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  • JoAnna Mendl Shaw

Vashon Island, WA

Vashon Island, WA

Watching a sunset on Vashon Island feels like you are witnessing the sun falling off the edge of the earth.

Vashon, or Vashon-Maury Island, is the largest island in the Puget Sound south of Admiralty Inlet. There are no bridges to connect the island with the mainland. Though situated just a seven-minute ferry ride from Seattle, stepping off the Vashon ferry feels like you have stepped back into rural America in the 1950’s. The island feels isolated and unconcerned with the busy striving of nearby Seattle.

In 2009 Equus was invited to create a performance with a small herd of Polish Arabians on Vashon. A breed known for its speed and endurance, the Polish Arabians are also immensely sensitive horses that call for the gentlest hand possible. Their owner, Heather Houston, was a former opera singer, lawyer and now horse breeder.

Our performance site occupied a small pasture bordered by forest on one side and Heather’s flower garden on the other. Heather’s childhood horse was buried in upper right corner of the pasture, bright blue corn flowers covering the grave site. The backdrop was a stand of trees perched on a cliff. One could see glimmers of sky through the branches. At sunset, the fading sunlight seductively filtered through the line of trees.

Resting Ground began at sunset.

Sometimes, perhaps often, serious learning occurs in partnership with failure. The opening moments of Resting Ground were heartrendingly beautiful. Three dancers, each leading a white horse, walk just behind the tree line, their white coats appear and disappear behind the trees, shadow and light conspiring to conjure a visceral sense of time passing, a Magritte painting come to life. A solitary cello (played live by electric cellist Jami Sieber) accompanies the human-equine promenade. The animals and dancers enter the shady pasture space, as if stepping out of distant memory into the present, the sunlit trees now behind them.

The remaining 50 minutes of Resting Ground were lovely, but never matched the magic of that first series of images. The thick lead lines and heavy halter clips were better suited for large thoroughbreds, not super-sensitive Arabians. Circular formations, unison direction changes,

exuberant trotting traversals of the small pasture and occasional interludes of quiet grazing were perfect in my choreographer’s imagination. In the world of equine reality, the heavy equipment dulled the animals and the arduous rehearsing of choreographic patterns had resulted in evasion behaviors. The equine lack of enthusiasm was apparent to the numerous horse folks who made up the lion’s share of our audience that summer. After our open dress rehearsal Heather bought thin lead lines and light weight clips. But we had not practiced the level of finesse required. And the lack of a carefully progressive training regime for the horses could not be corrected overnight. Resting Ground was a humbling reminder that horses are not choreographic props.

If I wished to honestly capture an inter-species exchange between human and equine, I would need to jettison a host of choreographic conventions: Spatial patterns, organized time, dancing to music. Time is not metered. The question of horses responding to music is often debated. Neuroscientist Ani Patel wrote the first scientific book about music-language relations from the standpoint of cognitive neuroscience. Part of Patel’s research investigated which animals shared the human ability to synchronize our movement with musical tempo and meter. Patel’s research focused on the cockatoo’s uncanny ability to synchronize with varied music tempos and meters. I met Patel through mutual friends and he asked if I could help him construct an experiment with equines. I arranged for Patel to conduct an experiment with Sacramento equine trainer David Lichman. Lichman arranged for music to be playing on a loud speaker while a rider, wearing headphones is listening to a different piece of music. The outcome clearly demonstrated that the horse was responding to the movement of the rider, not at all aware of the amplified music.

Fortunately, Heather Houston forgave us. In July 2010, we returned to Vashon to make Dancing in Real Time with Heather’s Polish Arabians. This time the horses were at liberty – no lead lines. The choreography would be framing intersecting behaviors, linked through sound. Direct conversations between dancer and horses would take place through direct touch or spatial cueing.

