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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Life and Breath
by Donald Levit

In the Mirror of Maya Deren in 2003 and now Breath Made Visible center on little-celebrated women who were more than avant-garde postmodern dance innovators. Both worthwhile documentaries dig beyond choreography-performance to the essence of their subjects’ multimedia search for holistic meaning and expression. 1917-Kiev-born and Jewish, Deren branched into experimental dance-filmmaking in Greenwich Village and died at forty-four; born in Winnetka three years later, Jewish Anna Schuman Halprin gravitated to Northern California to follow architect husband Lawrence Halprin, merged her anti-Martha Graham methods with teaching and Gestalt therapy theory (founder Frederick Perls speaks in the new film), twice survived cancer, and is still going strong at almost ninety.

Swiss stage actor and documentarian-producer Ruedi Gerber had met Halprin two decades earlier but only sporadically afterwards while she was using dance to promote physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. At her 2002 semi-autobiographical New York talk-and-dance show, he was astounded when she mentioned her age and then spent several more years pinning down the active octogenarian for this trim but full eighty-minute showcase. Steering clear of straight biography in favor of emotional involvement, he set out to present the story so as to introduce the woman to “people who had never heard about her.”

Biography, too, of course, though with a minimum of childhood stills and interviews, it is a celebration on the one hand of relationships and commitments, and on the other a tracing of the development of concepts about individual responsibilities to oneself and to the group and the natural world.

Beyond even bonds with grown, and interviewed, daughters Daria and Rana, the heart’s love of Halprin’s life is her husband of seventy years. With raspy whisper and eye patch, intellectual Larry talks to the camera and the wife to whom he was partner, inspiration, sounding board and co-conspirator, while his month in ICU -- his death subsequent to wrapping is not indicated -- became achingly rendered in her 2004 Paris routine, “Intensive Care: Reflections on Death and Dying.” The following year, life in old age is reaffirmed in footage of four dozen sixty-five-to-a-hundred-year-olds standing to swing and sway in her “Seniors Rocking.”

Interviews, practice and home-movie archival shots are often on the wooden deck Larry had constructed around their redwood-shaded house. The daughters appear as children, and Merce Cunningham -- also dead soon afterwards -- and her landmark San Francisco Dancers Workshop co-founders/partners John Graham and A.A. Leath speak about her and their experiences and demonstrate a few steps of their own.

For outspoken Halprin, dance expressed each individual in movement and, thus, is not limited to “art.” Rather, it is part and parcel of life, inseparable. Recurrent shots of her white-swathed body in Pacific surf recall Deren’s films, and a forest-niche ceremony honoring this “beautiful aged body” is a prayer for Larry. Equally connecting earth and body are dances around a Pomo Native American campfire and disrobing to crackling paper and Petula Clark’s “Downtown” in “Parades,” lauded in Sweden, greeted with San Francisco bemusement and charges of obscenity in New York.

Free expression in movement becomes social concern in her all-black post-Watts group, all-white San Francisco counterpart, their purposeful separation for a year and then fusion into America’s first fully multiracial/-cultural company. Along with activism, and influenced by her own illness and by the AIDS epidemic, the tireless woman evolved an emphasis on bodily rhythms and gestures as teaching and learning, healing and strengthening, emotional and physical self-realization, in short, as re-connecting individual and group with each other and with the cosmic unity that New England Transcendentalism called Oversoul.

Not artsy, or about “art” per se, Breath Made Visible inspires, but, given demographics, a viable audience will prove hard to drum up. A shame, for the film and the woman do not “live life for art [but] live art for life.”

(Released by Zas Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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