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JoAnna Mendl Shaw is not your typical choreographer.  While it is every choreographer's challenge to frame what we see as an audience, for JoAnna, the frame is not limited to the rectangular dimensions of a stage.  JoAnna must balance the demands of site-specificity, dancers, equestrians and their horses.  Her company, The Equus Projects, partners professional dancers with horses and their riders to create site-specific performances across the country.  I first met JoAnna at the Bates Dance Festival in Maine, where I had the honor of seeing The Equus Projects perform at Chance Encounter Farm in 2008.  This performance communicated to me a beautiful tableaux of our relationship with animals and nature, and how we can find mutual understanding through movement.  Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with JoAnna about The Equus Projects and her experience working with horses over a delicious cup of coffee.  I could have listened for hours.

Dancing with horses

JoAnna has been investigating the possibilities of kinetic dialogue between dancers and horses since 1998.  In the beginning, she worked with horses that were all ridden, so the focus was on the equestrian, "training them to allow the horse to move with us. What emerged was a very porous trio - a really fluid triad."  However, since 2004, JoAnna has been working with horses without riders.  "This opened up a whole new set of challenges for us," she told me, "We were no longer communicating with a creature of fight [human].  We were now communicating with a creature of flight - a creature that saw survival different than a human being."  To my question, "Why horses?", she told me that it was not only about aesthetics, but for a hunger for unmitigated physicality and an interest in the relationship between thinking, knowing and sensing.  She has had a long-standing fascination with athletes (having choreographed for ice dancers, in-line skaters and gymnasts in the past), believing that horses and dancers are athletes with physical intelligence stemming from a unique partnership between the right brain, or sensing brain, and left brain, or thinking brain.  (A left brain horse is a horse that intends to go to a thinking brain, while a right brain horse goes to a sensing brain.) "Working with horses who are by nature, superb athletes, we are experiencing a partnership with a nonverbal creature, which really makes us understand the boundaries of that physical intelligence," says JoAnna.

For dancers, physical intelligence is not only a spatial intelligence, but a unique ability to weight sense and intuitively measure time, all of which is put to the test when their fellow dancers are horses. "The truth is, if you are moving with a horse, you have to speak in a language that the horse can read.  Otherwise the work is about you and not about partnership."  JoAnna told me that they have set three goals for themselves before entering into the arena with a horse:

1. Ask for nothing, just be there.  (They call this stillness scores.)

2. Just focus on horsemanship and ask.  Have a clear follow through, and know that if you ask, you expect to get.

3. A merger of 1 and 2.  This is the most challenging.  Since horses have a great physical memory, dancers are very much held accountable for all their movement choices. 


Thinking Locally

Unlike most dance companies based in New York, The Equus Projects do not focus on an annual New York City season.  Firstly, there is no longer a suitable venue for the performances.  The Claremont Stables on Amsterdam and 89th Street, which JoAnna converted into a theater space in 2005, have become condominiums, so ninety-nine percent of their performing and teaching occurs outside of New York City.  They also don't own their own horses.  When creating a work, they are using local horses, so every work is a new work, not to mention site-specific.  As you can imagine, the choreographic process is extremely time consuming and the amount of time really needed outgrows its funding.  As JoAnna put it: "Rarely does our funding enable us to spend enough time because not only do we want to make a piece that honors the geographic site, but we need to honor the equine partner.  The work rests completely upon creating partnership and establishing our leadership on mutual respect."        

Instead of trying to tour a wide range of venues every year, The Equus Projects have identified hub sites where they can build a community of artists, dancers, equestrians, horses and patrons.  They have received funding for four hub sites: the Ocala-Gainsville area of Florida, the greater Seattle area, the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, and the newest, in Helena-Bozeman, Montana.  Each of these sites has its own group of regional organizers and an advisory board.  "It's not just about having a big fan club in four cities," JoAnna informed me, "There is an intersection of interest between our work and local coordinators work with each hub site.  We are asking, what can we do for you? How does the work serve you? Where do you enter the body of work?"

