The Collective Creativity of Anna and Lawrence Halprin

Alison B. Hirsch

During the 1960s, a progressive liberation of the spectator from observer to active participant occurred in the visual and performing arts, which were reciprocally informed by participatory forms of social protest and performance: marches, sit-ins, riots, and so on. Dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin (née Ann Schuman, 1920–), with her San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop, was directly involved in these developments, and their experiments soon infiltrated the creative endeavors of her husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (1916–2009). Like “happenings,” emerging from the teachings of musician John Cage in New York, Anna organized interactive events in which environmental situations and loose action guidelines were proposed or “scored,” but the ultimate performance was left open-ended and typically involved the audience. From these new art forms, the “open score” became the major tool for stimulating action and involving the public. Lawrence (Larry) Halprin applied these emerging performance theories to his work by designing public spaces as “scores” intended to stimulate open-ended kinesthetic response, and by adopting the temporal-situational guidelines of performance events to structure public design workshops, which he called the Take Part Process. In this article I trace the artistic symbiosis between these two creative individuals, particularly how their application of scores relates to the claiming and shaping of place.

Lawrence grew up in Brooklyn, New York. The social concerns that distinguish his career were founded on family values. His mother, Rose Luria Halprin, worked with the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, and served as its president for multiple terms beginning in 1932. Her activism shaped her son’s childhood experience and informed his lifelong pursuits. Larry traveled to Palestine in 1933, where he lived for the following two years immersed in the kibbutz movement. Here in this agricultural setting is where Larry’s connection to the land originated. In addition, the ideals of the kibbutz significantly stimulated his interest in the productive nature of what he and Anna called “collective creativity.”

In 1938, Anna moved from a middle-class Chicago suburb to the University of Wisconsin, the first university to offer a dance degree program, led by pioneering dance educator Margaret H’Doubler. Anna was active in the university’s Hillel (one of the nation’s first), particularly as a leader of its dance group. After one of her performances at the Hillel, she met Larry, who was earning a master’s degree in horticulture from the university. The two married in 1940 and began a lifelong creative collaboration.

With Anna’s help, Larry discovered the profession of landscape architecture, and in 1943 he enrolled at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, an experience that had a lasting impact on the creative output of both Anna and Larry. After fleeing Germany during the Nazi occupation, Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, became chair of Harvard’s department of architecture. Gropius’s pedagogic goal was to unify the fine and practical arts to structure positive social change. At Harvard, all first-year students were required to take a general design course modeled after those taught at the Bauhaus. Describing his experience, Larry said, “The Bauhaus always started with a general course in design, … and it wasn’t the history of it, it was doing it — making drawings, building sculpture, and stuff like that. And it took me a great leap to the point where I understood the relationship of all the arts together. It was like somebody had opened a curtain and there was this great world of fantasy in front of me, with dancers and painters and set designers and music.”1

Anna participated in Larry’s education at Harvard. She sat in on classes, including the general design seminar, which inspired her initial explorations in the spatial dimension of choreography. Anna even began offering dance classes to architecture and design students in which students explored how different spatial arrangements affected one’s kinesthetic response. Thus both Larry and Anna were deeply affected by this formative exposure. The Bauhaus’s goals to eliminate art elitism and to dissolve the distinctions between art and the craft of necessities of everyday life permanently influenced the Halprins, as did its culture of collaboration and its emphasis on process and social participation.

Larry accelerated his degree so that he could enlist in the US Navy in December 1943, and in March 1944 he was sent to the central Pacific. In April 1945, after his ship was cut in half by a kamikaze carrying a torpedo just before the invasion of Okinawa, he was sent to San Francisco on survivor’s leave. While in the Bay Area, he accepted a job in the landscape architecture office of Thomas D. Church. Anna, who had been situated in New York City, the nucleus of modern dance, ultimately embraced the “new territory of immediacy” offered by the West Coast.2

