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I once said “it’s not possible to make a bad movie about dance.” A few films have come close to making me a liar, including Breath Made Visible.

Anna Halprin is a matron of modern dance. I didn’t know her work before seeing this documentary, and although there are performances that I liked, some are not my cup of tea. Director Ruedi Gerber assumes if I see Halprin’s work, I will like it. What I needed, and what Breath Made Visible didn’t give me, was an understanding of why I should like Halprin’s work.

Breaking the Rules?

Halprin and company dance about architecture
Halprin and company dance about architecture

Halprin is now in her 80s, and this film covers her life and career, up to now. She never fit into the rigid world of ballet, nor even the more experimental but still-too-rigid Martha Graham company, and instead started her own school.

Her career, it is said, is a cycle of breaking rules, finding the next set of rules, and then breaking them.

The problem with that philosophy is that it’s very hard to distinguish from chaos. At what point does rule-less dance stop being dance? When does the audience stop being an audience and start being chumps? If anything goes, why not simply go about your life and call that dance? Or if one truly wants to shatter the rules of dance, why not just degenerate into ... well, what Pasolini did in Sal√≥?

Because this is such treacherous ground, we need a sure-footed guide, and Breath Made Visible doesn’t provide one. I get that modern dance is different from ballet, but I need someone to tell me what the rules are, and help me understand what an innovator like Halprin or Graham had to do to break them.

One long-time collaborator repeatedly refers to Halprin “breaking boundaries,” but he never explains what exactly that means. What was the boundary, specifically, and what did she do to break it? Someone says one of Halprin’s pieces — a piece where she spins — was groundbreaking, in some way that I could not see. Why would spinning be groundbreaking? I’m not trying to be funny; that’s an honest question. But without an honest answer, I feel like I’m being sold the Brooklyn Bridge.

Artistic Brilliance

Another documentary that raises some of the same questions is The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about a “brilliant” pop singer/songwriter who sounds uncannily like an amateur with a bad voice singing in his parents’ basement. Johnston Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig acknowledges the question about boundaries, then makes the case that Johnston is the real deal.

It’s not that I doubt Halprin is an artist, but Breath Made Visible doesn’t acknowledge the question of whether rule-less dance can still be dance, much less make the case to a layman that Halprin’s work is important.

Perhaps the problem lies in the sentiment Halprin repeats: “it’s not about how it looks, it’s about how it feels.” If that’s true, then she is acknowledging that her work is unfilmable.

Color and Movement

And yet there is some interesting footage from Halprin’s career. I particularly liked a piece called “Coming home,” and another from earlier in her career called “Hangar,” which is basically dancing about architecture.

But if it’s not possible to explain Halprin’s work, then perhaps we’d have been better off without the interviews and just had 80 minutes of footage from these archival films and videos. We still wouldn’t know what the word “boundaries” mean, but we’d have seen lots of interesting color and movement and I probably wouldn’t be revisiting what I said about bad movies about dance.