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PARIS — Dance that pushes sensual and temporal boundaries and sculpture that pushes formal boundaries share a solid connection while simultaneously remaining, in many respects, in distinct opposition. In Ruedi Gerber’s moving and thought-provoking one-hour film Journey in Sensuality — Anna Halprin and Rodin (2014), this flowing of temporary motion and the fixed permanence of solid art objects again come into a stimulating dialogue. Spanning multiple decades and generations, Gerber’s film beautifully chronicles avant-garde dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin as she takes inspiration from the sculpture of Auguste Rodin and passes his dramatic gesticulations along to her students. They are artistic, emotion-filled millennials for the most part, who have put down their art and drafting tools and joined in with Halprin’s ecologically inclined Sea Ranch Collective.
In the film, Rodin’s expressive sculptures and Halprin’s intimate, slow-motion, pelvic-based, postmodern dance process successfully come together to the cooled-out instrumental music of guitar genius Fred Frith, creating an instructive and deeply emotional experience. Journey in Sensuality begins with Halprin in Paris for a major retrospective at the Centre Pompidou (from which Gerber shot the acclaimed 2010 documentary Breath Made Visible). She is shown mourning the pervasive human violence of our time after seeing images of emaciated, naked bodies at the Mémorial de la Shoah. At the suggestion of one of her female performers, and in hopes of lifting her spirits, Halprin visits the Musée Rodin and is so deeply moved that she decides to create a new dance performance based on some of Rodin’s highly expressive figurative sculptures. The film takes us through that fascinating process, mostly carried out on the rough and rocky Northern Californian beach, and ends with a nude performance by Sea Ranch Collective in a nearby redwood forest.
While the inclusion of some archival footage of Halprin’s much earlier dances would have been appreciated, the majority of the footage in Journey in Sensuality takes us within the studio where the dancers prepare for the forest performance. Halprin places the participants in the type of slow-motion self-exploration I associate with tai chi and the dances of Deborah Hay. We watch the dancers working on the beach, struggling to create intimate contact with the natural textures and surfaces of the environment while blindfolded. Through them, we are invited to pay attention to the ecosystem from inside their bodies. Halprin’s technique of kinesthetic awareness stresses an immersive, emotional attention to the environment; it requires dancers to expand their scope of obligations as fragile human bodies within the context of the rough seashore. We see these people as innocently genuine and often beautiful, typical of Halprin’s lifelong quest for non-stylized dance movement.
Based on Rodin’s belief that “the world will only be happy when all people have the souls of artists,” Halprin goes on to prepare the dancers for the performance, using a selection of Rodin’s sculptures as models to create a performance that is at once poetically cosmo-ecological and visually powerful. Human–ecological connections are established by entangling the naked dancers in the sensual net of nature, connecting them to the water, rocks, trees, and sky. Halprin knots her dancers in a common story of multiple being where animals, humans, and plants (living and dead) each bear the consequences of the others’ ways of living and dying. A key ecological question she poses here is about the needs that ought to be met in the ongoing creation of healthy rapports and connections. This is consistent with her integration of therapeutic concepts and techniques into her work in the late 1960s and ‘70s, working with Gestalt therapists Fritz Perls and John Rinn to develop dances that would serve a healing function. (Halprin, a cancer survivor, has also devised workshops and rituals to help cancer and AIDS/HIV patients.) For decades now, her work has been asking: how does humanity achieve the task of holding onto its existence?
In Journey in Sensuality, the resulting nude redwood forest performance demonstrates that we sensual homo sapiens are not an external disturbance within nature, but a beautiful addition within the complex natural system. Halprin’s dance training, based on pelvic centering while groping and sensing the textures and forms of vibrant nature, suggests that, in the long term, it may not only be the magnitude of the damage we have done to nature, but our disruption of the fabric of ecological recovery and healing that is determining the rate and scope of global destruction.
Halprin’s artistic achievement, her glory, as seen in the film, seems to me to be her successful cross-generational collaborative transmission, which continues to inform and move us to this day. This is something that can only be accomplished through relative permanence. Therefore, it is interesting to contrast her approach to sculpture and dance with one of Generation X’s foremost and most highly celebrated dance-art practitioners, Tino Sehgal, who this season is presenting something of a retrospective of his constructed situations at the Palais de Tokyo. Sehgal, a choreographer of sorts who mostly conceives his dances for gallery settings, is celebrated for challenging conventional museum practices by placing a central focus on social interaction rather than on inanimate art objects.
The obvious point of comparison is Sehgal’s work “Kiss” (2007), first exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, which has two dancers kiss and touch in poses evoking embracing couples from historical works of art, starting with Rodin’s “The Kiss” (1889). Sehgal, by focusing on the fleeting gestures of lived experience rather than on the permanence of material objects or recordings, deliberately limits his cross-generational collaborative potential to the present moment. By contrast, the impression I had throughout Journey in Sensuality is that the permanence of sculpture — even of kinetic sculpture such as that of Jean Tinguely — is indispensable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gerber also made the documentary film Meta-Mecano about the creation of the the Tinguely Museum.
The long-lasting benefit of merging the solidity of sculpture with the dynamic and temporal performative is something I have also experienced through Rodin on a regular basis while living in Paris. Every morning, on my way to the gym, I pass by his distinctively onanistic “Le Monument à Balzac” (“The Monument to Balzac,” 1898) at the crossing of the boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail. Viewing it — and re-viewing it, and reviewing it — in every climatic condition has a deep value to my life that my temporary interactions with Sehgal’s performative contributions to contemporary art distinctively lack, regardless of their passing charms. Watching Journey in Sensuality reinforces the indispensability of art access to every generation, while delivering a dose of clarifying charm of its own.
Ruedi Gerber’s Journey in Sensuality — Anna Halprin and Rodin continues at the Espace Saint-Michel (7 Place Saint-Michel, 5th arrondissement, Paris, France) through October 11. The film will also screen on October 21 at Rio Theatre for the Performing Arts (1205 Soquel Avenue, Santa Cruz, California) at 7:30pm.