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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw


I create site-specific performance works with dancers and horses. The dancers frame the equines, offering a window into the equine mind. Often, it is the animals that provide a frame for the human condition.

Wikipedia defines framing as an (inevitable) process of selective influence over the individual's perception. Framing within the context of an improvisation or as a choreographic device can powerfully select what we see and selectively influence how we see.

In Pina Bausch’s Palermo Palermo the shattered cinder bloc wall creates a visual frame for the ensuing two hours of dancing and the violence of the wall falling into the stage space provides a visceral prologue that dramatically frames a work made about war torn Palermo. As Anna Kisselgoff writes in the New York Times, “I When the house lights are initially dimmed, a huge wall the width of the stage comes crashing down: its cinder blocks fall backward…..In this unexpectedly humorous but subliminally grim work, … the scenic context is as spectacular as ever, the succession of dramatic vignettes more logical than in the past. A woman begs to be pelted with tomatoes; a man recalls a Polish childhood; another woman acts possessive about a clutch of uncooked spaghetti. “

In Wim Wenders A Film for Pina Bausch, Pina’s choreography is relocated to outdoor venues. It is fascinating to see how the landscape helps to further define the dramatic intensity of her choreography. Once we eliminate the neutral proscenium frame that encloses a performance event, a whole new set of operatives influence how the work is perceived. Of course, in a film such as Wenders, the camera provides a frame.

Without the camera defining where to look, the maker must direct the eye. I propose that the maker is then beholden to seriously consider function. Bessie Schoenberg defines this notion of function beautifully: When Elise Bernhardt the Artistic Director and Founder of Dancing in the Streets decided she wanted to a massive dance event at Grand Central Station in New York City, her choreographic mentor Bessie Schoenberg strongly advised her to make the audience look up because the ceiling of Grand Central Station offers a magnificent display of the nighttime sky. Elise’s Bernhardt hired Roland Petit to perform a tightrope event high above the spectators’ heads. Bessie’s definition of a site-specific dance was that it should forever transform how the viewer sees that location. The dance has a hefty job to accomplish: It must re-contextualize the site. I think of this all the time when making dances with horses. It is always my hope that the dance will reframe how even the most seasoned horse owner views the animal

In my initial equine projects, the horses were ridden. The conceptual fame in this partnering of human and equine is the sport of riding, the artistry of equitation and the centuries of human interaction with that animal as humble servant. It was not until I began devising choreography with rider-less horses (horses at liberty) that I was faced with needing to define our function as dancers. If the dancer is neither a horse trainer, nor a circus performer, what is our function inside a round pen enclosure with a horse at liberty? With each project, I wrestle with how to frame the dancer inside the world of the equine.

An improvised encounter with a horse at liberty can be approached in several ways: One can use horsemanship strategy to Ask them to move and then actively shape their movement responses. In this form of interaction the human is dominant. An extroverted horse that has been trained, will eagerly offer movement that synchronizes with a human mover. The human is the dominant director.

In this power configuration a horse might offer more than is asked for. This is a magical occurrence, not to be ignored. In this scenario the dancer responds by taking what is offered and interacting by encouraging the behavior to continue, shaping to the animal’s body and using the horse’s spatial pathways to create complimentary movement. As a dancer, accustomed to creating a movement idea then repeating, we hope that this same behavior will reoccur. We must remember that we are dancing with a creature that did not volunteer to be in our dance! We strategize whether to ask again or change the subject. We pay attention to how the animal has offered because sometimes the offer is an evasion. “I prefer not to trot but how about this fancy move that I do picking up one of my front legs?” The offer seems delightfully generous at first…until it becomes THE default behavior in response to any request. Horses are always testing their alpha status….much like humans. So in the midst of dancing with we are also figuring out what comes next.

Departing from the role of human as dominant, we can Ask the horse to move and take whatever the horse offers, adjusting our movement to match. Here the human is shaping to the animal. Dancers who love to improvise are particularly adept at this adaptive response. Our natural horsemanship trainers found this agile shape-shifting fascinating. We also learned that if we only adapt to the animal we have forfeited our leadership and will have to spend some training time (outside of performance) regaining that leadership edge. Without the leadership we risk the animal simply choosing to ignore us and graze.

A third option is to find a way to be with the animal and not ask for anything. While this sounds like it might be a wide-open invitation to perform any kind of movement as long as it does not distract the animal, in reality that is not the case. In choosing the undemanding, decidedly non-dominant strategy we confront the very real and rather humbling possibility of appearing utterly irrelevant. This choreographically precarious territory is exactly when framing becomes a very useful concept.

The minute one enters a pasture, the horses know you are there. They expect the human to put a halter on them lead them to the barn and tack them up to be ridden. Or they might be put into a training session, placed on a lunge line and exercised, or moved to another pasture. And of course there is feeding time. Horses learn routines quickly. When a human enters the pasture at feeding a whole herd will come cantering to the gate.

Horses are not accustomed to humans simply co-inhabiting their pasture. My vision of pasture dances with horses or quiet tableaus that created a choreographic co-inhabiting, required considerable defining of visual and kinetic relevance. In attempting to solve this problem we stumbled on the notion of Framing.

