American dance pioneer Anna Halprin’s often-controversial career subject of ‘Breath Made Visible’

Art, in its purest form, isn’t about money or fans or Facebook liking or even about making sense to anyone in particular. It’s about the artist doing whatever he or she feels like to move an inner vision of reality into the outside world.

Some people paint, some people write, some people sew, and some people even macramé. There’s no doubt that art is a therapeutic process that makes those people feel better. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee what every artist does will make others feel the same way.

“Breath Made Visible” concerns Anna Halprin, a woman who has been expressing her own inner universe through dance for some 80 years. She says she always loved dancing “just for fun,” and that when she was 5 her mother enrolled her in ballet classes. Young Anna didn’t have what it took to meet the rigid strictures of classical dance, and so she was laughed out of class. Fortunately, she was living during the early days of modern dance, and was enrolled in a place where she could freestyle to her heart’s content and everyone thought she was fantastic.

The documentary screens Friday and Saturday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

As a young woman, Halprin got more involved in modern and interpretive dance, eventually adopting a style that could be described as a sort of kinetic impressionism. Back in the early days, she was interested in telling more or less straight narrative tales with movement, but over time, the stories became progressively abstract, even controversial.

In an especially Jackson Pollock-esque moment, Halprin and crew got international attention by slowly undressing to Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” Once disrobed, the group would move on to tearing up huge swaths of butcher paper, accompanied by “In My Room” by The Beach Boys. It isn’t clear whether it was the popular music that made this compelling back in the ’60s or just the bewbz; one supposes it could have been either or both.

The dancing parts in “Breath Made Visible” are actually incidental, serving mostly as an expression of and a means for framing Halprin’s personality. As pretentious and downright strange as her work come off at times, one has to admire the absolute sense of importance she holds for herself and her role as an artist.

As the decades go by, she dedicates herself to addressing various social ills such as racism after the Watts riots of 1965, the Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic in the late ’80s, and helping the elderly retain a sense of dignity and liveliness in their waning years.

Even when she’s rolling around on a beach wrapped in panty hose, it’s obvious that even if what she’s doing makes no sense to you, it makes perfect sense to Halprin. This absolute conviction is what makes her what she claims to be, a “pure” artist, breaking every boundary she can find.
There may not be anything especially meaningful on the other side, but it’s entertaining to watch her nonetheless. “Mike Robertson

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