Story – Chris Hector
I first encountered Bartabas and the Theatre Zingaro, in Antwerp, the 1993 Cultural Capital of Europe, the performance was one of an extensive list of events in the Festival calendar – just an intriguing ‘Opera Equestre with Bartabas and the Theatre Zingaro’. Of course I booked tickets, and asked the press office to arrange an interview with this mysterious Bartabas. No problem says the press officer when I’m in Australia and he’s in Belgium.
On arrival in Antwerp I soon learnt that there are no easy ways to get a Bartabas interview. The first thing the press officer said when I reminded him of the promised interview, was ‘oh no, Bartabas hates the press. He does not speak English. He will not talk to you – perhaps you can meet his assistant Daniel in the bar after the performance…’
Simultaneously, Roz had started on her own photographer’s steep and narrow path. She did in fact emerge with startlingly beautiful photos of the performance, but it was trauma getting there.
At the end of the night, I gave Daniel a copy of our magazine; he returned some moments later with the news that Bartabas would like to meet us. Would we care to join him? So we sat by a blazing fire, drinking chilled Rosé until about two in the morning, as Bartabas gave a long, and fascinating interview. In perfect English.
To get the interview of the next performance Chimère, I kept returning the Zingaro encampment, ludicrously tucked away in the middle of working class big city Paris. Each half hour we would cross the road from the little Bistro, to be told ‘not now, come back in half an hour’. When he finally appeared, Bartabas ushered us across the road yet again to the same little bistro, by now full, and when offered the only remaining table, by the windy door, walked to a full table in the corner, and waving his arms, said ‘up, up’ and seated us out of the wind, ordered our meals, and gave us another super interview.
The next production, Eclipse was on top of the Citadel in the Belgian city of Naumur, this time Bartabas’ long suffering assistant, Patricia Lopez, gave up. The performance had not been to Bartabas’ satisfaction. ‘He will not talk.’ Never mind, we’ll come and have a cup of tea with you tomorrow. So there we were minding our business, drinking tea with Patricia, when Bartabas waltzes up and joins us. He is happy to give me an interview, but first I must watch the video of Eclipse, because he was not happy with the work on the previous night.
Three out of three and we are cooking with gas. The next performance was Triptyk, for the first time using recorded music, Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. It was the opening night in Amsterdam, and everything seemed to go wrong with the show. Roz was sitting in her designated place on the stairs snapping away, when a figure, coat turned up, beanie pulled down, sat behind her. It was Bartabas, groaning at each little mistake in the performance, finally he could stand it no longer and asked Roz to put her camera away.
I wasn’t going much better. Bartabas stormed past me in the bar with a face as black as thunder, and took a table in the furthest corner. Patricia walked past behind him rolling her eyes. So we stood and drank weak, warm Dutch beer for the next hour or so, before Patricia appeared, ‘Bartabas says, why don’t you join him?’ Join him but not interview him – so I never got my Triptyk story.
In February 2003, we were in Versailles in the week before Bartabas’ School of Equestrian Art opened in the stables of Louis XIV, and this time it was far too easy. Bartabas appeared at the designated time, sat and chatted freely.
The omens in run up to Loungta in yet another European Cultural Capital – this time the absolutely charming French town of Lille – looked promising. Walking through the streets of Deauville on France’s Normandy coast, a few weeks earlier, we encountered a poster featuring one of the wooden sculptures that starred in Triptyk, the work of the painter, illustrator and sculptor, Jean-Louis Savart, who was also responsible for the wooden figures and drawings in the School at Versailles. The exhibition is breath-taking in its beauty (and I usually hate ‘horse art’), and the gallery manager charmant – ‘come back this evening for the opening, and join us for a little champagne’. Which of course we did, drank enough of the champagne to buy a small work, then met the artist when he arrived chauffeured by a great mate of ours, the French photographer, Frederic Chéhu – who took the wonderful photos that illustrated our Versailles story.
We even contact Patricia on her mobile first go and find the tickets in Lille with no drama, thanks to one of the nicest press room operators in the world, Pascal Biencourt. Even finding the venue is a breeze (once, for Chimere at the Festival of Avignon, we ended up steaming out of town on the Marseilles freeway and had to do an amazing U turn to get back…)
But when we get there, Patricia is not hopeful. Bartabas is currently preparing for two shows – a special show at Versailles, and a one man show (maybe with one girl) in the Chatelet Theatre in Paris. He is very stressed, even she has difficulty getting to talk to him. Still we have our tickets for the show, and since the old ‘first in best seats rush’ has given way to individually numbered seats and tickets, even finding a seat is stress free.
The air is filled with the familiar mace flavoured incense, the Tibetan monks in two groups, one each side of the ring, have started chanting. Bartabas has always taken risks with the traditional ring, filling it with water for Chimère, but now he has gone further, sinking the centre circle, below the track around the outside, monk-like figures circle the outside bearing incense and casting spells on those using cameras. In the inner ring, figures prostrate themselves in the sand, this is theatre as ritual, it is a long way from the gypsy cabaret of the first performance.
