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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw

Never Rehearse in Order

In March 2004 The Equus Projects spent a month as Guest Artists in the Dance Department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. We were commissioned to create a work for dancers and horses using local horses and equestrians and a cast of 16 VCU dancers. One section of the 50-minute work was a double duet for two dancers and an equestrian and her horse. The piece was set to the Prelude for the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suite No1 in G Major.

The Prelude from Bach’s 1st Suite for Unaccompanied Cello has a gorgeous arc. It begins with a sense of curiosity, gentle phrases that seem to ask intimate questions, continuously moving into slightly new territory with each question. At 1:11 in the music the inquiry becomes louder, more courageous. At 1:44 the sound tumbles out into the space. At 2:08 the cello line rushes into a huge arc and then, with a final sense of wonder, the phrase seems to advance slightly, then retreat and with a final breath, release into silence.

The choreography immediately reveals itself to me in spatial pathways. I envision a double duet – two dancers (Gina and Blake) in a round pen on stage left, a horse (Hamlet) and his human trainer (Maddrey) in a second round pen stage right. The two duets begin simultaneously with gentle touch, then move into longer strokes. Gina lifts Blake’s arm, ducks under his arm and moves into his backspace as Maddrey crawls under Hamlet’s belly. Blake and Hamlet move into the space around their respective partners. Gina directs Blake to carve the space around her at close proximity as Maddrey directs Hamlet into a tight circling pattern around her body (in horseman’s terms, a pirouette on the forehand).

At the 2:08 point in the Prelude, Gina and Maddrey send their partners into a large loping circle. The expansiveness of the movement suggests a joyful release into the space. At 2:15 the coda approaches the expansive running is redirected into a turn towards the center of the round pen. Gina and Blake, Maddrey and her Arabian horse Hamlet face each other. Hamlet and Blake back up two steps, then advance forward into a soft embrace and release.

The four creatures move in synchrony, biped and quadruped exploring a shared language that hovers between dancing and horse whispering. The effect is really beautiful. I am delighted. Our horsemanship trainer David Lichman has traveled from Sacramento to coach us. He is moved to tears. The Prelude is still rough, but with rehearsal it will work.

In preparation for the VCU residency, I began rehearsals with Blake, Gina, Maddrey and her Arabian horse, Hamlet in January. It is the dead of winter and we work every Monday from 10am until 4pm in a large indoor arena in central Pennsylvania, 50 miles from Manhattan. Our session with David Lichman is immensely encouraging and we are confident that we have a terrific piece well on its way to perfection.

Two weeks and two rehearsals later Hamlet has decided that once the initial stroking is over, it is time to move out into that final circle. Clearly he knew the choreography and simply skipped to the end.

We call David at his home in Sacramento. “David, Hamlet is skipping to the end of the Prelude. What do we do?” David chuckles and responds, “You are not rehearsing the piece in order, are you? The circus never rehearses an act in order." David went on to explain that If they do rehearse the animals in the same sequence all the time, the horses begin to anticipate and stop paying attention to the trainer and their performance becomes dull.

Dancers always rehearse a piece of choreography beginning to end. Our entire training was geared towards memorizing sequences of movement that with repetition became more efficient, smoother, more graceful. The circus rehearsed skill sets, not sequences, David informed me. My choreographer's brain began to wrap around the idea of training Equus and cue-ing systems. A piece could conceivably be performed in a different order each run through. Dancers would be building agile brains, able to think in terms of modules of movement.

Following the VCU project, I shifted away from a choreographic process beginning with specific movement material and began identifying the skill sets my cast of humans and horses would need to execute the desired choreographic vision.I began to re-envision my teaching methods. Identifying fundamental skillsets became a way of identifying primary objective, which in turn honed down my movement choices to only what was absolutely essential.

In that cold barn in Pennsylvania my human-centric notion of intelligence was fundamentally altered.

I am reminded of our Richmond experience every time I see the New York City carriage horses at the end of their workday at 6:00pm trotting at a noticeably fast clip down 10th Avenue heading towards their stalls and dinner. Behavior choices are really tethered to desired outcomes.

Twenty years into this choreographic journey, I have devised numerous strategies for training my dancers to work in choreographic modules that are often not rehearsed in order. We have experienced numerous humbling situations in which our equine partners have learned what comes next and simply changed the plan or and skipped to the end.

The choreographic result has been a series of magnificent discoveries: Opportunity to create works that are never performed in the same sequence twice; opportunity to train dancers to function with real time decision-making; opportunity to invent strategies for splicing improvised material inside rigorously set sequences such that the performance has the feeling of being invented in the moment.

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