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  • JoAnna Mendl Shaw

Pasture Dances

Pasture Dances: The animals create the choreography Whether we realize it or not, site-specific performances are defined in large part by the sentient beings that occupy the space. In urban settings, site choreographers often take for granted the ambient passerby or attentive spectator, presenting their dances as if the outdoor space is simply an architectural canvas; the urban setting, transformed into a stage. However, the ambient energy of the humans occupying those urban spaces is an undeniable element in their theatrical production. Both the ambient passerby and the attentive spectators are the backdrop, the stage set. Their presence offers energetic content for that performance.

Perhaps I am a bit of a snob about site work. I create choreographic work that often incorporates horses into our performance landscapes. Of course our site works are shaped by the geography of our natural landscapes. But it is the sentient beings - animal and human - that shape the content of the work.

In the initial years of making equine-centric work I thought my motivation was the sheer spectacle. As my horsemanship knowledge and skill advanced, I realized that the presence of the animals offered not only visual beauty but also a mirror for the human behavior. I began to see this juxtaposition as offering the possibility for a kind of truth-telling that interested me.

Una Chaudhuri, author of Animal Acts, Performing Species Today writes:

The great gift that (other) animals have always offered to the human species is their radical otherness. Animals in performance or performance about animals bring us face to face with our assumptions about what we know and how we know it.

When animals occupy a performance space, the creator takes on a hefty responsibility to figure out what exactly is our relationship to those creatures. What are we asking of them?

In the 40+ works I have created with humans and equines, the animals increasingly have come to play a dominant role in shaping the choreography. For an entire year, we trained with a wonderfully generous Parelli equestrian and her small herd of horses in Huntington Station on Long Island. Every session we began by hanging out with the herd, exploring interesting mechanisms for being with the horses without asking for their attention. During many hours spent with horses in pastures, my dancers and I devised a whole repertory of ways to orchestrate our presence - both in stillness and movement - in the pasture that would have relevance to the horses but not disturb their grazing. We thought of these as small choreographies, or scores. We devised a unison herding score - highly orchestrated human behavior - as a frame for the quiet, ambient kinetics of grazing horses. In our Pasture Dances, the unison herding score reduces our movement choices down to simple walking or jogging that moves in and among the grazing animals, interspersed with arrested, motionless tableaus. The spatial pathways are intentionally directed to open spaces between animals, at a distance. Tableau placement is directionally oriented to align with a specific animal. Tableau body positions are chosen to shape to the horizontal curvatures of the animal’s body.

The herding score, its simplicity and rigor of the unison movement, functions as unambiguous contrast to the ambient grazing of the horses. The herd of human movers – usually trios, sometimes a quartet – is performed in exact unison, with leadership constantly shifting as facings shift and decision-making a shared responsibility. Pathways, speed of movement, placement and content of tableaus are all improvised but rigorously based on a pre-determined repertory of body shaping and simple gestural choices.

A Pasture Dance might simply function as a visual installation. When staged as a progressive performance event, level of interaction with the horses gradually shifts. The beginning stages of the Pasture Dances is designed to simply join the animals, not direct or influence them. Then the score progresses into a gentle ASK. Spatial pathways begin to move the animals. The human herd activity gradually begins to affect and shape the behavior of the horses. Shifting from co-existing to influencing, the dancers use their horsemanship skills to move the animals, strategically diminishing the space, between the humans and horses, marshaling steady visual pressure or rhythmic motion to begin moving the animals. This shift in intention from not asking, to asking, is immediately sensed by the animals.

If the asking remains gentle but persistent, the curious, confident horses might join the human herd. In the ideal scenario, the entire herd begins to move with the dancers.

To be clear, our Long Island sessions took place in a dirt paddock. The horses were not grazing. However, working on grass offers us interesting movement opportunities to create undemanding engagement with the animals.

​​I frequently join them in what I call their grazing cadence: Every horse has a different pattern of biting, ripping and chewing alternating with intermittent raising of their heads. I call this sequence a grazing cadence and often begin by mirroring that rhythmic pattern in my hands. On the head raise I move with them, with my full-bodied posture change shaping to their bodies. As their grazing location gradually changes, I stay with them for a duration, leave and return. The score calls for patience and persistence but creates a soft and undemanding shared conversation.

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