Between Two Worlds

You could say The Equus Projects are caught between two worlds - the horse world and the dance world.  "The biggest thing we do as a dance company is look at our sustainability outside the dance world. We look not only to horses, but the world of science, visual art, music, film... Our audience base is very broad because the work appeals to people in so many different ways." The Equus Projects has worked with a wide range of renowned horsemanship mentors, most notably Pat and Linda Parelli, who trained Equus company members in their interactions with horses, and who have introduced them to the equestrian community.  "That was the tipping point for us because it catapulted us into an international arena in the horse world," says JoAnna on meeting the Parelli's, "Step ten paces back into the dance world, not as easy." While finding their niche in the horse community has evolved wonderfully, it is harder to find support among the dance community.  Even with National Performance Network (NPN) commissions (2002, 2009) and a New York Season (2003, 2005), JoAnna believes the viability of the work in the dance world is harder to market. "The connection between dance and dancing with horses is elusive.  When you are working with a horse the movement vocabulary is very stripped... The first eight years of this project was about stripping the language to the most essential, which in the dance world reads as perhaps a very simplistic movement vocabulary. What we are doing now is reentering the arena of movement invention." 

If you'd like to learn more about The Equus Projects, or sign up for a workshop, please visit



Additional Information


For further explanation of the right and left brain of horses, see HORSENALITY by the Parelli's.

After speaking with JoAnna, I was curious which side of my brain I use more.  If you are too, I found this visual TEST. (My right brain wins!)

JoAnna's pick: "The Physical Genius: What do Wayne Gretzky, Yo-Yo Ma, and a brain surgeon named Charlie Wilson have in common?" by Malcolm Gladwell.  An interesting article about right and left brain function, and sensing, knowing and thinking. Read it HERE.


About JoAnna: 

New York-based dance choreographer JoAnna Mendl Shaw established her career in the Pacific Northwest, where she founded and directed a large professional dance company, taught on the faculty at the University of Washington and Cornish College and played a leadership role in arts advocacy for the Northwest. Relocating to New York in 1991, Shaw has national gained recognition for her large-scale site specific works and collaborative projects with athletes. The recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Choreographic Fellowships, Shaw has choreographed for ice dancers, in-line skaters, gymnasts and equestrians. Her dance work has been presented at numerous NYC venues and commissioned by dance companies throughout the States and in Europe. In 1998 Shaw launched The Equus Projects, a performance company that merges dance and equestrian artistry. The company has created large commissioned works for The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and Virginia Commonwealth University and has presented its work at museum sites and equestrian centers and will create a new work for the 2007 opening of the UC/Davis Equestrian Center. Shaw currently teaches in New York City, serving on the faculty at The Juilliard School and in the Ailey /Fordham BFA program. She has taught at Tisch/New York University, Montclair State University and Mount Holyoke College. International teaching and choreographic commissioned include residencies in Hungary, Japan, Korea, Canada, Yugoslavia, Scotland, Wales and coaching and teaching for the Swiss Gymnastic Federation. Shaw holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College and an MFA in Dance from the University of Utah. She is a Certified Movement Analyst in the Laban/Bartenieff work. 

About The Equus Projects:

The Equus Projects partners professional dancers with horses and their riders to create site-specific performance works that merge the artistry of dance with the athletics of equestrianism. The company creates works for arts and equine venues that are virtuosic and diverse, and exchanges dance and equestrian pedagogy with members of each field, to establish an interdisciplinary performance language. 

In 1997, choreographer JoAnna Mendl Shaw engineered a unique collaboration between the Mount Holyoke College Dance Department and Equestrian Program, which resulted in a trilogy of site-specific performance works for dancers and horses. During the three-month process of creating this body of work, Shaw became fascinated by the visceral connection that developed between the dancers and horses. Following completion of the Mount Holyoke project, Shaw initiated a series of research and performance projects to further explore the language of communication between human and equestrian collaborators. 

The Equus Projects has transformed equestrian arenas into theatre spaces and produced four evening-length works for dancers and horses. The company has also created site-specific movement installations for hillside, lawns and gardens. Their repertory of smaller performance works have been performed at Equine Affaire, the Parelli Tour Stop, for dance festivals such as the NYC River to River Festival in downtown Manhattan, American College Dance Festival in New London, CT and The Bates Dance Festival. The Company has taught clinics for equestrians and workshops sharing their equine techniques with dancers. Their touring has taken them to arts and equestrian venues Washington, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Vermont and Virginia. 


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