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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw

Task-ness and Choreography

I love to watch dancers who comfortably inhabit their own bodies with no protective layers or pretense. They are completely present and are able to inhabit movement with uncomplicated directness. Working with horses the ego gets stripped away and we are left with simple tasks. I have come to define choreography in terms of tasks – simple jobs with clear objectives.

The notion of dancing as task became very clear to me during the fall of 2007. At 7:00am every Monday morning the dancers and I would load into my SUV and drive out to Huntington Station on Long Island where our friend, Judy Meilinger maintained a small, private equine property that was home to her four horses. We began our Monday rehearsals mucking the stalls, then let the horses out into the dirt paddock. We spent the next half hour simply observing herd behavior. The horses’ morning paddock behavior was to run, roll, conduct a re-negotiation of herd dynamics then settle into foraging for stray pieces of hay, and snacking on the surrounding trees. Eventually the geldings would lie down and sun themselves. Natasha, the pony, often stood in the middle of the paddock, out of harms way, waiting for the “guys” to sort out their herd issues and settle down.

Once this phase was complete, we would enter the paddock to begin a join-up process. Our choreographic score was to move through the paddock as a unison herd, noticing when our movement elicited a response, remaining neutral in our demands, consciously not asking the horse for movement. Gradually we would begin a drop off process, leaving one dancer off to begin a one on one interaction with a horse. The join up involved simply standing, sitting or lying quietly with the horse, mirroring the horse’s orientation in space, shifting when he shifted. Eventually the unison herd and solo interludes would begin to gently suggest movement until finally all four dancers and the herd of four equines would be moving around the perimeter of the paddock. I recall that this large circle usually moved counterclockwise, the horses keeping us on their left inside shoulders.

This was our initial warm-up – a series of tasks, each with a very real, specific objective. Every movement was made for a reason with decisions about tempo, spatial directions, shaping of our bodies made based on the equines – their speed, spatial orientation and state of attention.

Following this warm-up process we would tackle a choreographic problem. One particular session stands out in my memory. We devised a very simple score that called for each of the four dancers to find a horse, place one ear over the animal’s left side, somewhere near their heart. We would wait until we could feel the horse breathing and hear a heartbeat. Whenever the horse shifted, even the tiniest amount, the score called for us to move away from the animal and simply re-sift positions, going to another horse and establishing the same listening process. If one dancer moved all four would have to move as well so we were attending not only to our equine partner, but also to every other dancer. The transition between horses was a simple, just a mid-paced very direct walk.

I wanted to install inside this simple score one dancer tasked with performing more complicated movement. A solo figure doing movement material that was somehow the exact opposite of the listening/ heartbeat task. That material needed to be spatially complex, multi-body systems operating simultaneously, undulating without appearing indulgent, neurotic or self-involved. We tried formal space harmony scores but they called too much attention to the mental processing of the soloist. Eventually dancer Emily Quant found the perfect solution. Quiet. Self-possessed but not indulgent. We revisited that entire sequence of events several times but have not, to date, used it in a performance.

In the very beginning of my journey making performance work with horses, I rarely experienced those magnificent moments of transparency - when the horse seemed to guide us to see the human being more clearly. If we experienced those moments at all, they were fleeting, stuck between formal choreographic material that tried to match the horse’s power and presence. In that early phase of discovery, I did not know enough about equine behavior to rest inside the simplicity of those moments. Our projects were big sprawling spectacles that called for lots of action.

Later, when we had studied natural horsemanship, started to learn how to direct the animals, as the work increasingly tried to create real connection between human and equine, we began to install real tasks inside the choreography. We had to. When we began to work with horses on lead lines and at liberty, we needed to tie halters, pick up lead lines, use a whip or crop to cue the horses, or just simply wait for a spook moment to pass. The task-ness of the work was so concrete and real and necessary. The length of time the tasks took was real. The movement quality the task called for was real, the weight and texture of tying a halter it needed to take the time it took to tie a halter, and take up the only the amount of space it needed.

We began to think about the choreography as having a sense of responsibility to clarity and efficiency. Returning to working with ridden horses we took this sense of responsibility and task-ness into that form. The shaping of our bodies in relationship to the ridden horse became a necessity, not just an aesthetic choice. We intuitively knew how to shape with a ridden horse but never understood why we were doing that. Our knowing had shifted from unconscious competence to conscious competence. A huge leap.

Eventually I began to define ALL choreography as task, sequences of necessity.

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