Believers with varied theories attest to the healing power of art, the language
that speaks to the mind and body for the renewal of life.
Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic
Thursday, July 24, 2003
All roads in the vast healing arts movement lead eventually to choreographer
Anna Halprin's Marin County hillside home, studio and legendary dance deck
in Kentfield. There, for more than 30 years, Halprin has been working out
the dynamic of art's multidimensional power to heal mind and body, which
many believe in but few have experienced in such a visceral, immediate way.
In 1972, Halprin drew a self-portrait that envisioned a blurry gray area
in her pelvis. Resisting her customary working method of dancing what she'd
Halprin woke up with a queasy feeling in the middle of the night, made a
doctor's appointment and discovered that she had a malignant tumor. After
chemotherapy, her doctor declared her cured.
Halprin's body was telling her something different. Two years later, the
cancer returned. She went back to her art in a concentrated frenzy, creating
a series of self-portraits and dances that were "full of rage and anger.
My cancer shrank and shrank, and I haven't had a recurrence since."
Halprin, 82, has told this story many times, in person, in print and in
her work as choreographer and teacher of what she calls "psychokinetic
visualization." She believes that she was healed, not magically cured.
But she doesn't pretend to understand it rationally.
"Did that drawing really connect to a dysfunction in my body?"
she asks. "I can't explain it. I don't think you can be scientific
But Halprin, like any true artist, has approached this mystery with a rigorous
seriousness of mind. By evoking natural movements that came from within
the body, Halprin has sought to free her dancers and students from the "armor"
of a received style, be it jazz, classical ballet or the sober modern dance
dicta of Martha Graham.
Learned style, Halprin believes, can divorce physical expression from the
psyche. "You're cut off and you're blocked," she says, "and
when that happens you affect your whole immune system." "Positive
Motion," a work Halprin created with a male AIDS/HIV group, is emblematic.
Lambent movement flows into spoken text -- "I learned my body wasn't
my enemy, it was my ally" -- which evolves into waves of legs and arms
unfurling on the floor.
Halprin's dances, many of which she's staged on beaches or her open-air
deck, repeatedly address the interwoven processes of art and healing. In
doing so, her work informs everything from the effects of poetic meter and
emotional properties of music to the Brechtian techniques of drama therapists
and the match
that art therapists make between materials and diagnosis.
Just how our bodies take in and assimilate art is a dauntingly complex matter.
Dr. Mike Samuels, M.D., declares in a chapter of Halprin's seminal book
"Dance as a Healing Art" that "(a)rt and healing are lovers,
tied together with a silver thread." He then goes on to discuss the
functions of neurotransmitters, the hypothalamus and autonomic nervous system
in that connection. When dancing or imagining a dance with healing images,
Samuels writes, "the body actually changes its physiology in response."
Arts therapists in a broad range of disciplines have evolved their own body-
art theories and often specific methodologies. The work of Palo Alto poetry
therapist John Fox is grounded in a conviction that "poetic language
is really intrinsic to us as organisms, resonant with the heartbeat in the
womb." The physical response to a poem is telling, Fox believes --
a sigh, a deep breath, an alert straightening of the spine. Poetry's embrace
of paradox -- akin to what Keats termed "negative capability"
-- may liberate people to accept the "unresolved and unprocessed things
in themselves," Fox adds. "I've seen so many people become more
Writing about experience "in a meaningful way," asserts David
Watts, the UC San Francisco gastroenterologist, poet and National Public
Radio commentator, "will favorably influence the immune response and
white blood cell count." Unlike prose, "poetry is a language of
the body, not of the mind." Three-beat lines may increase intensity,
says Watts, while eight-beat lines might promote languidity. "Poetry
is the accretion of everything we know in a small space. It's like taking
a very potent pill."
MUSIC FOR LIVING
Music is prescribed for everything from migraines to substance abuse in
the well-known book "The Mozart Effect." Author Don Campbell offers
a series of exercises for tapping music's healing power. Just how Mozart
or any music might achieve its wondrous impact remains a more subjective
and speculative matter for most.
Gary Malkin, who composes and performs at the New Age-y ChantWave concerts,
believes that a quality of "spaciousness," based in Western music's
pre- polyphonic roots of chant and drone, may be intrinsically healing.