Our notion of framing is not specifically about constructing a boundary or border as in a picture frame. The site-specific choreographer Chase Angier in her Framing Series investigates the notion of place and found choreography by placing large 40’x40’ frames in locations where spectators can view a specific landscape or a movement event that might be ambient or staged. I share with Angier the choreographic desire to direct the eye spatially.

Unlike the fixed architecture of Angier’s frames, ours is kinetic framing: The dancers create kinetic context. The animals are sentient participants. I try very hard not to cast the animal as a prop.

Our pasture scores feature the dancers working in tight herding formations that move in spatial pathways that gently intersect with the grazing animals. The baseline is a walking score that is constantly shifting leadership, shaping to the positioning of the animals, sometimes finding stillness next to or in proximity to one horse, sometimes leaving a soloist to interact directly with the animal. The human behavior, operating in exact unison, contrasts the ambient behavior of the animals.

Choreographic scores with one dancer and one horse, function best in a round pen enclosure. In the round pen, we investigate the architectural congruency between two bodies in proximity, we synchronize movement motifs creating for example a gestural phase that mirrors the rhythmic cadences of grazing - the biting, ripping and chewing. Every horse displays it own distinctive rhythmic grazing patterns. We have explored with hyper exaggerated rendering, the human tendency for over thinking. The spatially precise, compulsively accurate movement material plays out in a comical contrast to the grazing animal. We investigate touch scores that begin with scratching and massage tasks that are arranged in repetitive patterns. Most horses love massage and will actively choose where to massage by positioning their bodies such that a particular place on their body gets your attention. Their facial expressions of pleasure are fabulously comical. A movement score might be created that intentionally elicits this comical response. We identify all of these interactions as various forms of framing.

Once arriving at the notion of framing the animals, I wanted to see how framing decisions played out in our studio practice. Using framing as a device for creating duet relationship yielded odd, interesting solutions. We found the possibilities far more expansive, and began to identify with greater specificity what exactly framing does.

In the studio we could heighten the physicality without risking bodily injury, make drastic mistakes without spooking our equines. We could also easily wander into murky territory where our objective would get muddy and unclear. Our initial framing improvisations morphed into sponging or tracking studies and completely missed the point of creating a conceptual frame that guides the spectator’s eye. The purpose of a frame is not to magnify or duplicate but rather to define. I think framing is an exercise in detecting or defining essence - but more importantly an opinion about that essence.

I am reminded of the photographs of Sally Mann. The images of her naked children frame a kind of visceral, sensual innocence. The photographs chronicle her three children growing up — “the wet beds, insect bites, nap times, their aspirations toward adulthood and their innocent savagery.” (NY Times Magazine, 1992) Although her critics found the images disturbingly sexual, I find them magnificent. The depth of information in each image is arresting, distinctive. What she chooses to photograph, what she calls our attention to, exemplifies brilliant framing.

Like Sally Mann, I want to expose the inner intent or underbelly of movement material. Framing seems like a fantastic device for amplifying intention. Framing is about forming a point of view, actively choosing what you want the spectator to watch. Sometimes it is commentary. Sometimes the frame might provide material for the framed mover to act upon.

Framing: The Score

A primary mover devises a repeatable sequence of events or phrase. The secondary mover first stands outside the action and watches the material, then creates a phrase or activity that supports, calls attention to or augments the primary mover’s objective.


  • Encourages both primary and secondary movers to definitively identify the essence of the source material.

  • The secondary mover must identify what is important in the primary mover’s vocabulary.

  • The frame must somehow supports the intent of the prime mover’s material.

  • The framer must remain clearly visible while resisting temptation to draw focus and call attention to her/himself.

  • The primary objective is to keep the focus on the prime mover.

Score Development

Framing can play out in multiple ways, each functioning differently in strategy and function. In one scenario the secondary mover functions as a facilitator who remains fairly unobtrusive yet offering a visual boundary that supports the prime mover’s content – for example, assist the prime mover in performing a movement task

  • Assisting with balance

  • Providing objects that add specificity to the prime movers’ material

  • Offering movement initiations via breath, sound, touch

The secondary mover can intervene or obstruct the prime mover in her/his effort to perform the task:

  • Obstruction through touch

  • Obstruction with objects

  • Interruption of flow

The secondary mover can comment upon the prime mover’s material

  • Verbal commentary, sounding

  • Movement commentary

The secondary mover can call attention to the spatial focal point of the prime mover’s material

  • Positioning in space

  • Use of focus

The framing process can be a progression of events that cumulatively add meaning to the initial prime mover’s statement.

  • The secondary mover’s movement choices cause the prime movement material to change

  • The prime mover and secondary mover gradually change roles.

  • The primary mover and framer merge into shared focus

In our studio work we experiment with multiple bodies joining the framer creating a landscape for the prime mover.

The function of some frames is to assist the prime mover in executing a movement task. In this photo the prime mover has created a score in which different body parts must stay in contact with the floor. The framer chose to provide a surface for that body part to rest on.

Improvised frames are often fabulously inventive. Framing as an improvisational exercise encourages first thought best thought, offers excellent practice in noticing and keeps the tendency to overthink in check.

Framing might allow a primary mover to change intention while the secondary mover creates a fixed context or offers guides the eye through an evolution of meanings.Framing can be a valuable diagnostic to help you decide on your dominant subject.

Using different frames for the same body of movement can help the choreographer figure out what is the primary intent of the material. A frame can radically change how material is perceived.

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