Two Mason Gross alumnae join a dance company focused on equine artistry
Kat Reese began riding horses at age 8, entering the world of dressage competitions and enjoying a decade-long career as an equestrian. Then, her other passion – dance – took the lead and she enrolled at Mason Gross School of the Arts as a BFA major. Studio and class time ate up the daylight hours, and Reese, who graduated in 2014, accepted that her “barn life,” as she fondly calls it, was over.
After all, Reese says, “Dance and horses felt really separate.”
Enter The Equus Projects, a dance company that creates site-specific works combining performance with equestrian artistry. Reese was introduced to the company’s founder and artistic director, JoAnna Mendl Shaw, by fellow Mason Gross BFA/EdM alumna Maddie Warriner, who had met Shaw at the Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston, Maine, in 2017.
Reese, however, was hesitant about the idea of dancing with horses.
“I was a little bit unsure of how they used horses in the works, and I didn’t want it to be something where we were teaching the horses circus tricks,” says Reese. “I didn’t want it to feel gimmicky.”
After attending a workshop with Shaw and then observing a performance with a horse, Reese determined that Equus performances were “done in a really responsible way that shows a lot of care for the horse as its own being.”
She and Warriner joined the company in October 2017, and went through training for basic ground handling and horsemanship. Dancers also train in Physical Listening, a technique developed by Shaw that includes practicing observation of and reaction to body cues, as well as nonverbal communication methods.
“It’s all about intention. Horses are pack animals, so they can read your body language really well. It’s literally like being a psychic with an animal.” – Maddie Warriner
The horses are trained, too, but there’s plenty of room for improvisation. To actually create movement with an equine partner (not just “dancing at a horse, or next to a horse,” says Reese), performers must develop a dialogue that flows with the animal’s behavior and mood, relying on their training to intuit feelings of anxiousness, comfort, playfulness, and even anger.
“I learned how to make a horse turn in a circle without touching it, without making any signals, simply by looking at it and cocking my head in a certain direction,” explains Warriner, who had little experience with horses prior to joining The Equus Projects. “It’s all about intention. Horses are pack animals, so they can read your body language really well. It’s literally like being a psychic with an animal.”
One tactic Reese uses is called “creating passwords,” in which she observes the horse’s movement – a tail swish, a head turn to the left – and then assigns a choreographed reaction. Her physicality grabs the horse’s attention, prompting another reaction by the horse.
The result is an improvised exchange between the dancer and the horse that results in “beautiful duets,” says Warriner.
When working with a partner that can weigh up to a ton, an intense amount of awareness is required to create a safe and comfortable environment – dancers must be fully present with the horse at all times.
“You’re both safe as long as you’re not doing anything to scare the horse or freak it out, or you’re not getting too pompous or egotistical or getting into your own performance and not paying attention to the horse anymore, because you can get hurt that way,” explains Warriner.
“Ideally, we’re creating a relationship in real time in front of the audience,” adds Reese. “It’s a creature that you can’t talk to, first of all, so all of the communication is physical, and second, it’s an animal that’s 10 times our size. So it doesn’t work for me to just come in with all of my ideas and slap them on that horse, because they could easily say no and that’s it.”
Warriner and Reese both agree that their Rutgers dance training translated surprisingly well to performing with horses.
“Learning how to respond to other bodies, learning how to listen and be able to react, being able to sponge off of other people, or dance with them, dance against them – I like to call it ‘advanced body language,’ where you’re understanding what the other person is doing and being able to take that and run with it,” says Warriner.
For Reese, the complexities of simultaneously improvising and choreographing is challenging, given her equestrian roots.
“I came from a place where it was very matter-of-fact, where I needed the horse to do a job, so I asked it and figured it out and made it happen, and then rewarded it when it was done and moved on,” Reese says. “Now I have a much wider spectrum, where it’s not just getting from A to B, it’s about creating a dance with that horse.”
While not all Equus performances involve horses, the equestrian aesthetic of careful reaction and real-time decision making is apparent in all of their work. The company’s latest project focuses on bringing the arts to rural America, and took members on tour to five cities in Wisconsin in March to perform, collaborate, and teach.
As Reese discovered, there are valuable lessons to be learned from creating choreography with a horse.
“There’s a level of having to find a middle ground, or a common space, that I think transcends all animals and all people,” Reese says. “Especially in the world we’re in today, seeing an example of not just using muscle and power and hard-headedness to get an outcome of some kind is important.”