Dancing with Horses
By MANDY LOCKE
On a Fibar-covered floor at the indoor riding arena at Red Pony Farm, celebrated modern dance choreographer Paula Josa-Jones found a new stage. Just down the hall from that stage, content in wood pined stalls, Ms. Josa-Jones's newest students prepare for a big debut in August.
In a new project, simply called RIDE, Ms. Josa-Jones unites two of her life's passions: horses and dancing.
When Ms. Josa-Jones's love of the Island and her new role as a mother to Chandrika and Binala made trips and extended stays in Boston to direct her dance company nearly unbearable, she began to look for ways to spend more time on the Vineyard.
"I was tired of making cutting-edge dance theatre. I don't want to preach to the converted," she said, remembering her exhaustion after returning from an international tour with Antigone's Dream.
Before Ms. Josa-Jones began asking how horses and human dancers could communicate, she knew but one thing.
"When I rode, I felt like I was dancing," she said.
That realization led Ms. Josa-Jones into a year-long journey during which she asked questions about how humans might understand the language of horses.
"I didn't start with any answers. I started with questions and curiosity," she said.
Ms. Josa-Jones used her own experiences with her towering Fresian horse, appropriately named Goliath, to understand the key differences between horses and humans.
"They are prey, flight animals. We are prey. How do we speak in a language without enacting a flight reaction?" she asked herself.
In March of last year, Ms. Josa-Jones invited several of her dancers from Boston to Martha's Vineyard to join her quest to communicate with horses. Karin Magid's Red Pony Farm offered a wealth of beautiful horses and accomplished riders. Jessica Benjamin, Lauren Withers, Megan Smith, Lindsay Smith, Annie Hale Long and Mariah Peebles began working with horses Goliath, Norman, Roy Wind, Scout, Judge, Pip and Cleo. Francesca Kelly and her Indian horse, Bijli, will also join the performers.
Sometime this spring, when dancer Ingrid Shatz connected with a young and volatile warm blood horse Norman, Ms. Josa-Jones stopped asking if she could bring horse and rider to the same stage as modern dancers.
"We were through wondering if this was going to work. Norman opened up to her like a flower," she said.
During rehearsal just weeks ago, horses and dancers communed on the dirt floor of the arena like intimate dancing partners. The horses allowed the women to float about them, anticipating each stop and start of her dancing.
Because all of the individual performances within RIDE developed during improvisational experiments, the success of the communication relies on the conversation between the horse and dancer.
"I don't ever give the dancers steps. I design the framing and give images. I have an eye for discernment," Ms. Josa-Jones said.
So, during weekend-long rehearsals, Ms. Josa-Jones has been watching silently, knowing the horse and dancers react to one another using the wordless communication of movement.
RIDE is a unique blend of spontaneity and structure. The dancers enter the stage, bodies stretching, pulled by something the observer cannot see or hear. Horse and rider teams join the dancers, moving around the performance space in elegantly patterned serpentines.
At moments, dancers float like ballerinas from a distant corner of the room, matching the rhythm of the horse and riders' perfectly executed dressage. And in other moments, the dancers move alongside the horses, modeling their high-stepping lunges. At other times, horses and dancers glide toward one another, positioned to collide, but diverging at just the right moment.
Dancers DeAnna Pellecchia, Dillon Paul, Alissa Cardone, Ingrid Shatz, Harriet Jastremsky and Mia Keinanen will be joining the horses' world for the August performances. The dancers abandon typical costuming to wear a version of horse tack. Black leather hugs their chests and midsections, with metal hooks and clasps connecting the pieces. Dancers come one step closer to understanding the horses' experience.
"If this is what the horses wear, then this is what my dancers will wear, too," Ms. Josa-Jones said.
Horses, riders and dancers stepped into an innovative project when they joined RIDE, and Ms. Josa-Jones, too, is stepping into new territory. During parts of the performance, she will abandon her role as director, taking the stage as a rider and as a dancer.
"I'm giving that gift to myself. I feel this so deeply," she said.
"I had to own it in that way. If this experience of the horse's mouth wasn't in my hand, the experience of his back in my hips, I wouldn't understand," she added.
Depending on the success of the performances, Ms. Josa-Jones may take RIDE on the road, traveling with her dancers and training equestrians and horses in other communities.
RIDE debuts in Martha's Vineyard on August 2 during an opening gala to benefit The Nature Conservancy. An auction, reception and dancing will follow.
Performances will also be held on August 3 and 4 at the Red Pony Farm in West Tisbury. The performance starts at 5 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for children and seniors.
Ms. Josa-Jones chose Martha's Vineyard as the site to launch her new project because of her love for the community.
"It's my gift to this place. It feels like it grew out of the Island," Ms. Josa-Jones said.