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Rules of Engagement: Dancers and A Horse

By Dawn Lille

ART TIMES December, 2005

Horses and dance? Why not? Equestrian ballets, which were derived from medieval tournaments and involved hundreds of horses and riders moving in elaborate formations, date back to the early Renaissance. The horses and their riders/dancers in the Ringling Bros. Circus, and the Zingaro Company of Spain also come to mind, as well as George Balanchineís choreography for fifty elephants and fifty beautiful girls.

But, as JoAnna Mendl Shaw, Artistic Director of The Equus Projects, rushes to point out, all of these require human control over an animal. These animals were rigidly controlled by people. Rules of Engagement, an interdisciplinary and interspecies performance she recently presented at the Claremont Riding Academy, is about the interaction of horse and dancer, each trying to understand and feed off the other in an atmosphere of trust. Her artistic collaborator here was Janet Biggs, a visual artist who works in painting, sculpture and multiple channel installations. The company consists of three dancers, an equestrian and a horse, Navajo Medicine Man (Navi), an eighteen-year-old appaloosa gelding.

The riding area of the stable was the site-specific venue for this production. The audience, sitting in bleachers on one side, saw two large screens set at slight diagonals to each other and big enough so that they effectively blocked anything behind them. The dancing took place in front of and between the screens; Navi, with his rider Blair Greismayer, walked endlessly in circles and ovals, sometimes going between the screens and dangerously near the moving dancers. The first thing the audience saw was the double image of a horse walking. This then focused just on the legs and melded into a horse running in place on a treadmill, but facing itself via the two screens. Suddenly there was an awareness of the three dancers. One, MaryAlice White, moved in what resembled satyr-like upper body gestures. Then Blake Pearson and Gina Paolillo started to travel slowly and simply into each otherís space. When Navi appeared they acknowledge him in movement and included him in their continued exploration.

Broken down, the overall production had three elements: the horse and his partner/rider, the dancers and the video. The first two developed an ongoing movement conversation, with the rider allowing her horse as much freedom as possible. The last included additional images of deer, an owl, an eagle, icebergs, waterfalls and bodies under water. As the one hour work progressed the dancers and Navi interacted more and more, the videos seemed to make the viewer switch gears and enter another thought process, and the dance gestures and designs became more complicated spatially, dynamically and rhythmically. The score by Steve White was supportive without being overwhelming and the lighting by Philip Sandstrom was amazing, given the space. The piece, which is ultimately about issues of domination and sexuality, has a history and philosophy behind it.

Shaw started this work in 1997 when she was commissioned by Mt. Holyoke College to make a piece for the Five College Dance Department. Upon discovering they had an amazing equestrian program, she decided to put the two together. A former competitive skier, she considers herself an athlete as much as a dancer and regards dancers as consummate athletes. She ended up creating a trilogy at Holyoke that used ten horses and fifty humans. What amazed her was the realization that the horses followed the dancers. She wanted to continue this work and found three riders and three dances. They gave their first concert in 1999 and spent several summers in residence in Vermont, where she created a full evening work for the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts.

The process of training both the dancers and the horses, although more the dancers, has been a long one that is still evolving. They have spent countless hours improvising. Horses are herd animals and the dancers learned to work as if they were another horse, shaping the space between bodies. The animals do this instinctively and they also remember the choreography. So in order to keep the process ongoing, especially in performance, the dancers must work to be constantly interesting to their animal partners. This is where improvisation becomes almost a necessity.

There were two wonderful examples of it in Rules, both horse/human duets. In one Gina Paolillo was talking in Italian while she and Navi moved together, using their body contact to propel them through space. In the other Blake Pearson and Navi were head to head, with the dancer causing the horse to retreat at one point. Shaw says that horses do not understand spoken commands, only physical ones. Hence Ginaís section was about the quality of her body next to Naviís and Blakeís was ultimately about the strength level of his touch.

The dancers have spent several weeks at a time working ten hours a day with cowboy Pat Parelli and his wife Linda at their ranches in Colorado and Florida. Here they have learned partnership training and how to relate to a horse.

When asked about the qualities she looks for in dancers and horses, Shaw says her dancers must be grounded and possess an understanding of weight and space. They need hamstring strength and a sense of the pelvis. This work requires a strong technique and a lack of ego. The horses must be loved and cared for. She cannot work with a frightened or abused animal. A horse listens physically, engages all the senses and operates in three-dimensional space. The dancer must learn to do the same. The final result requires a level of respect and humility based on time and knowledge.

Rules of Engagement explored risk taking, power, relationships and the ability to be violent on both the human and the animal level, as implied by the video of the eagle. The horse, however, is not a violent creature and does not initiate violence.

Shaw says the old hierarchy between choreographer and dancers is minimized when working with a choreographer, a dancer, a rider and a horse. This was a collaboration of many, a process and an inquiry. It cannot be judged in comparison with other dance works. But it can certainly stimulate thought and pose questions about human behavior and the possibilities inherent in an art form.

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