In California the Halprins felt free from the stiff, long-standing stylistic traditions and institutions that they thought stifled creativity in the East. The immediacy represented by the closeness of nature, and the freedom offered by the open landscape encouraged limitless possibilities for new modes of inquisition and action. As Anna’s biographer notes, her willingness to relocate must have been partly motivated by the emergence of two dance pioneers from California, Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham.3 Duncan, though she never gained great acclaim in the United States, consistently declared the powerful impact of the California landscape on her approach to movement, which was based on improvisation, emotion, and the natural motion and rhythms of the human body. Duncan’s attribution of the freedom of her movement to the openness, power, and virgin quality of the California landscape is much in line with Anna’s recognition of the transformative potential of this environment to recapture a fundamental or “authentic” quality of movement. Anna’s contributions to the avant-garde were tremendous. With Merce Cunningham, she may be considered the most innovative figure in what is termed “postmodern dance.” Rather than following stylistic trends or seeking shock value, her work in the 1960s was driven by the troubling distinctions between what was commercially and culturally valued as “art” and the movements of the everyday. As a means of dissolving those distinctions, Anna’s “goal was to reengage the gestural vocabulary of everyday life as art and to cast the spectator as a more active participant.”4

This goal reflected the extraordinary impact John Dewey’s writings and philosophy had on her work, particularly as filtered through H’Doubler. The breakdown of distinctions between art and life as argued by Dewey in Art as Experience (1934) catalyzed Anna’s investment in creative intuition and kinesthetic awareness. She considered the prereflexive mind-body a state of “supreme authenticity,” in which one could communicate with others without the barriers of cultural conditioning. Through this common language, she also sought to achieve “collective creativity,” believing in the power of art derived from a group. Larry absorbed and informed these pursuits; kinesthetic awareness, rather than the visual or scopic, and stimulating the collective through the pre-rational language of “archetypal” forms and expressions drove his design agenda.

The Halprins looked to Gestalt therapy to unleash this “pre-rational” state. Its cultivation of an awareness of the immediate present and its noninterpretive approach appealed to Anna, who recoiled from the modern dance practices on the opposite coast led by Martha Graham, whose style Anna considered “portraying not being.”5 Fritz Perls and his followers, working with Anna, developed experiments that would lead to greater environmental, emotional, sensory, and bodily awareness, enabling one to experience situations more immediately, and thus more “authentically,” through trained liberation from inhibitions, fears, and stereotypes that had been culturally and socially constructed in the past.

Larry attempted to develop a similar therapeutic device by engaging immediate response to his finely tuned designed environments. By stimulating imagination, direct awareness, and a kind of primal spontaneity and impulse, he hoped to free city dwellers from the restraints ingrained by the conditioning of a regimented culture.

In the early 1950s, Larry designed an outdoor “dance deck” for Anna on their four-acre wooded property in Kentfield in Marin County. The dance deck incorporates existing tree trunks as anchor points and extends out from the slope so that at its highest point it hangs thirty feet in the air. Small changes in elevation were designed to provide opportunities for functional variation or somatic response. The deck enabled Anna to experiment with her pioneering improvisational techniques and teach workshops, while remaining at home to raise her two children. In an article published in Impulse featuring the deck, she explained, “Since there is ever changing form and texture and light around you, a certain drive develops toward constant experimentation and change in dance itself. In a sense one becomes less introverted, less dependent on sheer invention, and more out going and receptive to environmental change.”6

In 1966, at the climax of the couple’s collaborative experimentation, the Halprins organized the first of a series of “Experiments in Environment.” These multiday collaborative workshops involving designers, dancers, musicians, visual artists, writers, teachers, and psychologists were intended to investigate “theories and approaches leading to integrated, cross-professional creativity” and heightened environmental awareness.7 Larry applied lessons learned in these “Experiments” to his work in the public arena, particularly as a foundation for the development of his community design method, the Take Part Process.

The Halprins conducted the 1968 “Experiments in Environment” as a twenty-four-day event located in downtown San Francisco, in wooded Kentfield in Marin County, and at the dramatic coastal Sea Ranch. The three environments were evaluated through “intuitive modes of perception,” including kinesthetics and other body-environment awareness techniques.

