Dancing With the Horse Whisperer Along the Autistic Spectrum

The Equus Projects brings professional dancers like Tal Adler from Kiryat Ono together with horses and young people on the autistic spectrum.

NEW YORK — Two young and attractive dancers, one light-haired and the other dark, are playing tag around a wooden table in the middle of a forest. One of them jumps on the table while the other runs around it or slides underneath it. Among the trees one can discern some lovely ruins, the remains of a library whose construction was never completed.

One of the dancers is Tal Adler, a 24-year-old Israeli who recently finished his studies at the Juilliard School. The second is not a trained dancer at all; it’s a 22-year-old man named Jonas who is autistic, and whose collaboration with Adler marks the first time in his life he had ever danced or performed for an audience.

The scene is part of the latest work by a dance company called The Equus Projects, which brings together professional dancers, horses and, most recently, young people on the autistic spectrum. A new documentary about the process of creating these complex works will be screened Saturday at Lincoln Center as part of Dance on Camera, an annual film festival about dancing.

The documentary, called "Hastdans pa Hovdala," after the Swedish forest where Adler and Jonas performed their dance, follows the intimate connection forged between the four professional dancers and the six amateurs with whom they worked — as well as the six highly trained horses that are also part of the performance.

Adler, who has a close relationship with Jonas and is the undeclared hero of the movie, describes the genesis of the Equus Projects, in which he began participating during his second year at Juilliard.

“The Equus Projects started as the personal whim of choreographer JoAnna Mendl Shaw, who taught me at Juilliard,” explains Adler in an interview conducted this week in New York. “She worked as a dancer and choreographer for years, and in 1997 she was asked to create a work for a college she had studied at. The college had a horse ranch and an equestrian program, so she decided to mix the dance students with the riding students and create a triangle of horse, rider and dancer. While working on the piece, she realized that there was the potential for creating an interesting new movement language."

Adler, who grew up in Kiryat Ono, was accepted to the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company at 18, and learned shortly afterward that he had passed the entrance exams to Juilliard. He chose Juilliard, and has lived in New York for the past six years.

Last summer, after graduating, Adler and three other dancers in The Equus Projects were invited to a Swedish forest to work on an intriguing new project. In addition to working with horses in the outdoors, they were told that they were going to be dancing with six young Swedes on the autism spectrum.

“JoAnna for many years knew a horse trainer who gave workshops in Sweden and who had developed a connection with Ulrika Nord, a horse trainer who works with disabled young people. He told [Nord] about The Equus Projects and for two years she had tried to contact JoAnna. But no one in the troupe had ever worked with the autistic, and all of us thought the project sounded impossible.”

Nord eventually convinced Shaw to go to Sweden to meet the young people with whom she works. During the visit, Shaw fell in love with the area and with Nord’s six young clients, and decided to find funding to bring the Equus dancers to Sweden during the summer.

Adler was excited but nervous when he heard about the project. His experience as a counselor at a camp run by the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, also called Alut, did nothing to mitigate his wariness.

“My first reaction was excitement; to spend three weeks in a Swedish forest in July sounded terrific," he recalls. "But at the same time there were several concerns. During one of my vacations from Juilliard I had come back to Israel and worked as a counselor at Alut’s camp at Kfar Hayarok. They assigned me to a very low-functioning 11-year-old boy. He did not communicate at all, and the only reason they assigned me to him was that he kept trying to run away and I was the only counselor who could run as fast as he did. So I came to the project in Sweden with cautious enthusiasm and a big question mark.”

But as can be seen in the documentary by David Fishel, the concerns and questions were quickly laid to rest. As the work progressed, the relationship between Adler and Jonas grew stronger, with Jonas clearly improving over the course of the experience.

“Jonas is a high-functioning autistic and he has lived all his life in a very supportive atmosphere,” says Adler. “But what’s incredible was the way he opened up and let me work with him. His mother came to the dress rehearsal and simply sat there and cried. She told me that she couldn’t believe he had allowed me to get so close to him, because he had never let people get close. There was an intimacy there that had never been established between me and other dancers in a studio. It was very meaningful for him, and also for me. We had one scene of improvisation that involved our hands and he was able to practice the touching of our fingertips for hours.”

In the final performance, parts of which can be seen in the film, Adler and Jonas dance among the ruins and succeed in creating an atmosphere of playfulness and wonder. At times they are joined by the other dancers and by the horses, which are led on a rope by the dancers and respond to their movements.

Although the performance took place in a forest that’s a two-hour drive from the southern Swedish city of Malmo, thousands of people from all over the world came to see it.

Following the dizzying success and the enthusiastic response, Shaw and the other project participants plan to return to the Swedish countryside this summer.

'You can't fake anything'

Dancing in nature is a much more powerful experience than dancing in a studio, Adler found after Shaw invited him to take part in The Equus Projects in Texas during his second year at Juilliard.

“We got to a nature reserve in the middle of nowhere, a huge open space with a lake," he says. "We were a dance troupe from Juilliard, six horses and a circus performer from the Cirque du Soleil. We worked on the piece for two weeks. It was a very powerful experience for me; suddenly I understood that this is what I was looking for as a dancer. You can’t fake anything. Dancers try to create this kind of atmosphere in the studio for months, and suddenly you start working with animals and this intimacy develops on its own, naturally.”

After two intense weeks of rehearsals, the work in Texas yielded an hour-long performance that was staged as a festive, one-time event before thousands of people, who sat on an artificial island in the middle of the lake. These unconventional conditions became a trademark of The Equus Projects over the past decade: a short period of intense rehearsals in which the dancers get to know the horses and vice versa, and a work that is site-specific, in which everything is makeshift, from the props to the audience’s seats.

Adler says he was never afraid that a horse would attack the dancers or the audience, though he was bitten by a horse once.

“Maybe it’s a bit naive on my part, but from the first moment I trusted JoAnna with my eyes closed," he says. "On the other hand, there is a risk that doesn’t exist in regular dance works. I never realized how strong they were until one day I was bitten by a horse... It’s very rare to meet a horse that’s naturally aggressive. The horses we work with are happy, all in all. They have a tranquil life and they’re well taken care of. At the same time, the safety of the dancers is the top priority, which is why from the first project they taught us to read the warning signs. It’s possible to predict whether a horse is liable to panic from a certain situation or noise.”

It's important for Adler to make it clear that this is no circus.

“There are no fixed tricks that they make the horses learn," he says. "Everything is improvised. We want to stimulate the horse’s curiosity, to provoke it and generate real communication. Horses are very smart and they learn the movements very fast, and then get bored. When they get bored they start doing whatever they want and become very creative. We as dancers try to study their skills and utilize them to create something that’s improvised but also structured.”