NEW HAVEN — Naomi Wimberley-Hartman and her four-legged dance partner had never performed together before. Nevertheless, the pair spring through serpentines and circles in intricate movements, each footfall perfectly in sync with one another.
It is only the second day of rehearsal, but the dancers — one human and one a horse — move like professionals.
And they should. The two are members of the New Haven-based Equine Dance Company, which for several years has put on shows combining human and equine dancing.
“Equine Dance Company first emerged from the idea that riders and horses and dancers train in similar ways,” said Wimberley-Hartman, dancer and choreographer from Albany, N.Y. “We hone our technique in very similar ways in our dedication to our arts and the evolution of riding is almost the same as the evolution of dance.”
Wimberley-Hartman has teamed up with equestrian director and choreographer Kate Selby and five local riders and three dancers to begin preparations for their fourth year of performances that partner human dancers with horses and their riders. On Aug. 9, the dance ensemble will perform at Selby’s stable in New Haven to raise money for the company.
Wimberley-Hartman has worked with several equine dancers over the years, but this is the first time she is dancing with a cast of almost entirely local talent.
Though the ensemble usually performs several times during the summer at the Basin Harbor Club, this year, the mostly local cast will stay in New Haven to film a documentary in what Wimberley-Hartman called a “creative year.”
A portion of the documentary, which follows the company through its creative process of inventing, choreographing and executing a dance performance, will be screened at the fund-raiser where three live dance pieces will be performed.
Contributing to the creative process with her new horse Bobby, recent recruit Cindy Bezer of Panton wanted a chance to teach her mount to dance with people while taking her training to a higher level.
“I watched it last year when they did the exhibitions at Basin Harbor,” Bezer said. “It looked like a lot of fun. Plus it takes your mind from being too focused on yourself and your horse and you take it to another level.”
Usually, the company collects several riders and dancers from outside Vermont, but this year, Selby said, they are keeping it local. Before performances, riders and dancers from out of town would eat, sleep and practice in New Haven during weekends, which Selby said, is a good way to keep ideas flowing.
“It changes it a little bit in that when we import people, we all live together and that’s a big plus to us because we get to know each other in different situations,” said Selby. “The riders and dancers exchange ideas, reactions and ah-ha moments.”
This year though, the five riders and three dancers are participating in two intensive workshops headed by Selby and Wimberley-Hartman before the performance in August. In the final performance, viewers will see riders and dancers in costume dancing to choreographed routines with music ranging from jazz to whimsical instrumentals. The routines focus on intricate figures, most resembling a waltz with partners separating and coming together in synchronicity.
Many of the riders have never danced with their horses before and are learning through the workshop how to move their equine partners through choreographed figures using different tempos. These carefully structured workshops are the foundation of all the company’s equine-dance work, said Selby. By learning to move the participant’s bodies, basic improvisation skills, and partnering, riders and dancers enhance their awareness of space and time through motion.
During the workshops, the riders and dancers spend a weekend fine-tuning their dancing and riding while getting to know each other. The group meets for an early morning stretch then walks on foot the patterns they will have to dance or ride in the performance. The dancers work though the movements without the horses and “explore elements of what it means to be a performer, how to expand your awareness of each other and space,” Wimberley-Hartman explained. Then horses are brought into the mix and tempo, such as a faster or slower gait of the horse, is added as well.
Here, said Selby, is where it gets interesting.
“The most difficult aspect of horse and human dance is the opening of a new dancer’s awareness to the movement of the horse and the same thing for the rider, opening their awareness outside the horse,” said Selby.
Amani Ansari, a dancer from New York City — one of the few imports this year — had never been so close to a horse until she danced with the company last year. But, Ansari said, after spending time brushing the horse and walking with the horse, she overcame her initial fears.
“Getting to know the personality of the horse was a very soothing experience,” she said. “This time I’m more aware of the timing and the rhythm of the horses. That moment of realization between the dancer and horse can be tricky.”
Emma Rogers of South Burlington is riding her young mare, Berry, in this year’s performance. Despite her long career as a rider, Rogers has an even longer stint as a dancer. Last year she performed alongside the horses, not on them.
“Ultimately the position of the dancer and the rider is not so different,” Rogers said. “Your awareness as a dancer can become as acute as that of the rider.”
Selby said she hopes viewers will see the similarities between dancer, rider and horse as they move through their paces during the dance. She said both participants and viewers are not only enriched by the beauty of the performance, but also feel a deeper connection to the work.
“It’s not just beautiful,” said Selby. “It speaks to people on a basic level the way dance can for some people, but the addition of the horses brings it down to earth and many people feel connected to horses and love horses even if they’ve never seen one or touched one.
“Human beings have just always been in love with the horse, it strikes some basic deep memory in us.”