The Warehouse and ArtStart Present Improvisational Dance this Weekend in Rhinelander

Mar 16, 2018

Have you ever felt like you’re talking to someone, but they just aren’t reading your body language?

The New York based dance company the Equus Projects will be performing “The Breaking Ring” at ArtStart in downtown Rhinelander this weekend and they’ve made a name for themselves by listening and responding to the way humans — and horses — move.

When you see a choreographed dance in person, it’s easy to recognize the skill and planning it took to carry out everything perfectly as it was planned. But what if on top of learned choreography, you had to prepare to react to unexpected movements by others?

“You’re watching choreography in there, but a lot of what we’re doing is improvised,” says JoAnna Mendl Shaw, the artist director of the Equus Projects. “We never actually dance to a piece of music.”

The reason in part the dancers have to be prepared to think on their feet, is that they’re used to working with horses, who are fairly unpredictable dance partners.

“So we’ve devised literally a huge repertory of devises for creating incredibly legible choreography that we can do with an animal,” says Shaw. “So I might say, every time the horse moves his ear, I’m going to do this movement.”

Based in New York, Shaw founded Equus Projects in 1999, and has since created commissioned works in 16 States and in Europe. In addition to being professional dancers, Shaw and the four dancers performing this weekend all have horsemanship training.

If you’ve never seen it before, it’s hard to picture exactly what performing with horses looks like. Shaw says it’s a combination of responding to the horses’ movement and asking the horses themselves to move. It comes down to what she calls “physical listening.”

“You work with a horse, you need to pay attention to reading their bodies,” she says. “What are their ears doing? Can you sense how they’re breathing? Are they relaxed? Are they frightened?”

I should be clear that the Equus projects won’t be bringing horses into downtown Rhinelander this weekend, but they have created choreography inspired by their previous work with horses specifically for ArtStart’s gallery and they’ll be improvising throughout the performance. In addition, the presence of the audience might affect some of the choreography.

Something unique to the performance being done in Rhinelander is that Rhinelander based artist – Jaron Childs – is collaborating on the project by creating complex soundscapes, through a mix of open source field recordings, his own recordings, and other composer’s work. There will be four or five different scores during the performance.

“This is the epitome of great collaboration,” Shaw says. “When you both get it.”

Each time the Equus projects perform, it’s a little bit different. Whether there are horses or not, whether they’re outside in a rural landscape or inside in an art gallery… the improvisation and the music and the presence of the audience can all impact the performance.

Part of that includes leaving the performance with a different feeling at the end.The song they’re using for the finale includes recordings that Childs did of his own children, making lists of objects they see. It all ties in with Shaw’s idea of the importance of paying attention to what’s going on around you.

The Equus projects will perform the Breaking Ring in the gallery spaces at ArtStart in downtown Rhinelander March 16 - 18th. Performances Friday and Saturday night start at 7pm, and Sunday's performance starts at 2pm. There will be post-performance discussions after all performances.

This event is a co-presentation between The Warehouse Art Center in Eagle River and ArtStart in Rhinelander and is supported by the Arts Midwest Touring Fund, a program of Arts Midwest, generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts with additional contributions from Wisconsin Arts Board and the Crane Group.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.