“City Map” served as an initial score to stimulate direct interaction with the physical environment of downtown San Francisco. Guidelines included these instructions: “Be as aware of the environment as you can… This will include all sounds, smells, textures, tactility, spaces, confining elements, heights, relations of up and down elements. Also your own sense of movement around you, your encounters with people and the environment AND YOUR FEELINGS!” Visual material was distributed, including a map with a processional sequence, indicating mode of transportation (walk, cable car ride) and stops along the way. The predetermined “tracks” throughout the city ensured that each person’s time in each place varied from the next person’s. The group was therefore in constant flux, except at three o’clock, when in Union Square all forty participants were instructed to rise to the sound of chimes and face the sun. To choreograph this complexity, the Halprins distributed a diagram, called the “Master Score,” that indicated the sequence in which each participant was to visit the places along the route, the time to get there, and how long to stay. What “remained unscored and open,” according to Larry, were “the involvements with other people, the adventures, sensitivities, games played, and impressions gained.”8

Day two of “Experiments in Environment” was situated in Marin and included what was called “Trails Myth.” The participants were asked to join hands and perform the movement score blindfolded to gain a “direct experience of the kinesthetic sense in space.” After “Trails Myth,” a “Blindfold Walk” extended the group-movement possibilities into the outdoors. Participants were instructed to walk through the woods blindfolded, holding onto the shoulder of the person directly in front. The intention was, again, to heighten the other senses. After the blindfolds were removed, participants were asked to draw the experience of their blindfold walk. According to Larry, “without seeing it in their customary mode of perception, the participants recreated where the open vistas occurred, where the terrain changed, where spaces were narrow or lofty or threatening.”9 Such “sensitivity walks” were adapted for the Take Part Process to instill a stronger awareness of the environment and enhanced perception of movement through it.

Partially inspired by the “Experiments in Environment,” the Halprins structured the “RSVP Cycles,” a creative approach meant to guide the development of both Larry’s formal designs and his participatory process. As he explains in his book The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment (1969), RSVP stands for Resources, Scores, Valuaction, and Performance. In the ideal application of the Take Part Process (also called Taking Part), workshop participants were chosen carefully by the firm after intensive resource gathering (R) to determine a suitable “microcosm” of the community, or those that would be affected by change. Halprin scored (S) these workshops by creating guidelines for a set of cumulative experiences, emphasizing environmental awareness, to optimize the creative energy of the group working together. This always began with an Awareness Score, typically a city walk, to get participants immediately interacting with their environment. The cumulative activity scores, to be performed (P) by the workshop participants, were deliberately choreographed in a sequential and progressive manner to build up a mutual foundation for the diversity of participants. Because participants were chosen to be a cross section of the community, many did not share a common background. Therefore, the activities scored for the two- to three-day workshop were intended to foster a shared experience from which a group could develop a “common language of environmental awareness” and move forward in a collective way. Feedback and sharing sessions, or valuaction (V), would facilitate communication among the participants so that a consensus could ultimately emerge. To varying levels of success, this process was deployed by Lawrence Halprin & Associates as part of major public design and planning projects in Fort Worth, Texas; Everett, Washington; Charlottesville, Virginia; and downtown Cleveland.10

Larry and Anna’s artistic relationship was unique and immensely fruitful, yet rather than an effortless lifelong collaboration, their work was at times deliberately collaborative and at times simply mutually symbiotic, with each benefiting and expanding from exposure to the other’s medium and method. Yet their process and product also often diverged, partly owing to the circumstances of their medium and partly to fundamental differences in attitude.

Environmental, social, political, and artistic activism coalesced during the 1960s, linked by a public insistence on participation. While such activism was an impetus for the development of the Take Part Process, Larry’s professional work was not overtly political. He instead chose to work within the institutional frameworks of public and private agencies and their commissions. Yet he did truly believe in unearthing “archetypal” or “pre-rational” human bonds through this experience-based process. And though Anna was clearly interested in social reform, her work was not fundamentally driven by politics but by enhancing bodily experience of the environment and enacting the rituals of the everyday with deeper perceptual awareness.

