Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Equus Projects: Helena, MT: a case study of beginning a multi-localism hubsite

The Equus Projects has a unique way of touring.

We do not own our own horses.

For each project we use horses owned by equestrians in the community.

This makes for a very deep engagement with the local community.


Below is an over view of a recent tour in Helena, Montana where we used 20 local horses:

In early October The Equus Projects spent a week in Helena creating an hour-long performance piece for dancers and horses that mobilized a cast of 16 local riders and 20 horses.

Our on-site creation time for Join Up! was only 7 seven days. That seven-day creation marathon was the culmination of six months of preparation. It was that preparation that best exemplifies how The Equus Projects engages the community and how that engagement results in some unusual and innovative solutions to touring challenges.

Finding Horses and Riders

Unlike many of our past projects, we had no existing network of riders and horses in Montana.

March – May: We send out emails to Helena area equestrians asking for participants. We make use of a fairly extensive on-line network of riders who all train in natural horsemanship and heard back from over 30 riders expressing their interest in being a part of the project. Riders post videos of their horses and their riding on Youtube. Eventually our list narrows down to a group of creative-minded, athletic riders who were available for a solid week of rehearsal in Helena.

A Fabulous Local Liaison

July: Helena equestrian Amy Palmer trailers her horse 12 hours over the mountains from Helena to Snohomish, WA to take an equestrian clinic with us! Amy offers to be our liaison with the performance site and arrange for the Tri-Arabian Club, a group of riders who have Arabian horses – to audition for us. We send ahead riding patterns. They rehearse, film and post on Youtube.

August-September: Amy Palmer sends photos of the performance site - cavernous metal building on the grounds of the Lewis and Clark Fairgrounds: Metal walls and packed dirt floor, the space is used for rodeos and bull running.

Performance Venue

Clearly we need to arrange for some theatrical lighting!! The Myrna Loy has its lighting instruments being used for an in-house show. We find the fabulous Marty Severson, lighting designer/ soundman from Great Falls, MT who has worked with everyone from the Obama campaign to the Rolling Stones!!


Join Up! was constructed in ten sections: an opening for 10 liberty horses (horses without riders) and 4 dancers; several small sections for dancer, horse and rider; and five large group rides with dancers woven into the intricate riding patterns. The equestrians ranged from reining cowboy to dressage rider.

We organized our days into rehearsal modules: Dancer warm-up 8:30am; Equine warm-up into work ona group ride until noon; small sections during midday; Lat afternoon logistics meeting; 5:30 dinner followed by the Tri-Arabians 6:00 - 8:00 pm.

Horsemanship Training & Equine Expertise

Given the number of horses and riders we were working with, we knew we would need an equine director and advisor. So we invited our long-time equestrian mentor, David Lichman, to join us for the week.

David helped with the equine choreography, offered horsemanship advice to every member of the cast, made sure the dirt footing was dragged, had the metal fencing moved to achieve better sightlines and rewired the sound system.

For us, David's horsemanship served as a binding attachment to the horse community. David's respect and enthusiasm for our work was apparent. His superb horsemanship set the bar for the performers.

Work Schedule andMeals

With a rehearsal schedule that had us working from 8am til 8pm, realistically there was no time for leisurely restaurant meals.

Solution: Amy Palmer arranges for a small clubhouse on the fairgrounds to be our home base and orchestrates a full service soup kitchen!Amy's Kitchen fed hungry equestrians and dancers breakfast, lunch and dinner for six days. Throughout, Amy was assisted in planning and cooking by Equus Projects Site Coordinator Kristen Schifferdecker.

Meals on site made it possible for us to spend mealtime and snack breaks with our cast. Offering them meals was a small thank you for all the time they gave to the project.

Community Engagement

Our work does draw passionate community engagement. It is not so much what we do but how we go about doing it that makes for this depth of community engagement.

Here are some guidelines that might make be useful points of inspiration, suggest possibilities and translate into practices you could use for your own practice.

Over 1500 people saw our work in 7 days!!

Each day busloads of 5-6th graders, seniors and community people arrived at 1:00 to witness an Open Rehearsal. Our Open rehearsals morphed into narrated demos offering excerpts from the various pieces we were creating and insights into the choreographic challenges our work presents. The demos were like mini reality shows in which we shared with our audiences not only the creative process but also the backstage dramas that go into creating a performance with dancers and horses !!

The day of our opening, the newspaper had advertised a free performance and 450 people showed up for our 1:00 Open Rehearsal !! That night Join Up! Played to a sold out crowd of over 600.

Community Engagement

Our work does brings about a depth of community engagement.

Here are some touring guidelines that might translate into useful practices for your own touring.

1) LOTS of advanced planning:

Months and months of advanced planning is actually a form of PR announcing that you are coming to town! It creates word of mouth about the work and gets people excited about the project.

Our advanced horse planning happens much before the presenter's outreach into the community and months before the official; PR for the project is announced.

2) Finding local networks to work with:

Use locals as advisors, helpers and liaisons. We have found that locals can be great ambassadors for our work and serve as very effective liaisons to our presenter.

3) Find creative solutions for touring necessities such as meals:

We rarely go out for meals. For most projects we find a local who is interested in catering, we buy the food and sometimes provide muscle power to prep meals. Meals are an excellent time for artists and locals to visit.

4) Spend time with local community OUTSIDE of the work

We spent lots of time hanging out with our equestrians before rehearsals, after rehearsals, during equine training session in which they become our mentors. They offer us advice as to how best use their horses.

In Helena several key individuals became very involved in the creative process and offered numerous fabulous suggestions.

Discover ways that the community can be your teachers.

5) Plan to return

Wherever we tour, we come with the attitude that we would love to return.

Coming into a community with the desire to come back and do more, creates the sense that we value what the community offers us.

Sharing with locals the intention to return creates an opportunity for locals to brainstorm about future performance and teaching opportunities. It gives the community a sense of ownership in the work. It often brings us into contact with potential patrons.

In Helena the plan to return had a very specific goal: We made it known that we were building "hub-sites" outside of our base in New York. The Helena horse community has already begun brainstorming projects for us and invited us to return in July to teach a clinic in Bozeman, MT.

For more on multi-localism visit
Learn more about The Equus Projects at

The Equus Projects is a recipient of The Field’s Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists (ERPA) Phase 3 Implementation award. The Field’s ERPAprogram receives funding from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Cultural Innovation Fund. For more information, please visit or

No comments: