Modern dance steps outside |
Autumn Phillips

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Modern dance steps outside

The horse stands eye to eye with the dancer, and they both begin to sidestep across the stage. The scene is lit by the spotlight of the sun. Dust rising from the feet of the horses and dancers acts as a kind of scrim.

The dance is a dance in all terms of the word — part choreography, part reaction to the whims of the animal.

On Wednesday afternoon and again on Friday, a large group gathered in the arena at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp to witness the Equus Project.

Human dancers used the horse’s natural instinct to move with the herd as a way to steer through complex choreography.

The performance was the creation of visiting New York choreographer and dance instructor JoAnna Mendl Shaw.

Shaw’s dance credits include 17 years as a dance instructor at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and years on stage as a modern dancer in Seattle and New York City. In recent years, she has taken her dancing out of the auditorium into site-specific projects. She choreographed pieces for hillsides, empty swimming pools and museums.

“I was interested in exploring work that would be seen beyond the ticket-buying dance audience,” Shaw said. The result is movement theater.

Shaw started experimenting with the interactions between dancers and horses in the late 1990s as an extension of her site-specific work.

With very little training, dancers could move in such a way to “tap into the horses’ energy,” Shaw said. “They were connected to each other. Dancers have a keen aesthetic sense that allows them to physically join with the animal. It was all very exciting to me.”

Since starting the Equus Project, Shaw has gotten large commissions from venues as diverse as theater and health centers.

On Wednesday, with the dancers dressed in jeans and work boots, horses, halterless and bareback, and mountains in the distance, the dance seemed at once modern and rustic. It had the feel of an ancient Greek performance combining nature with theater.

“In order to do this dance, you have to enter the equine world,” Shaw said. “Horses are creators of flight, and humans are creatures of flight. It’s about giving and taking, leading and being led.”