anna’s contributions to dance will be best remembered. She has touched countless lives and inspired many. Among her past students/collaborators are fellow dance luminaries Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Eiko & Koma. “Breath Made Visible” should be mandatory viewing for dance fans, but due to Anna Halprin’s colorful life story, anyone should find it appealing. Gerber’s portrait is moving, and the film is expertly composed. It is truly a wonderful work of art. How lucky we are that the legacy of Anna Halprin has been so well documented. The DVD is presently available through the web at http://www.breathmadevisible.com/?lang=en

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