Flamenco on the hoof: Bartabas the Furious and his dancing horses
“Voyage au pays de Zingaro,” says a poster in the restaurant at the Zingaro theatre. “Journey to Zingaro country” – it’s a phrase that sums up perfectly a couple of days spent in the company of Bartabas the Furious and his troupe of dancing horses. Chevaux must go on: behind the scenes at Bartabas's horse theatre – in pictures View gallery Everything about Zingaro country is strange. It occupies a large site in Aubervilliers, to the north-east of Paris, where the equestrian choreographer was in effect gifted land next to a 19th-century fort to build his circular wooden theatre, complete with restaurant and stables. A 50-strong community of riders, musicians and staff live on the site in caravans. They perform nightly throughout the winter, then tour in the spring and summer. Visitors do not so much watch a two-hour show as spend an evening in another land, imbibing some Gypsy spirit. The 700 seats in the arena are full the night I attend, with the young and the old to the fore. Bartabas has never brought his show to the UK – the latest is called On Achève Bien les Anges (rough translation: They Shoot Angels, Don’t They?). But when we talk in his caravan the morning after the performance, the Frenchman tells me he is in negotiations to bring it to the 2017 Edinburgh festival. It would be a perfect fit, though transporting 30 horses and 19 truckloads of equipment won’t be cheap. A gravity-defying scene from Bartabas’s show On Achève Bien les Anges Facebook Twitter Pinterest ‘I have to know the horse perfectly. If they get tense, they can break everything in the theatre’ … a scene from Bartabas’s show On Achève Bien les Anges. Photograph: Hugo Marty For the moment, the UK is being offered a more intimate side of Bartabas: a show at Sadler’s Wells in London next month called Golgota, in which he appears, on horseback of course, alongside the celebrated Spanish flamenco dancer Andrés Marín, recreating the rituals of Seville’s Holy Week in an extraordinary series of tableaux inspired by the paintings of 17th-century Spaniard Francisco de Zurbarán. It is strange, beautiful and highly dramatic; the coup of having four horses (and a donkey) on stage, performing with remarkable precision, is itself unsettling. Advertisement “I wanted to work with Andrés,” says Bartabas. “I was very interested in flamenco, and was waiting for the new generation to take it beyond the tourist image. Now they have. They’ve cleaned it and gone to the heart of flamenco – the rhythm and the expression.” Five years ago, Bartabas visited Britain with The Centaur and the Animal; this was a collaboration with Kô Murobushi, the late master of butoh, the Japanese dance form that mixes extreme motion and stillness to evoke raw emotion. Quite how you teach this to horses is beyond me. Bartabas says such pairings challenge him, take him out of his comfort zone – not that he strikes you as someone who needs such a trigger. “He is very demanding,” says one of his assistants, “very exact in what he wants.” There are certainly no cliches in Golgota. The stage is covered in crumb rubber – to replicate the soil the horses are used to – so get ready for a lot of silent flamenco. “Andrés is a very interesting dancer,” says Bartabas. “When I say I want you to dance on sand without shoes – for a flamenco dancer, that seems to be taking away half his possibilities – he accepts it. He says: ‘I want people to see the rhythm, not hear it.’” A scene from On Achève Bien les Anges. Facebook Twitter Pinterest A scene from On Achève Bien les Anges. Photograph: Hugo Marty/PR Image Inspiration for a piece often starts with music. Tom Waits’s wonderfully weary songs are the soundtrack to the Angels show; for Golgota, the starting point was the great 16th-century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, whose soaring sacred music underpins the performance. “I don’t believe in God,” Bartabas says, “but I do believe humans need God. That’s why they create gods. The celebration of God was the first theatrical manifestation, so I constructed Golgota like a mass. I once made a Zingaro show with Tibetan monks, because I was fascinated by the way they used sound to put you in a position of meditation.” A Zingaro show, he says, is like a puzzle. “Each person in the audience makes their own story. Proust said it is the reader, not the writer, who makes the book. You have to let the performance be open to their imagination.” Since Golgota was made for theatres rather than arenas, it poses new challenges. “I can only do it with very old horses,” says Bartabas, “because I have to know the