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The Equus Projects/Dancing With Horses
Claremont Riding Academy, New York, NY
October 8–9, 15–16, 2005
Reviewed by Lea Marshall

In Manhattan’s 103-year-old Claremont Riding Academy, the strong scent of horse, rain sliding down the windows, and a fat, demanding barn cat created a novel atmosphere for The Equus Projects’ Rules of Engagement, choreographed by JoAnna Mendl Shaw in collaboration with video artist Janet Biggs. In this engrossing site-specific work, the combination of sound, video, three booted dancers, one rider, and a horse created a complex environment spiked with moments of tension.

Metal bleachers transformed the indoor riding ring into a performance space, with two video screens set up on the dirt floor. According to the program, Rules of Engagement explores the “constant negotiations necessary to establish and maintain power” within all sorts of relationships, human and animal. Video imagery depicted horses on treadmills, bucks fighting, human bodies underwater, or a falcon devouring its prey, while the dancers (Blake Pearson, Gina Paolillo, MaryAlice White) enacted a series of power struggles against outside forces or each other, with combative partnering and arms and shoulders twisting as if bound together. Lovely moments of fragility punctuated the struggle, like when the dancers, jaggedly shadowed by sidelight, turned their throats to the ceiling or raised their hands gently before their faces.

Throughout this action, Blair Griesmeyer rode Navajo, a handsome, steady 18-year-old Appaloosa gelding. The focus of the piece sharpened and the air grew rich when Navajo passed close to the dancers or when they reached for him, placing a hand on his nose or shoulder. At one point White writhed on her back like a sacrifice as Navajo advanced delicately, almost unwillingly, to within inches of her, trusting in his rider’s wisdom. When it seemed she must move or be trampled, White rose and placed her hand on Navajo’s nose as he again advanced, appearing to push her through the space. Later, Paolillo and Navajo/Griesmeyer danced a lovely duet. The horse curved through the space behind Paolillo in the wake of her smooth, arcing gestures.

Shaw’s choreography felt most potent when she brought dancers and horse together or when the dancers’ unison movement counterbalanced Navajo’s. Often, however, the horse paced around the edge of the performance space, framing rather than participating in the action. One wanted more—better integration of video, dancers, and horse, or an intensified focus on the charged, intimate exchanges between humans and animal. See www.dancingwithhorses.org.

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