In choreographing “Herding Instinct”, Karen Kuzak, artistic director of Winnipeg’s TRIP Dance, took inspiration from an unlikely source — her six-year-old border collie Ben. Or, more accurately, the competitions she and Ben have participated in where teams of two dogs and their master work to control a flock of sheep. “Herding is a very interesting dynamic,” Kuzak stated in a pre-performance interview. “While dogs are natural predators, they’re also protectors. The dogs and the shepherd work as a team. Aside from the visual spectacle of a flock being controlled by the dogs, there is an element of danger that attaches to herding. If one of the dogs makes a mistake, or one of the animals in the flock decides to challenge a dog, chaos can break out.”
Kuzak began her choreographic process last September when she, filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy, and six of her seven female dancers, spent two bone-chilling days in the company of sixty Clun Forest ewes, shepherd Martin Penfold and his two border collies, in the rolling prairie outside Winnipeg. Footage shot by Esterhazy of the dogs herding the sheep, and the women interacting with the sheep, serves as an introduction to and “skyscape” for the hour-long performance that Kuzak subsequently developed.
The film, with an audiotrack by Ken Gregory, was projected on a large screen mounted above the dancers’ heads at the back of the stage. During a post-show chat on the last night, Robin Poitras, artistic director of the presenting company New Dance Horizons, commented on how she appreciated having had an opportunity to view “Herding Instinct” four times in two weeks (the work premiered in Winnipeg March 23-24), as it permitted her to discover previously overlooked elements. But few people have the luxury of seeing a dance work four times; and it may be that by including a film in what was already a busy, and at times frenetic, work, Kuzak was guilty of overkill. Still, the film was indisputably effective at capturing the beauty and drama of herding, while also investing the project with an ethereal aura.
Without resorting to overly literal evocations, there were times when Kuzak had the dancers take on the character of sheep and dogs. At the outset, for example, the women dance beneath a close-up shot of one of Penfold’s border collies, as if it were they who were being herded by the dog. Repetition of certain movements in the work, like having the dancers shuffle stiffly on all fours or jog in a circle around other dancers, induced in viewers a temptation to constantly assign and reassign a species label to the dancers: “Oh, now they’re dogs. Now they’re sheep. Now they’re women.”
But there is method in that particular interpretive madness. While significantly more advanced, humans share many behavioral similarities with animals. Like dogs, we possess instinctive herding abilities. We hunt in packs. We’re both highly territorial, but because of our willingness to observe hierarchy we’re able to curb our aggression and live in large groups. Like sheep, we also possess an instinctive desire to herd together for protection from predators that once menaced us — including fellow humans. It was no accident that, in primitive societies, ostracism of the offending individual was a common form of punishment.
We are no longer as vulnerable to predation as we once were. Through the enactment of various laws and conventions over the last few centuries, we’ve managed to create a civilization, in the developed world anyway, where individual rights are both recognized and protected. Indeed, fueled by skilful marketing campaigns designed to encourage consumers to self-identify with products they buy, it’s been argued that individuality has reached cult status in our society. Yet through myriad means — fashion, music, sports, politics, employment, religion — we exhibit pack mentalities, tribal mentalities, clique mentalities that are the equivalent of herd behaviour. “There’s a comfort in belonging to a large society of humans,” said Kuzak. “It’s an ingrained survival technique. But there’s definitely a feeling, on occasion, of searching for your own identity within that larger group. That’s where the struggle lies. How far can you go before [the tie is broken]?”
Dance is an interesting medium to explore that question. In certain styles, like classical ballet and Busby Berkeley-like extravaganzas, choreography is rigidly imposed on dancers. Perhaps consistent with the era in which it arose, contemporary dance generally places a greater premium on choreographers working collaboratively with their dancers. That was especially true here. Suffering from a back injury, Kuzak relied heavily on her dancers to recreate relationships she’d observed in the field once they were back in the studio. Costumed similarly but not identically, throughout the performance the dancers had varying levels of engagement with each other. Sometimes, in a herd-like manner, their gestures and actions mimicked each other. Other times, disjunctions would occur, setting the dance off in a new direction. Twice now in 2007 performances have been held in Regina where the dancers were exclusively female. In explaining this, both Kuzak and Davida Monk (“the Weathering suite”) cited the difficulty of recruiting male dancers. That’s undoubtedly true. But when I see seven, or in Monk’s case five, female dancers on stage, I can’t help but read an element of gender into the work. In the animal kingdom, I think it’s true to say, females are more prone to herd behaviour than “lone wolf” males. But among humans, both women and men have their own forms of gender-based group think.
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for stuff that champions the dogged spirit of individuals — especially those possessed of exceptional talents — who are compelled to persevere against the forces of mediocrity and conformity. With that caveat, I detected numerous nods to sub-communities of individuals whose lifestyles, in some way, are atypical. Artists? Sadly, yes, for to pursue an art career today demands courage and sacrifice. Athletic, physically assertive women who revel in their sexuality? Just like men have patriarchy, women have matriarchy. And aggression and sexual rivalry can be part of that dynamic too. Even same-sex relationships, and the opprobrium with which they are still regarded by large segments of society, was a reference I drew from the work.
“Herding Instinct” ended, on film, with the September sun setting over a hill, while on stage, the women, sheep-like, settled down for the night — but ever alert, ready to herd together and flee should danger threaten. I’d been looking forward to seeing this show since I read about it last fall in New Dance Horizons’ brochure. And I’m happy to say that Kuzak and her dancers (Jolene Bailie, Jennifer Essex, Freya Olafson, Ali Robson, Giana Sherbo, Natasha Torres-Garner and Treasure Waddell) did not disappoint. May others outside Regina and Winnipeg have an opportunity to see this intriguing work.