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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw

Dancing at the Edge of Cruelty

In 2005 we collaborated with a brilliant video artist, Janet Biggs, who taught us a great deal about creating imagery by stripping away anything that is not essential. Janet is a video artist an equestrian. She rides large Dutch Warm Bloods and has some serious equestrian credibility. Janet has a 7” scar on her arm from a serious riding accident that, like many equine accidents, happened in an instant. She knows just how dangerous riding can be, and just how cruel some equine training can be.

Janet’s video work is raw and visceral, at time brutal in its insistent use of repetition. In 2005 Janet and I co-created a work titled Rules of Engagement. Our performance venue was the historic Claremont Stables – that no longer exists – on 89th Street and Amsterdam on the Upper Westside of New York City. The indoor arena was tiny with poles at intersecting the space. The footing was dark, oily dirt. The structure was wooden and a complete fire hazard. Horse stalls were in the 2nd and 3rd floors. Horses were transported from their stalls via long, steep ramps or a creaky elevator.

Under the direction of our truly heroic Technical Director and Lighting Designer, Phil Sandstrom we transformed Claremont into a theatre space, importing stadium seating, lining the perimeter with light trees and threading the perimeter with electric cables that were buried in troughs along the edges of the arena. In the upstage space we hung two large 20’x20’ projection screens so that Janet Biggs’ projections became the landscape and visual commentary for all the choreography.

Rules of Engagement begins with the projection of a duplicated mirror image of a racehorse on a 60-mile an hour treadmill. The horse seems to pressing towards exhaustion at top speed. The pace is relentless. Two dancers are seated downstage, seated facing on equine mounting blocks, their foreheads touching. They press their faces together, slowly shifting point of contact from forehead to cheek to chin. A third figure stands just upstage of them, her back to the audience, her odd, creature-like movement suggesting at once urgency and discomfort. The seated couple catches her falling body, lowering her onto the dirt. They move aside and a ridden horse enters the space moving directly downstage and stopping within inches of the solo dancer who lies in the dirt moving in an angular squirming pattern that seems at once defiant, sexual and helpless. The video has shifted to a close-up of the horse’s front hooves moving

Janet’s video images throughout Rules of Engagement allude to the simple fact of nature’s survival of the fittest, the matter of fact-ness of death and survival in nature. At the conclusion of the piece, the horse trots in place in a relentless piaffe*. In the background the dancers perform a violent and relentlessly repetitious loop of hand-to-hand combat in varying couples configurations.

When I made Rules of Engagement I was still seduced by the grace and beauty of horses. Janet Biggs understood something I did not yet comprehend: That we romanticize our relationships to animals, focus on our interpretations of what the animal feels. Years later, making performance works with rider-less (at liberty) horses faced the humbling reality that we were, in fact, not always in control. The beauty of this work lies in this humbling reminder: It is not about you.

* The piaffe [pjaf] is a dressage movement where the horse is in a highly collected and cadenced trot, in place or nearly in place. The center of gravity of the horse should be more towards the hind end, with the hindquarters slightly lowered and great bending of the joints in the hind legs. The front end of the horse is highly mobile, free, and light, with great flexion in the joints of the front legs, and the horse remains light in the hand. The horse should retain a clear and even rhythm, show great impulsion, and ideally should have a moment of suspension between the foot falls. As in all dressage, the horse should perform in a calm manner and remain on the bit with a round back.

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