It is a gorgeous fall day. I am in a round pen with Tori, a Morgan mare that I have played with many times. Being a mare, she is given to moods and is a bit unpredictable; she is not always up for play. I have had wonderful dances with her in the past, moving with her in an open arena where she is free to canter away from me and then come back when she is ready. She likes moving big, striding alongside of me. This round pen is fifty feet in diameter, made with six-foot panels of high metal fencing. As round pens go, it is very open and airy, but sometimes the round pen feels confining to Tori. Knowing that she is prone to claustrophobia, I start with quiet, free flowing movement, undemanding and somewhat contained in space.
I offer her my hand to sniff then stroke her, especially at her poll and haunches. These are two of her favorite spots. Then I move to the opposite side of the round pen and focus on pulling some weeds that are growing up through the sandy footing. This activity takes my attention away from Tori and allows her an interlude of unpressured time—time when I am not waiting or asking for her attention. Even stroking is a form of asking for attention! Within a few seconds Tori comes to me, offering another itchy spot for rubbing. We repeat that sequence of events. The dance has already begun in this quiet sequence of stroking and scratching, leaving and returning.
Moving to the next stage of requesting, I direct my attention to her neck, behind the ears. I add some rhythmic pulsing with my hands directing my energy toward her neck. She yields to the slight rhythmic pressure, stepping left leg across right in a perfect equine pirouette. I change my focus to the haunches and repeat the rhythmic motion [pressing] toward her hindquarters, which yields another pirouette, this time the haunches moving. We rest. She licks and chews.
I step a few paces away and make a large, circular gesture with my leg, in dance something that might be called a ronde de jambe, that arcs toward her shoulders. Immediately I realize my intention has not been clear. I am moving with a dancer’s sense of fluidity and gracefulness, but far too indirect in space for the horse to decipher what I am asking for. I change my objective and ask Tori to walk forward. Tori walks, then trots forward. I come up alongside her, matching her legs and tempo. I accelerate just a bit. She accelerates with me. Then I back up toward the center of the round pen and draw her toward me, side stepping just enough to send energy toward the right side of her neck, which sends her off at a trot in the other direction. I join her again. This time I back up, stop, and lower to a crouch. I slowly drop my focus down and soften my energy. Tori comes to me and rests her muzzle on my head. Just what I was asking for! Thus concludes a fairly successful Round Pen Score with an equine partner.
The dance I experienced with Tori calls for a combination of dance improvisation skills and Natural Horsemanship savvy. My dancers and I began studying Parelli Natural Horsemanship (PNH), during the winter of 2003. In order to deepen our understanding of PNH ground skills and practice those skills in a dance studio without horses, we translated the ground skills into a wide variety of improvisational exercises or choreographic scores.
THE EQUUS PROJECTS
The Equus Projects creates performance pieces that merge the artistry of horsemanship and dance. Some works feature precision equine choreography with dancers moving in tandem with ridden horses. Other performances feature dancers performing with the horses at liberty. Performances range from full evening-length productions to small repertory pieces and have been created for sites that range from equine arenas to hillsides and private gardens.
Creating and showcasing relationships between humans and equines is the primary objective for every Equus Projects production. Performances do not feature circus-based trick riding or spectacle-based formation rides, but rather place human and equine in interactive dialogue. Just how that dialogue is achieved is a complicated creation process that involves equestrians and their horses, equine trainers, hours of ground skills training for the dancers and lots of careful choreographic planning. For many east coast projects, the company works with a corps of dressage riders, most based in Connecticut. However the company also travels throughout the United States and this summer will be working in Sweden. These projects are made with local equestrians and their horses.
Each project is the result of months of advanced planning and a carefully orchestrated rehearsal schedule that gradually builds the equine skill sets needed for each production without over rehearsing the horses. We have found that horses will memorize the choreography quite quickly. Too much rehearsal makes for stale performance. Even worse, an over-rehearsed equine just might cleverly skip to the end event in the hopes of getting finished sooner. With that in mind, no piece is ever rehearsed in order. Repetitive rehearsals are really more for the humans than the equines. The Equus Projects has developed a unique way of making and rehearsing choreography that departs from the traditional dance training that focuses on memorizing sequences of steps. Instead of set routines, the company creates movement modules, each with a beginning cue. Modules are rehearsed out of a set order, requiring the dancers to pay very close attention to the cue for each module. This way of working keeps the performers in real time much like the actors in Shakespeare’s plays. Rather than write out the full script for each actor, Shakespeare gave each actor his cue lines, never the full script.
Working with horses has led me to profoundly interesting choreographic territory defined by the fundamental curiosity of a moving body — its playfulness or fearfulness, its survival instincts, and its comfort levels. Though we started by rehearsing a way of being with a horse, what evolved was a distinctive way of dancing with another human. By exploring rules of engagement, the horses were teaching us about ourselves.
JoAnna Mendl Shaw, Artistic Director of The Equus Projects , has been making site-specific performance works for dancers and horses since 1998, when she choreographed a trilogy of site works for Mount Holyoke College. That project featured 50 dancers and six equestrians and their horses. Shaw became fascinated by the dancers’ instinctive ability to join up with the horses. She invited a team of dancers and equestrians to experiment with her and thus The Equus Projects was born. Her work with The Equus Projects has taken her into the worlds of dressage riders and circus trainers. Her work with horses has dramatically reshaped her notion of making dances.