Beginning in the late 1960s, however, Anna took dance and performance into the streets. In 1968, the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop performed the Blank Placard Dance on Market Street as a procession through the city, where the performers marched, holding blank signs as a “ritual” based on street demonstrations, which was symbolic of protest “but without any specific cause.”11 Soon after, Anna began working with specific marginalized groups, eventually including those infected with HIV and AIDS and the elderly. With race riots erupting in cities across the nation, Anna became increasingly focused on addressing and exploring such tensions through dance. In 1968, she collaborated with theater artist James Woods and the Studio Watts School of the Arts, situated in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles made infamous by well-publicized riots, to produce a workshop and performance called Ceremony of Us. For five months, Anna spent Saturdays in Los Angeles with an all-black dance group created by Woods on her request. Her counterpart all-white group in San Francisco worked separately with Anna until the two groups came together for the ten-day event in Los Angeles. The charged “physical conversation” they performed addressed the complexity of racial dynamics on a personal and political level, exploring stereotypes, sexual territories, and how cultural values inform movement.12 While the artistic avant-garde, reacting to marginalized groups asserting their position in society, began to shift its focus in the late 1960s from aesthetic essentialism to endless pluralities of human and cultural experience, to which Anna responded, Larry continued his search for fundamental human commonality.

Despite their divergences, the Halprins’ creative symbiosis, particularly in the formative decades of the 1960s and 1970s, provides a wealth of material that might fittingly be revisited today, as we explore methods of “creative placemaking” and reactivating and shaping the public realm. In one celebratory tribute in 2008, the city of Portland, Oregon, where many public spaces were designed by Lawrence Halprin & Associates in the 1960s, reinstituted “City Dance,” an annual event the Halprins organized in the Bay Area in the 1970s. Such celebrations of the physical and sociocultural dimensions of our cities through cross-creative endeavors can only lead to a heightened sense of commitment to the quality of our too often diminished public realm.


  1. Larry Halprin, interview by Janice Ross, August 1, 1995; as quoted in Janice Ross, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance (Berkeley: University of California, 2007), 52.
  2. Anna Halprin, as quoted in Rachel Kaplan, ed., and Anna Halprin, Anna Halprin, Moving toward Life: Five Decades of Transformational Dance (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England and Wesleyan University Press, 1995), 73.
  3. Ross, Anna Halprin, 69.
  4. Janice Ross, “Anna Halprin’s Urban Rituals,” Tulane Drama Review 48, 2 (Summer 2004): 57.
  5. Ross, Anna Halprin, 177. Quotation from Anna Halprin, interview by Janice Ross, July 19, 1999.
  6. “Dance Deck in the Woods,” Impulse (1956), 24.
  7. Lawrence Halprin: Changing Places (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1986), exhibition catalog, 132.
  8. Lawrence Halprin, The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes and the Human Environment (New York: G. Braziller, 1970), 79; capitalization in the original.
  9. Ibid., 182–83.
  10. For more on these projects and Larry Halprin in general, see Alison Hirsch, City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
  11. A description and photograph of the event is found in Halprin, The RSVP Cycles, 91.
  12. For information about Ceremony of Us, see Ross, Anna Halprin, 266–84; and an interview with Anna Halprin, “Ceremony of Us,” The Drama Review, TDR 13, 4 (Summer 1969): 131–43. Worth noting is Watts participant Wanda Coleman’s reflection on the workshop, where she claims Anna and Jim Woods “ran scared” when they got close to the “nastiness of what racism really is” and that this emerged from Anna’s “naïve” belief that the group could find common ground, “peace and love”; Ross, Anna Halprin, 274. Just after Ceremony of Us, Anna developed her Reach Out program, in which a multiracial ensemble of dancers, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, would gather for a training workshop and apprenticeships.