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JoAnna Mendl Shaw: Dancing with Horses

JoAnna Mendl Shaw founded The Equus Projects in 1999, a company that pairs dancers with horses for site-specific works created for rural and sometimes urban landscapes. Eighteen years later, she continues exploring diverse approaches to working with her non-conventional dance partners and implementing newly gained skills in her inter-species choreography.


Dance ICONS: How did you begin this work?


JoAnna Mendl Shaw: In 1998, I was invited by the Dance Department at Mount Holyoke College to create a site-specific performance for the 20th Anniversary of the Five College Dance Department. Mount Holyoke has an excellent dance program and equestrian team. I thought it would be interesting to bring dancers and horses together on this beautiful college campus.


During the creation process, I was fascinated with the dancers’ intuitive ability to communicate with the horses. The dancers were able to create a kinetic dialogue with their equine partners by transforming their movement to match another sentient mover. Eventually, I developed a new constellation of skill sets, which I called Physical Listening.


ICONS:  What is Physical Listening, and can you tell us more about it?


JMS: First, let me clarify that our dance company does not own the horses. With each project, we work with the local community of equestrians and their horses. Therefore, in order to practice our horsemanship skills, we had to formulate in the dance studio a physical context that emphasized the skills we needed to move with a horse, a 1200-pound creature of flight.


This led us to the development of an extensive Physical Listening practice. We explore movement through an inter-species lens, shaping space between bodies to negotiate alpha status, much the same as horses move with each other in a herd. We work with a modulating sense of touch, and we practice moving deftly between forcefulness and gentleness.


The Physical Listening practice also includes strategic thinking. Different equine personalities call for dramatically different handling. For example, working with a curious, dominant horse requires a different kind of leadership than working with a submissive, fearful animal. Physical Listening is a constant checking in, a noticing of how our movement is affecting our equine partner.


ICONS: In summary, it seems that at the heart of your work there is merging of sensing and thinking. Is that correct?


JMS:  Yes, it is about moving expressively with spatial awareness, sensing movement texture, marshalling strength, and thinking strategically. Working with horses calls upon all of these skills simultaneously! The dancer is sensing the animal while attending to the choreographic trajectory, and making adjustments in the moment to maintain the connection to the animal.


ICONS: What kinds of challenges do you face in choreographing with horses?


JMS: Horses are very smart. They will learn a choreographic sequence and then begin anticipating. Some horses will simply skip to the end to be done sooner. The circus never practices a routine in order. They rehearse skill sets. We do the same.  

I begin choreographing a piece by creating the trajectory – storyboard – and then deciding what skill sets we need. Then, I devise a game-plan for how to rehearse the piece. Dancers enjoy rehearsing, investing in repetition until a sequence is learned. For horses, endless repetition is tedious. Therefore, I rehearse with the dancers first on foot. We learn the spatial patterns before bringing the horses into rehearsal. In this way, we avoid involving the horses in a tiresome experimentation process that might suit human nature, but it is not tolerable to the horses.


When working with ridden horses, I often draw maps of the riding patterns which they learn before they climb into the saddle. If we are working with rider-less horses, it is tremendously important to consider the personality of each horse.


For me, the horses are not large moving props, but sentient beings that I respect and honor. I bring that same level of respect to every dancer I work with.  


ICONS: Apparently, when you choreograph with horses, you think about dancing as a task. You have made many works without horses, in which the dancers are manipulating objects. What are you interested in exploring when you work in multiple layers?


JMS: Well, my work with horses has me to conceive of dance phrases and steps as a series of tasks. My movement material is functional and it is created to accomplish distinct tasks.


For example, in 2011 we made a piece for the Bates Dance Festival. In the foreground, dancers and horses interacted in highly athletic interludes. And in the background on a distant hillside, fourteen women in red evening gowns gradually raked a hillside of hay into a huge serpentine. Their simple, ambient task coordinated with the foreground action. At the conclusion of the piece, one could see a magnificent serpentine of hay snaking down the hillside. A dance vanishes as it is performed…


My goal was to explore different ways that the choreography could actually alter the landscape, causing someone’s perception and memory of that space to change.


ICONS: Is there a universal message behind the connections that you demonstrate? Who might benefit from a Physical Listening workshop?


JMS: The notion of listening to not only words but also listening to another person’s movement seems fundamental to communication. Besides teaching this material to dancers and equestrians, I’ve introduced Physical Listening to medical students, therapists, strategic planners, and to children. We are developing Physical Listening explorations for elementary school children to expand their spatial awareness. We also encourage them to use touch respectfully and to function as a team.  


ICONS: Looking back, is there anything you would say to the younger JoAnna who decided to pursue this work?  


JMS: I would tell her just don’t give up, and don’t worry if the dance world doesn’t get it. I dropped out for a little while because I didn’t want to fight that battle. I would tell her to stay in it and fight -- make the dance world pay attention! I would tell her don’t be impatient, that this sort of thing can’t be rushed. It even took me all these years to fully understand why I do this and why I love this. I would tell her what you’re doing is important; what you’re doing is necessary. 





More about JoAnna Mendl Shaw:


JoAnna Mendl Shaw has been making works for stage and for rural and urban landscapes since the 1980’s. She is the Artistic Director of The Equus Projects, a dance company known for its site-specific performance works for dancers and horses and for the innovative choreographic structures that have emerged from their creation process. Shaw is the recipient of two NEA Choreographic Fellowships. Her work has been funded by Harkness, Jerome Robbins and Oppenheimer Foundations, and she received a 2017 NEA Interdisciplinary Arts grant for her on-going work in the Pullman District of South Chicago.


References, remarks, and approval by JoAnna Mendl Shaw ©

Photography by JoAnna Mendl Shaw, Arthur Fink, Michela Imbesi, Kajsa Lindqvist ©

Interview questions by Christina Lindenmuth, Junior Staff Writer ©

Camilla Acquista, Editor-in-Chief, Dance ICONS, Inc., June, 2017 ©