Theater archives

When Not-A-Dance Becomes Dance


Eight horses and their maroon-vested riders trace curlicues on a green lawn at the Shelburne Museum’s 45 acres of historic buildings, gardens, and exhibits. They’re warming up—not for a competition but for a dance, Kalliope. Dancer-choreographer JoAnna Mendl Shaw (the leader, with “equestrian director” Kate Selby, of Equus Projects/Dancing With Horses) improvises among the hooves —placing a hand on a steed’s shoulder, curving into backward steps that accommodate to its path, falling in with another horse, going nose to nose with a third, and retreating calmly as its rider guides it forward.

Equus Projects offers its creators a challenge. The complicated maneuvers of equine choreography are a strain for a horse, and Selby and Mendl Shaw have only eight animals to spell one another. Dancers on the ground have to keep things moving for chunks of time, and however good they may be, our eyes stray to the sidelines, hoping an equestrian partner will prance in.

Kalliope, performed at Riverdale Equestrian Center in the Bronx this past June, was commissioned for the Shelburne site, in front of the museum’s merry-go-round. At the start of the ingratiating show, a child (Sarah Selby) is left alone when her two playmates rush away. Magically, the carousel starts to turn and emit music. As it spins, seven colorfully garbed figures appear, leaning out from it to welcome the child into a carnival world. They, and four additional dancers dressed like clowns, cavort on and around red cable spools, or perch atop them when horses trace crisscrossing loops on the grass.

Sometimes there’s too much going on. If a horse is doing flying lead changes (repeatedly switching the leading foot in a canter), you want to see that. Kalliope is finest when horses and dancers echo one another or unite: Four horses circling a still group become a living carousel; rider Ellen Miller makes her mount Sagitta sidestep, and their action is framed by two sidestepping dancers. (If the horses are dancers, I want the dancers sometimes to be horses.)

It’s delightful to see Alberto Denis swing up behind Patricia Norcia on Valiente at the conclusion of their playful trio, or little Sarah Selby go head-to-head with a bay. Naomi Wimberly-Hartman’s tango with Indius (ridden by Miller) is not only deliriously sensual, it trumpets a moving irony: Wimberly-Hartman—slipping under the horse’s neck as it slows, running beside it, seeming to entice—looks free as a wild horse, while her partner’s moves are controlled by a rider who becomes, in some sense, invisible. The humans dance their guts out, but it’s the horses that make your eyes fill up.

People are walking up and down the short street, peering into the windows of very small, identical gray clapboard houses. Sometimes they line up at a house’s single aperture. If you walk quickly along the avenue made of wide boards, the sounds coming from each dwelling blend into a muted cacophony of rushing water, murmurs, cries, rumblings, and explosions. A child runs around, hands over her ears. An older girl ventures into the transverse entrance to the street ahead of her family, takes in the skylight and the lit blue bulbs that hang almost to the gravel floor, hears the dark water deep within a metal well and the constant mutter of voices, and hurries back out to her mother.

No, this isn’t a dance, although it recalls 1960s events involving mobile spectators and motionless or absent performers. But Robert Wilson’s 14 Stations, at MASS MoCA through October 29, is as charged with enigmatic drama and careful beauty as his theater works. You experience it not just as a walk through actual space-time but as an unsettling and enthralling virtual journey that links the present with Christian iconography and mysticism. The installation that fills the former mill’s hugest gallery was created for an outdoor site in Germany, near where the 2000 Oberammergau Passion Play was performed, and several writers have noted a resemblance between Wilson’s miniature Shaker houses and the barracks at Dachau.

Wilson alludes to the traditional moments of Christ’s passage to the cross in abstract and private ways. At Station 6 (Veron- ica wipes Jesus’ brow), a giant Shaker eldress made of white-painted wood stands holding a sadiron in an all-yellow room—a different image of female comfort and stability, although the sound of small sticks falling to the floor evolves into flushing water. At Station 10 (the moment of Jesus’ death), violent anguish breaks loose in the form of eyeless, white-toothed red wolves snarling and howling against a backdrop of Alpine peaks.

Many of the images suggest the weight of impending disaster and a complementary, disturbing weightlessness. Suspended boulders appear in three tableaux. A lamb founders amid fragments of exploded rock. To distorted quick-step music, six seated women in black Shaker garb wield white knitting needles like batons, while behind them in the blue room a snowy mountain almost imperceptibly rises and sinks. On a small video monitor set into a floor, a white-painted man crawls as if floating over the ground. Christ’s soul slowly evaporates as bubbles rising through a beautifully illumined glass tube. And in the last station—no house but an apse dense with down-pointing twigs—a large androgynous white figure hangs head downward over a blue bed. Falling? Rising? Forever suspended?

Your spirit can dance in Wilson’s epochal exhibit until after the red leaves fall.