A new performance piece incorporates Vermont sheep and herding dogs
Written onAugust 17 , 2016
Yesenia Major—who runs Vermont Shepherd sheep dairy with her husband, David—is a dancer at heart. With Spanish, Dominican, and El Salvadorian roots, she grew up in communities where “we were born dancing.”
Today, as her life centers around milking sheep and making cheese and raising children, she says everything she does is a dance. “Every day I feel like I’m dancing with the sheep,” she says. “Milking is a dance. Cheesemaking is a dance.”
So when asked by Vermont Performance Lab whether a dance-theatre performance could be staged on her farm, using her sheep, she enthusiastically said yes. Doggie Hamlet, an interdisciplinary piece, will be performed on Friday, September 16 and Saturday, September 17, 2016 at the Vermont Shepherd farm in Westminster West, using 25 or so of the farm’s ewes.
“I love dance and I love people and I love animals, so this project really resonated with my being and the essence of who I am,” Yesenia says.
Back in June, Yesenia took a morning away from her busy shepherding schedule to show parts of her land to two people who would be instrumental in developing the sheep performance: Sara Coffey, director of Vermont Performance Lab, and Ann Carlson, a Los Angeles-based dance-theatre artist and choreographer.
The trio looked at possible performance sites on the farm and discussed such things as where they would ask audience members to park, how they would provide water to the animals, how sound might carry outside—and perhaps most important, which group of sheep would be used.
Ann Carlson is the creator of Doggie Hamlet, which has been developed during a series of residencies over the past two years. The piece weaves together four human dancers, a flock of sheep, a dog handler, and a working herding dog, and tells a story inspired by the 2008 novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (which borrows from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book). The story comes alive through the calls of the dog handler, the movement of the sheep flock, the actions of the dancers, and the sounds of string musicians, all enclosed by a fence.
Ann says Doggie Hamlet can be adapted to different performance sites—and to different sheep. She intends to tour the show across the United States after the Vermont performances, taking it to different farms and working with different flocks.
The dog handler who will appear in the Vermont performances, Diane Cox from western New York, will travel with the show, as will her herding dogs. Yesenia’s sheep—necessary for making Vermont Shepherd’s award-winning cheeses—won’t go “on tour,” but on that June day when they were discussing their plans for the show, Ann left open the possibility.
“Think about that—we could have your sheep come to Central Park,” Ann said to Yesenia, who replied, “That would be amazing!”
Back when Ann was looking for an arts organization that could stage Doggie Hamlet, she immediately thought of Vermont Performance Lab, which is based in Guilford and provides a laboratory for the creation of new performance work and community engagement.
“I called Sara, because I thought she’d be the first person who wouldn’t say, ‘Forget about it,’” Ann recalls. The two had never worked together, but Ann knew of VPL’s reputation for experimental performance and its thinking outside the box. “There is no box,” Ann says.
For her part, Sara Coffey was intrigued by the project because “it’s a perfect way for our laboratory to showcase what people are doing here [in southern Vermont]. The show is also populist—everybody likes dogs and sheep, and some of the things we do are so experimental that each season I like to have a range of work and involve the community. So this felt perfect for us.”
Doggie Hamlet is not the first instance of a Vermont farm hosting an arts performance. Farm to Ballet featured classical ballet this summer (and last) on a handful of Vermont farms. And in New York City, an opera staged at the Park Avenue Armory this spring featured a flock of 100 sheep.
Ann has created performance pieces with live animals before—horses, goats, rabbits, chickens. She appreciates the exquisite attention that animals pay to the world. With sheep in particular, she values how shepherding is such an ancient practice, and she sees herding dogs as a bridge between humans and sheep.
That said, given the unpredictability of how the sheep and the herding dog might move together in a staged show, Vermont Performance Lab is—quite understandably—asking those who come to the September performances to keep their dogs at home.
For tickets and information on Doggie Hamlet, please visit vermontperformancelab.org/events.