Friday, November 20, 2009

In the Flesh: Halprin’s Parades and Changes Replayed at REDCAT

I wasn’t around for the original Parades and Changes, the one that met with police raids for public nudity at its New York premiere by Anna Halprin and company in 1967. And until this past Saturday evening, my impressions of the seminal work were gleaned only from lectures and books and articles, and from one grainy film of Procession (1964) at UCLA – later incorporated as one of the seven or eight sections of Parades. From these secondary sources, I know that the work broke with dance and theater tradition by presenting dancers as themselves, without the conventions and artifice that customarily distance performers comfortably from their actions, bodies and audience. By eliminating the separating spaces, Parades and Changes questioned and muddied the boundaries between dance and everyday movement and between performers and audience members, making it possible for a dancer to walk like a regular person instead of royalty and for regular people to dance.

I know that Parades and Changes lives in the choices available to us in contemporary dance, but I wasn’t there for the shock and outrage at Hunter College in ’67, and even though I’ve heard much about the world Parades emerged from and collided with (it was, after all, my parents’ world), it still seems foreign. Because we boomers’ babies communicate with reserve and skepticism and irony (and hold all we encounter to these universal standards of sophistication), glimpses of the earnestness and tacit trust that characterized many performances of the 60s often leave us flustered and confused, amused or contemptuous. When political performance ensemble The Living Theatre revived the celebrated Vietnam-era Mysteries and Smaller Places in 1994, it flopped because of this very disconnect in communication styles (1), and I admit that I feared Anna Halprin and Anne Collod’s Parades and Changes, Replays might do the same Saturday night at REDCAT. It did not.

They stare out at us with eerie neutrality as they slowly, deliberately unbutton shirts, bend to unzip boots, pull down briefs, and we are the ones exposed – sitting under much-too-bright house lights with our discomfort and embarrassment. Janice Ross writes that, in 1967, dancers performed this task “with the same matter-of-factness they would exhibit if undressing at home” (2), and the honesty and reality of the activity shocked audiences. Balanced on her bare right leg, the woman with the short dark hair stoops forward and slides off her left boot. Without breaking her forward gaze, she draws the left foot back and down into a lunge and deposits the boot silently at her side. Never a scratch, wobble or stubborn button, and always the direct, penetrating, blank stare. Mixed signals shift the action from everyday task to confrontational or seductive performance and back again, and I am confused, disturbed, stripped of my viewing savvy.

Later on when the house lights, thankfully, have dimmed, paired dancers undress in perfect, mirrored unison, and stage technician (Frédéric Fleischer?) stalks between the strangely synchronized duets to unroll the famous brown paper. The improvisational score – a loose choreographic structure Halprin developed in the years leading up to Parades – builds back in just enough theatrical convention (audience in the dark, dancers’ focus on each other, movement ordered) to contrast with Fleischer’s entrance, and I remember that such visibility of production elements and technical collaborators is now a valid directorial choice in part because of this piece. Actions conjure their enormous historical implications throughout the evening and remind us how much the 1967 work has shaped the way we’re watching the 2009 replay. It’s a lovely, mixed-up, celebratory soup we swim through, and our appreciation is amplified by the sad knowledge that Lawrence Halprin – Anna Halprin’s husband and collaborator of nearly 70 years – died just a few weeks ago.

I recognize the brown paper roll, but what follows this set-up is not at all what I expected. Before tonight, when I pictured dancers completing the task of tearing paper into strips, the flat affect and functionality of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A came to mind. I never imagined the beautifully sculptural, sensually delightful, playful and sometimes ironic dance that folds and unfolds between people and paper. This part of Parades seems most obviously a product of the 60s: naked people in sustained slow motion, their bodies glowing honey brown like the paper, enjoying the physical sensations of ripping and crumpling and wrapping as they circle around, rise and fall together. But particularly theatrical lighting and unexpected musical accompaniment by Petula Clark’s “Downtown” for the first minutes of shredding suggest that the dancers’ nudity combined with their concentration on this simple job might be funny.

Although the paper-tearing section runs perhaps the greatest risk of losing me and my callous contemporaries, because it begins with this ironic self-awareness we gladly come along for and luxuriate in the ride that follows. When the paper lies in shreds, the task shifts; dancers gather to the center and toss the strips in flames that flicker and fall in a constant, dazzling fire of activity. This glorious abundance, and the boundless sense of time and pleasure that we relish while the paper’s on stage feel distinctly foreign, and I’m pretty sure this is a taste of the 60s.

The performers set up lines of umbrellas, furry clogs, buckets, hip boots, bonnets and other flea market fare for the Procession section, and what I never noticed in the black and white 1964 video I delight to discover and trace here. As dancers in separate tracks interpret the direction “keep moving forward, and take the environment with you” by adding items to their person with every slow lap through the space, we notice additional tasks they set for themselves and each other along the way. One woman starts with a silvery beekeeper’s head covering, next picks up a metallic Mylar balloon, and then – noting the shiny theme just in time – her neighbor hands off a springy, swinging tube of silver ductwork as they pass. Watching each new rule develop, we enjoy the real-time problem solving, and once again we’re grateful for Anna Halprin.

Finally, the focus narrows to just two dancers. Others scurry to dress them in layer after layer, and the new challenge emerges. Draping cloths over heads, hanging buckets on arms, fastening umbrellas into belts, the costumers gradually clear the stage by attaching all items to these two now-hardly-human accumulations. When the last unruly objects have been miraculously added, the procession changes direction. Somehow, the castaway conglomerations make their teetering way on pumps and furry clogs up the theater stairs, through the lobby and out onto the corner of West 2nd and South Hope, where live camera tracks their interaction with the Los Angeles of 2009. When the lights come up and the artists come out we stand for Parades and Changes, for all it has accomplished and for the ways it continues to reach into our world.

1 Callaghan, David. “Still Signaling Through the Flames: The Living Theatre’s Use of Audience Participation in the 1990’s.” Audience Participation: Essays on Inclusion in Performance. Ed. Susan Kattwinkel. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. 23-36.
2 Ross, Janice. “Anna Halprin and the 1960s: Acting in the Gap between the Personal, the Public, and the Political.” Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible. Ed. Sally Banes. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2003. 24-50.

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