Movie review: ‘Breath Made Visible’


“Breath Made Visible” is an admiring documentary portrait of Anna Halprin, a woman so remarkable it is hard to fit her into the confines of a film, let alone a sentence.

Born in 1920, Halprin is the doyenne of avant-garde, experimental dance in this country, but to say dancing is her life is to both understate her passion and neglect all the other things that concern her and make her as much a natural force as a performer.

During her more than 50-year career, Halprin, who still teaches twice a week on the Marin County redwood deck her landscape-architect husband, Lawrence Halprin, had built for her, has touched any number of bases.

She’s used dance as artistic expression, to explore ritual, psychology and societal issues, even to help cure herself when she was diagnosed with cancer. “Before my illness,” she says, “I lived my life for my art. Now I live my art for my life.”

At the core of Halprin are her linked beliefs that dance is the essence of life (“I’ve always said that dance is the breath made visible, and that covers about everything,” she says) and as such is accessible to everyone.

As detailed by Swiss director Ruedi Gerber, Halprin felt this joy in dance since she was a child. She remembers her Jewish grandfather, a Hasid, dancing in ecstatic prayer, and she says she’s spent her life “searching for a dance that would mean as much to me.”

After studying dance at the University of Wisconsin for a teacher who required students do human dissection to learn how the body works, Halprin went to New York for a while but was dissatisfied both with the exclusively urban environment and the pressure to become a Martha Graham clone.

Moving to the Bay Area with her husband, Halprin formed the controversial San Francisco Dancers Workshop with John Graham (no relation to Martha) and A.A. Leath. The group outraged audiences in Venice, Italy, by taking dance off the stage and into the seats and used enough nudity for the San Francisco Chronicle to call them the No Pants Dancers.

As her avant-garde tendencies led Halprin to the area of performance art, she found herself more accepted by the theater world than the dance one. When she returned to New York to dance at the Joyce Theater in 2002, an autobiographical performance that serves as the framework for the film, it was the first time she had danced in Manhattan since 1968.

Halprin’s life is also revealed to be intertwined with that of her husband, celebrated in his own right with such projects as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Sea Ranch development north of San Francisco. Lawrence Halprin has died since the film’s completion, and one of his wife’s most haunting works, 2006’s “Intensive Care,” was inspired by her hospital visits to him.

“We think of dance in a very limited way,” Halprin says at one point and, in a sense, her whole life has been based on widening our horizons, on confounding the notion of boundaries. As this film bears witness, it has been a success.