In my choreographic journey with dancers and horses, the most challenging and fascinating interactions are with rider-less horses or horses at liberty. Those interactions might take place is a pasture with a herd of horses or in an enclosed space or round pen with a single animal.
Using improvisational techniques such as imitation or sponging, by shaping negative space between my body and the horse and using tactile cueing, I can engineer a structured interaction with a willing equine partner. With patience those interactions can be shaped into an improvised duet using thematic movement material. Horses will learn movement cues quickly and a curious horse will actually engage in the creation of this kind of spontaneous dance, offering variations and inventive suggestions!
In order to practice this kind of spontaneous shaping of behavior in the studio, we invited babies into the studio. My thinking was that creating compositional logic with an infant might call into play some of the same skill sets we used to shape a choreographic event in a pasture with an equine partner.
Inviting an equine into a kinetic dialogue begins quietly. We enter their space, modulate our movement to frame their behavior. We present ourselves as gentle observers. We do not interfere with their grazing behavior. Gradually we begin to shape our spatial relationship, creating an energetic conversation. We subtly shift their orientation in space and eventually move them through space. Once this join up is established, they might begin to follow us, mirror our energy. All of this occurs for short intervals of time. I wanted to be able to practice framing and shaping in our studio practice and somehow wrestle with the same level of tangible challenge we faced out in the pasture. Babies seemed like an excellent solution.
When my son was a toddler, if I wanted to honestly engage with him, I looked to join him in his form of play, not impose my own construct of a play event. I had to pay attention to his attention and be OK with following his sense of duration. Much like an equine partner, engaging with my son happened in short interludes of interaction.
When I began researching ways to practice shaping equine in studio context, my own child was too old for the kind of interaction I envisioned. However, my closest collaborator and company dancer, Gina Paolillo agreed to bring her nine-month old son Jaco into the studio. He was not walking yet but was able to energetically propel himself along the floor using multiple inventive crawling strategies.
In setting up a movement score with Jaco, we tasked ourselves with this initial progression: Join Jaco in movement, stimulate curiosity, establish a shared movement experience and then slightly reshape that movement material. We made the rule that we could not pick Jaco up or move him. Most important: No cute baby games. No peekaboo.
Jaco was a willing partner but only for limited durations. We found that when we stopped trying to engage, when we removed our attention from directly engaging with him, it provided Jaco with a kind of release. That release was an essential interlude of recuperation. After a brief respite he was ready to engage again.
Jaco had a great time. His tolerance for the exercise was limited to 30 minutes. It was tempting to keep going and continue working on perfecting our skills. However the priority was Jaco’s well-being.
Eight years later another excellent infant candidate came into our studio practice. In 2011 we convinced our Company Manager Maegen Keller to bring her 15-month old son Roland into the studio. At this point we had more horsemanship under our belts and had started to examine how we might actually shape engagement beyond initial moments of join–up.
With Roland we devised and a more evolved choreographic score than with Jaco. I wanted to see if we could proceed beyond the fledging moments of infant curiosity, return to thematic material and work inside a musical structure. We worked with a Bach Prelude. Initial movement choices had to fully engage Roland. If we lost his attention we had to devise another variation. All choreographic choices had to match the music. We challenged ourselves to work with clear theme and variation, use not more than 5 different ideas and find a conclusion within the 2:30 length of the Prelude. The results were spectacular mini performances! Roland was good for four different Prelude explorations before the play was no longer fun.
In this studio work with babies, we were practicing improvisational skills, compositional decision-making and compassionate listening skills. We were teaching ourselves how to transition into a new idea while maintaining a clear through-line of thematic material. Working inside the concise musical limitation of the Bach Prelude forced us to work musically, at the same time attending to keeping our infant partner engaged. The level of multi-tracking was challenging. We were contending with what happens when nothing happens – finding congruent stillness, allowing the dance to just embrace hanging out, remembering the importance of stillness.
Perhaps the most profound takeaways were about compassion: When does an interaction cease to become fun and become work? In order to maintain connection with a partner, allowing time for information exchange to really take place might require down time, recuperation, space for the baby or the horse or another dancer to receive information. Listening is as important as speaking. crucial. Stop when your partner needs to stop.
Studio time with babies made us think deeply about the ethics of dancing with a partner. The physical listening seems fundamental to the ethnics of connection between two movers. I have witnessed numerous equine-training sessions that lasted far too long. Then again, I recall dance rehearsals that mirror that unfortunate shortcoming.