DURHAM – Like a waltz pro in an old-time dance hall, Gina Paolillo anticipates her partner’s moves.

But something’s different: Her partner is a horse.

She watches for mighty steps and metal shoes. She listens for heavy breathing. And she tries to make each move appear as if it were planned. It’s humbling.

No matter how graceful she becomes – no matter how elegantly she moves her tiny, buff body – she can’t match the grace of her partner.

The best dancers have four legs.

That’s the conceit of the Equus Projects, a New York-based dance company that plans to premiere its newest show Sunday at the Bates Dance Festival.

“It’s not about you,” director JoAnna Mendl Shaw said of her human dancers. Then she nodded to three horses in the Durham pasture. “It’s about them.”

Shaw has been dancing with horses since 1997, when she started a collaboration at Mount Holyoke College between the dance department and the equestrian program.

It worked for all the reasons that human dance works. And like traditional dance, it takes extraordinary work to make it look easy, Shaw said.

The current work, titled “Seven Games,” has been developing for the past six months.

The piece begins with three horses led onto the field by three dancers, Blake Pearson, Luke Gutsgell and Luke Wiley. For a few minutes, the dancers take the horses in circles, leading them around and waving ropes in the air.

Paolillo enters, and slowly the dancers leave the horses behind. Then, as they did with the horses, the male dancers began to pet Paolillo’s head then fight over her.

Meanwhile, riders take over the horses, which encircle the dancers as they tell their story.

Shaw won’t say exactly what it’s about. In vague terms, the piece hits on issues of seduction and power, she said.

Rider Sandy Dimmick, who owns the three American Saddlebred horses, says she’s unsure what the dance means.

She appreciates its beauty, though.

She first witnessed the company’s work a few weeks ago, watching a performance in Wolfeboro, N.H. She and her horses began working with the company a week ago.

The dancers quickly created a relationship with the horses that she’d never seen.

“The dancers are riding the horses from the ground,” Dimmick said.

During the rehearsal, she sat atop a tall horse named Salute. But she didn’t steer. The dancers did that. The gelding moved without reins or commands.

“I could feel Salute pull off to the right,” she said, smiling broadly.

The company’s aim is a form of horse-dancer synchronicity, Shaw said.

“We have choreographed horse routines down to the step,” said the director, an instructor at New York’s Juilliard School. “Gina has done tangos with horses.”

This one is more improvisational. There is room to play.

For the horses, the only requirement is a gentle word of praise – or a peppermint – for a job well done.

It keeps them engaged and learning, Dimmick said.

No applause is needed.

What: The Equus Projects

When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 6

Where: Bates College, Library Quad

Admission: Free and and open to the public

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