The choreographic strategy was to divide the cast by function: Marcel, the dancer with the strongest horsemanship skills, took on the task of directing the horses, moving the animals through space. The women functioned as a small herd, their movement a rarified behavior that progressed with an uninflected constancy, a timeless energetic flow, part human, part creature. Their tactile interactions with the horses – muzzle to hand, stroking, forehead to flank -expressed curiosity, tenderness, patience. Spatial pathways navigated among the animals, never directing them, but occasionally performing phrases in perilous proximity. The women’s movement gathered and folded into the ground, into their bodies, leaving the scattering vehemence to Marcel who sent the animals into cantering sprints through the small pasture. Marcel’s natural vehemence well suited to this task. He had an overwhelming need to be the alpha of our female herd. Allowing him to inhabit that role, productively harnessed his ego.

Dancing in Real Time elegantly paired dancer with equine partner, an exercise in choosing compatible personalities. The mare in our Polish Arabian cast was Ella, a consummate introvert. The slightest whisper of pressure, spoke volumes. Her strong flight response often manifested with Ella seemingly holding her breath. During training sessions, Equus dancer Laurence substituted her lead line for a length of thread. Generous patience supported the mare’s need for expansive processing time. With Ella, any personal desire tilted towards aggression. Every ounce of Laurence’s attention had to be committed to listening, waiting and gently asking. Laurence’s dancing truly blossomed. The mare kept Laurence’s need to be beautiful in check.

Our equine extrovert was Eli, very smart, playful and a perfect match for Rebekah. One might categorize Bek and Eli as planners – behavior that manifested with Eli as an irresistible tendency to anticipate cues. The Imprint Score was a case in point. Conceived as choreographic down time midway through the piece, the Imprint Score was designed to interact with grazing horses. Each dancer created a series of touch-based interactions with her horse, progressively accumulating events into an extended phrase. Phrases complete, Marcel moves the horses, leaving the dancers performing the imprinted phrases. A women’s trio preceded the Imprint event. You can imagine the rest…Eli sees the trio begin and dutifully ambles to his position at the center of the pasture, leading viewers are left to wonder why a solitary horse has effectively stolen center stage!

Carly’s equine partner was a steady, quiet animal whose name I cannot remember but whose patience allowed Carly to create intricate a beautifully articulated imprint phrase that allowed the audience to fully grasp the choreographic concept. Had I fully strategized this event I would have placed Carly center stage, although I am not sure that Eli would have permitted that.

Once the lead lines are gone, choreography must be a direct dialogue with the animals. Strategic planning is essential. Rehearsing a repeatable performance trajectory is accomplished in segments, preferably run at different times of the day! The creation of Dancing in Real Time was possible because we worked with an equine trainer, Beth Kellner who helped us work backwards from final objectives, plan rehearsals in small modules, sort out the necessary skill sets and assure that we had productive, dedicated horse time every day. We tackled each choreographic concept as human training and equine training. Devising movement was approached in terms of its function: What did each section need to accomplish in the dramatic trajectory? What skill sets did we need to assure the horses remained integrated into or connected to that material? Could we accustom the horses to trot and canter, in very close-proximity to the women performing a very slow phrase lying on the ground. Could we accustom the dancers not to flinch? Could Marcel back off his energy just in time to affect an elegant deceleration just as the ground phrase ends. Could we entice the horses to remain in their pasture positions long enough to complete the Imprint Score?

Vashon Island and our herd of Polish Arabians seriously challenged us as performers, creators, as a team, upped our game and deepened our practice. The brilliant poet Alison Hawthorne Deming writes of her practice, “I write because to do so is an experiment in being present.” The dancers who created and performed those beautiful pieces on Vashon Island were transformed, as was I. We resisted the desire to fill empty space with complex movement phrases, instead settling on a kind of kinetic simplicity that became expressions of behavior. We actively wrestled with unpredictable outcomes and did our best to plan for multiple eventualities. The performance became a framed process of attending.

Deming writes, “Even our best intentions fall into a process of complex change that we could not have anticipated. Attention must be paid.”

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