ChantWave music tends to be slow, repetitive and transparently layered.
Music critic Alex Ross has discussed the work of Estonian composer Arvo
Part in similar terms, describing a chain of chordal modulations that create
the sense of "a huge vista opening up from a narrow space." Part's
music, Ross reports, is fervently embraced by gravely ill and dying people.
San Francisco Symphony violinist Daniel Kobialka, who has recorded some
two dozen CDs widely used in pain reduction, cardiac wards and other medical
settings, never imagined their application. "I just wanted to make
something beautiful and well-structured," he says of his lush string
recordings, which range from Pachelbel to Satie to Celtic music. As for
why they might be healing, he says, "I'm not remotely qualified to
say." Kobialka recently attended an international holistic summit in
Like any good director, Sylvia Israel doesn't need much more than an empty
space, a few chairs and some colored scarves to conjure a theatrical event.
In both groups and one-on-one sessions, the San Rafael drama therapist casts
her patients as protagonists and supporting players in scenes that replay
and seek to repair emotional wounds.
The techniques, including role reversal, doubling of characters by the therapist,
playback theater, freezes, Brechtian devices for emotionally "under-
distanced" clients and Living Theater immediacy for "over-distanced"
ones, can be elaborate. A drama therapy session or more intense psychodrama
may run 2 1/2 hours or more.
It may look and sound a lot like drama school, but the aims are strikingly
different. "Many people think we're working in metaphor," says
Israel. "I believe this use of the arts is about concretizing and externalizing
experience and making you see that you and what happens to you are not the
The ways of applying art carefully and systematically for therapeutic ends
seem almost limitless. Oakland cinema therapist Birgit Wolz sends her clients
off to see movies ("Changing Lanes" for anger management, "The
Piano" for repressed emotion) as a kind of hybrid dream therapy/hypnosis.
Mediocre movies ("Love Story," "Sliding Doors") can
make good therapy if they access the "shadow elements of the psyche."
Care also must be taken not to cause more harm than good. A patient freshly
traumatized by a child custody battle, for example, might require something
more oblique than "Kramer vs. Kramer."
For art therapist Toni Morley, diagnosis can determine medium. Clay, which
encourages tactile dynamism, might be ideal for a psychologically shuttered
patient but all wrong for an autistic child. Pencil and pen drawing, which
require minimal exertion, are indicated for depression.
A LIBERATING ACT
Many of these approaches, from the academic discipline of drama therapy
to the broadly inclusive realm of expressive arts, draw on the subjective,
patient-centered theories of Carl Rogers, Rachel Remen, Fritz Perls ("Lose
your head and come to your senses"), Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow.
Healing is seen as experiential, exploratory, open-ended -- an inherently
For the first few minutes of her session in expressive arts therapist Adriana
Marchione's Mission District studio, Donna Scheifler sits cross-legged on
a pillow, eyes closed, body and mind poised to apprehend whatever comes.
It's fear, Scheifler says. "Fear that I will get out of control."
"If you could put that feeling into a movement," Marchione asks,
murmuring softly from her own pillow a few feet away, "what would it
Scheifler's hands begin to dart and flit about her head, her arms and elbows
pinwheeling free. She begins to scoop up great handfuls of air as her torso
twists, then suddenly flattens backward onto the floor. Kicking the pillow
aside, she rises up on her knees, yearns upward with arms and splayed fingers.
"Now freeze," Marchione tells her. "Notice where you are
"I'm in my skin," Scheifler says. "I fill out my skin."
For Scheifler, a "good girl" eldest daughter who spent 28 years
as a nun, that's an exhilarating sensation. "When people used to ask
me how I was feeling," she said, "I didn't have a clue."
Scheifler's means of finding that out now won't ever become the kind of
art that could draw an audience. Which is completely beside the point. Caught
up in the buzz of a perpetual opening night, Scheifler is creating the most
important performance of her life. "Everything I'd done before,"
she says, "has been leading up to this moment I'm in right now."
ARTS AND HEALING
Monday: Belief in art's power to heal body and mind is thriving in the Bay
Today: How the arts play their role in the healing process.
E-mail Steven Winn at firstname.lastname@example.org