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  • Writer's pictureJoAnna Shaw

Survival Strategies

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Survival Strategies

I took up pottery as a grand evasion, a way to avoid my desk, with its mountains of paperwork, the emails, phone calls, grant proposals and an unbalanced checkbook.

Throwing on a wheel: I've loved it instantly. Pressing my full body weight into the clay and gradually centering, I tackled that challenge of centering clay on a spinning wheel with a vengeance. Exerting far too much weight, I was extremely bad at first. But I could sense that this was something I could practice and get better at. This was a physical activity that called for thinking and feeling simultaneously and was far more satisfying than trying to learn Quickbooks.

My romance with pottery wasn't so much about making stuff. It was more about mastering a physical task that called for finesse, getting my fingers to be as precise and light and fluid as possible while still exerting weight into the clay. Ironically, these were the exact same constellation of skills that I was working on in my horsemanship: Being able to apply light weight at just the right moment, modulating fluidly from strong to light weight, spatial preciseness. And patience.

As my throwing skill improved, I could throw a cup or bowl within minutes. Then you wait for the clay to dry into leather hard green ware. Once you have a piece of green ware, you are ready to trim. I loved trimming. Wielding a small sharp tool that could smooth an edge, cut a foot into the bottom of a bowl. You could see the results of skillful trimming immediately. You could transform a clunky object into something whimsical or even graceful! My cupboards filled with of small deformed bowls and eventually perfectly formed, larger bowls.

One of my favorite pottery projects was to throw a closed shape. This called for building the walls of the piece up, then applying just enough gradual pressure inward to close the top of the form. You would create an indented ridge into the wet clay, which became the location of the upper-to-lower incision.

As greenware, a closed form could be a bit clunky and thick. Once opened, the inside and lid could be carved into a graceful perfection. Making closed forms became an obsession for a while.

I would hand build little cats to put on top of the lids to create odd little cat jars. I was a total novice stumbling on a lovely alternative to perfect wheel technique. A regular Grandma Moses of pottery!

The pottery in an odd an unconscious way was a unconscious strategy for keeping The Equus Projects in strategic a holding pattern: My teaching jobs defined my schedule for eight months of each year, keeping me in New York City. Juilliard did not allow faculty to miss teaching for out of town tours. Ailey allowed faculty to hire substitute teachers, but I loved my students and did not want to abandon them for weeks at a time. Financially my teaching income was helping to support our two or three out of town projects each year. So our touring was limited to only what was financially and logistically manageable.

The pottery was a way to avoid the desk work that might have pushed The Equus Projects out into the world and taken me on the road. I was not ready to be away from home: My son Isaac was in high school. Babies need a lot of attention, but teenagers need you there all the time. As much as they are protecting the privacy in their blossoming private life, they need to know that you are paying attention. I did not want to be constantly touring during Isaac’s high school years.

However, during this Equus Projects holding pattern, I wanted the company to have some form of New York visibility. I was also curious to create a performance format in which we could test out how our equine strategies and scoring mechanisms translated into choreography without horses. So, in 2011 I created a New York City site-specific performance series called On-Site NYC.

The OnSite NYC projects brought our work into the city without incurring large production costs. I could offer Equus dancers a chance to perform, albeit with an ambient audience. On-Site NYC was eligible for Department of Cultural Affairs funding and grants from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. In tandem with OnSite NYC, I launched a Dance Differently class series, which was a movement-based laboratory where I could experiment with teaching methods, share creative process investigations and try out choreographic scoring methods. OnSite NYC hired lots of non-Equus dancers and the LABs were a great way for them to begin experiencing our scoring processes.

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