horse perfectly. There is very little space in the theatre and I have to work on their breathing so they are relaxed. If they get tense, they can break everything in the theatre. Communication is more precise on stage, too – you have to trust the horse totally. You see many new details. When a horse moves its ears, you see it.” Is this dance, theatre or circus? “That’s very difficult,” he says. “At Zingaro, we call it equestrian theatre. Golgota is more contemporary dance – but with horses.” Although horse-lovers will come to Sadler’s Wells, he warns them not to expect a conventional horse show. While there are elements of dressage, the equestrian skills are subservient to the artistic vision. Bartabas, a very fit-looking 58, was born Clément Marty – he renamed himself Bartabas the Furious early in his performing career to signal his desire to live the life of the artist, though he has now mellowed sufficiently to let the Furious slide. His father was an architect and, despite an urban childhood spent close to Paris, he developed an early love of horses, skipped university, started performing at the age of 17, and soon had his own circus troupe. Golgota, the show Bartabas is bringing to Sadler’s Wells in London Facebook Twitter Pinterest ‘This is like contemporary dance – but with horses’ … Golgota, the show Bartabas is bringing to Sadler’s Wells in London. Photograph: Nabil Boutros Within 10 years, those early experiments had evolved into Zingaro. “To do this kind of thing,” he says, “you have to live with the horses. But at the beginning, I didn’t realise Zingaro would be so intense artistically. The public said, ‘What is that? It’s not a circus, it’s not a theatre.’ And show by show, we found that more was possible. Fifteen years ago, I choreographed Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. I never imagined I could do that.” It speaks volumes about Bartabas’s standing that Pierre Boulez, the great composer and conductor who died last month, agreed to conduct the Orchestre de Paris in three special performances. The Centaur and the Animal – review The horses are astonishing, but the dancers need reining in, writes Judith Mackrell Read more Bartabas has had many offers to work elsewhere: he made two films in the 1990s, and opera companies have also asked him to direct. But mostly he has resisted, even when US producers offered him pots of money to do a circus-style show in Las Vegas. “They thought this Frenchman must be very stupid to say no,” he says, but the show would have been too big, the audience too distant, the horses overworked. Five shows a week is his limit. “My power is the company. If I start to go in another direction, I would lose my originality. Every artist has one special thing. My originality is this, so I have to take care of it and renounce other things. Through your uniqueness you find the universal.” His identification with Zingaro also explains why he lives in a caravan – admittedly, one with a classic Chrysler sports car parked outside. “I have the money to have a house,” he says, “but I know I will never have a house. I have no time to take care of it. And the idea of taking the Métro or a taxi to work – no. I’m living in my work. That is very important. I can say I’ve never worked, because I live my passion. For me it is a miracle.” There was a Mrs Bartabas, but they have separated. When I get a tour, I see one of their two sons working out in the site’s makeshift gym. Bartabas at Sadler’s Wells in 2011 Facebook Twitter Pinterest Bartabas at Sadler’s Wells in 2011. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images “I never buy a horse for a performance,” he adds. “I don’t say, ‘I want to do that, let’s find a horse to do it.’ The horses are there because I like them or they are cheap. They are part of the family.” The same applies to the people. An elderly man has attached himself to the enterprise, becoming part of life in Zingaro country. Dressed in a black Russian fur hat to keep out the winter cold, he sits by the door of the restaurant playing a barrel organ and grunting incomprehensibly as theatregoers arrive. Everyone has a role. Another delightful touch is the lighting of a bonfire close to the theatre after each performance. Instead of hurrying away into the night, people linger, buy a glass of wine, watch the flames dance against the blackness of the sky. The old man playing the organ, the clowns and musicians who seat the audience, the late-night fire are all part of the performance. Bartabas has created a phantasmagoric world visitors are reluctant to leave. After communing with angels, descending into the Métro has little appeal.