The sunken ring is covered by a dome, those weird Tibetan horns ring out, the monks’ voices chanting, bass voices unbelievably low, the sound so beautiful, so mysterious. The dome is now transparent, the inner ring filled with creamy horses and a girl sitting amongst them, we glimpse this world of magic, and it is gone again, the Tibetan mountains once again form a frieze on the outside of the dome.
Suddenly the horses, move, reform, then all is darkness.
The dome lifts. The girl leads a black mare, the creamies follow her, they quietly leave, monks quietly chant, adding to the tang of the incense.
A red robed monk dances in the inner circle. It is not dissimilar to the opening dance of Opera Equestré, but then the performance had a dialectic, the meeting of the Caucasian and the Berber cultures, the sexual dialogue of man and woman, here the solo dance whirls, twirls, turning in on itself, like the circle that envelopes it. The audience, particularly the little ones, feel restless, where are the horses and the trick riders? Just one stumpy little chap whirling endlessly about, as his mates moan along basso profoundest.
Ghostly grey horses, their necks outlined in vibrant red enter the arena, their masked riders standing on the rumps, still there is no release of the tension, this is a trick without a trick, the standing riders gracefully dancing to the deep, deep chant. These are no earthly riders, no earthly horses, these are horses of the imagination, horses of the wind.
Bartabas is in the dome, riding a buckskin, a little lateral work, some sort of piaffe, although very forehandy and swinging, and good Spanish walk – although we are fresh from seeing the great Invasor and Rafael Soto Spanish Walk their way out of the arena at Aachen, so we are hard to please in the Spanish Walk department.
The clouds and the mountains are back clouding the outside of the dome, Bartabas disappears, the ghostly horsemen return on the outer ring. Bartabas has created two universes in one tiny ring. He is back with the buckskin, cantering, sort of pirouettes, but letting the horse change leads as it completes the pirouette, that’s easy, horses love to change and take the weight off the inside leg, the trick is to stop them changing! Great horse work it is not.
The ghost riders are back, two per horse, forming a triangle around the ring, while behind the dome, Bartabas is having a bit of a school with Bucky. When he next appears the piaffe it is more active – then the lights go out.
A couple of little demons (gods?) cavort around the ring before being driven back by an avenging goddess with amazing blue breasts, riding a donkey, the donkey decides to have a good roll, she of the blue décolletage decides on a nap before the donkey wakes her and chases her from the ring. My mind goes back to the girl with the creamy horse, in a similar routine in Opera Equestre, this act lacks the charm of the first.
There are four little Quarter horses doing a spinny thing, but alas not very good spins (for my pains I reported on the Western horse scene for several years, I do know a spin when I see one). It would have been dead easy to teach one of the horses to ‘cut’ a little dancing devil god – I trained my Quarter horse to work those annoying dogs that run out and bark at you when you are riding the roads.
The question starts to bubble up, has Bartabas lost his base of incredible horse work? Is this just a bad night? In the past, Bartabas has at least worked within the tradition of great Circus High School work, even if he always sought to go beyond it. Great art first demonstrates great technique but then says, ignore the technique, look beyond the surface. In the past Bartabas was able to awe an audience with the magnificence of the equestrian display, and then say, no, the real significance lies beyond these tricks, go inside yourself and find the meaning…
The music is also a worry. It lacks light and shade, it lacks the feeling that it is going anywhere, although it must be noted that the set, and the use of the dome (now enveloped in flames) is absolutely stunning.
Bartabas now rides a Quarter horse, and again, the spin would not score at the Reno Futurity, even if Bartabas does perform it no hands.
There is a cute little vaulting act, played for laughs accompanied by what looks suspiciously like an Aussie didgeridoo in the centre of the ring.
Hooray for a piaffing grey, with Bartabas aboard riding with a cute little black fringed light shade on his head. Now we have piaffe to the rear, and the horse work lifts but all the while the monks keep droning on, oh for the lone fiddler who kept appearing in the audience in Chimere, even the drunken waiters on the first Cabaret to give the thing some life.
Now the geese enter honking, they have grown in numbers over the years, but have always been a signature for Zingaro. Another Iberian horse with a young man leading the geese in a graceful dance around the ring. Some nice rhythmic half steps, even a reasonable lengthened trot.
Suddenly the ring is full of saddled horses but no riders. ‘Now we’ll see something’ mutters my neighbour, Something indeed.
‘ Ordinary’ people start walking down the aisles, stand on the edge of the ring, and start to strip, exchanging business suits and office frocks for riding gear, the guy in front of me turning his tie into a sort of Tibetan head scarf. Now we are back to the company’s roots with some amazing death defying trick riding and the audience bursts into applause.
It is a tough act to follow for the little monk singing his heart out in the centre, but the show ends with the cast lying in the sand, while on the dome images of Tibet, its people and its mountains, roll over. The familiar bells ring out to sound the end of yet another performance by Theatre Zingaro.And do I get to talk to Bartabas? Well, we shake hands and say polite hellos in the bar after the show, but no interviews, he is not happy with his horse, he wants to see no-one tomorrow. If I had not seen the previous four performances I would have counted Loungta – Horses of the Wind, a sensation. But it will never rate as one of my favourites in the Zingaro ensemble.