Bartabas moves on… Story Chris Hector, Photos Roz Neave and Antoine Poupel
The city of Namur is the capital of Wallonia, the French speaking part of Belgium. The town lies at the meeting of two rivers and at the foot of the ancient fort, the Citadel, now transformed into a space for cultural events.
Ten years ago, Théatre Zingaro played their first production, Cabaret, in this majestic setting, now they are back for the final performances of their fourth production, Eclipse – and yes, they were on top of the hill for the actual eclipse…
Patricia Lopez has been Bartabas’ assistant for the past eight years, she marvels that he called the work ‘Eclipse’ four years earlier, never knowing that he would be playing its final season at the time of the first total eclipse in over 50 years!
She is pessimistic about our chances of interviewing Bartabas, ‘for us’, she explains, ‘this production has come to an end, it is finished, now we are concentrating on our next work which we will start rehearsing in October, for our premier in Amsterdam in March’.
She also breaks the extremely sad news, Zingaro, the great Friesian stallion that had been Bartabas’ partner for the past 15 years, had died on their trip to the Lincoln Centre in New York. Three colic operations and the best veterinary science in America could not save him…
We are sitting with Patricia in the cafe in front of the famous Zingaro tent at the top of the Citadel, sipping iced tea and catching up with the news, when Bartabas appears. It is always a little scary to meet him again, he can look so intimidating, but as always, when we sit and talk, it is his gentleness and warmth that you feel.
He too, has his mind on the next show. He has horses back in Paris being trained for it right now. It will be a new generation of horses, only one of his original horses, the grey Spanish horse with the super piaffe, will appear in the new production. His vision is of the horses working in colour matching groups – he has already bought seven baby Cremellos with blue eyes, to take their place in the show. Even the famous black Lusitano whose canter to the rear amazed the world, will be retired after Eclipse, and Bartabas has no intention of making another horse learn the movement. He has done that, he has no desire to repeat himself
The new show will be a radical departure in that it will be to the music of Stravinsky, recorded music. In all the other shows, the interplay of the musicians – the gypsies of Cabaret, the Berbers and Georgians of the Opera, the Rajastani band of Chimère, and now the Korean musicians and singer for Eclipse – have been a major element in developing the theme of the work.
‘Perhaps for the premiere in Paris we will have a full orchestra of 120 musicians.’ I point out that in that case, there will be almost more in the cast than in the audience, ‘for three nights only,’ he assures me.
We also learn that the Théatre Zingaro had accepted an invitation to appear at the Sydney Festival next year, only to be told in July they were no longer wanted, too many problems with quarantine it seems.
There’s another departure from tradition, Patricia informs us, now the seats have numbers. Farewell to the frantic scramble for the best position. ‘For Eclipse, we want the audience to be very calm.’
Bartabas gets up, inviting us to join him for dinner after the show. What a night we have in store.
Each of Bartabas’ productions has asked more of its audience, from the rowdy good fun of the Cabaret, to the Arab/Georgian frenzy of Opera, then the joyful spiritual journey of Chimère, but now with Eclipse, he has gone even further, stripping the floss, gone the jokes, the rowdiness, gone even the colour, for this production is severely black and white, and the music is severe enough by itself.
An orchestra of five traditional Korean musicians, and Yoojin Chung, the most amazing singer – her sound varies from growls in the throat to high pitched screams. It is not very approachable.
Right from the start Bartabas seems to say ‘you are not here to have a good time, it is time to concentrate’. Even the lighter moments – like the voltage – tend to fade away just as the audience is getting comfortable with their feats of skill and bravado. No, says the production, no cheap thrills, this is a serious process.
The performance we see is not one of the best.
The weather is hot, and the performers, both equine and human, are feeling the effects of three years continuously playing Eclipse. The little English Riding Pony is out with colic, the cantering backwards Lusitano has a problem with his shoulder, and even the vaulters tend to muff their tricks. The audience is also pretty crass and restless.
After the show, Bartabas is clearly disappointed. He waves away my little tape recorder, ‘no interview – tomorrow come and see me, but first go to my office and watch the video of Eclipse.’
To my mind this production works better on tape, the surreal haunting quality of the images is developed more fully and the deep introspection of the work is greatly aided by not being broken every five minutes by audience applause.
I put this view to Bartabas, as we sit in the sun once again sipping iced tea (it is bloody hot), but he is too much of a trouper to entirely agree:
“The video is not better, it is different. The advantage is that I directed the movie, and I am the author of the show, so I have the advantage of being able to give my point of view. I can show what I want to show about the performance. In any live performances, the audience can look at what they want, they have to do their own story. Theatre is better for that. If you want to look at the foot of the horse for one hour, you can – with the video we can say you have to look at that, and that.”
“I am quite pleased, because for fifteen years I have been looking for a way to film my performances. The problem with our performance, is if you compare it with a theatre author or a choreography, we have no repertory. When we stop a performance it is forever, no-body will see it again. With theatre you can perform a piece you did ten years ago. With the horses, the people, the musicians, it is so particular – it makes no sense to find another horse that looks like the horse that was doing that ten years ago. That is the real problem for us, to keep the memory of the performances, and with Eclipse, I think I have found a good way to keep the performance.”
“Of course it is a re-writing of the performance. All my performances last one hour and forty minutes – they have all been so different, but in fact last the same time. I don’t know why, I don’t set out to make them that time. The video is sixty minutes, almost half, but it contains everything with the same symmetry, the same proportion and this is the best way to give the impression of the performance.”
“If you shot the one hour and forty minutes of the performance, it would seem very long. The time of the movie is not the same as reality. In the movie, if you want to give the impression of something very slow, you must do it for a shorter time than the reality. So if we had in Eclipse a slow movement of two minutes, I made it one, and four minutes of faster movement, then two minutes in the movie. This way you have the rhythm, and I hope, the good impression of the real performances. But of course it is movies, nothing to compare with the reality – there is not the feeling, the smell of the real performance. The smell is very important in the real performance.”
Is it important what the words of the songs in Eclipse mean?
“Never. It was the same with Chimère. When I work with this kind of music, I never want to know the translation. The public don’t know the words, so I’m like the public. What is interesting in this type of music is not the exotic aspect, but the universal part. I am interested in why you can be touched by music from the other side of the world. You don’t know the culture, and you don’t know the language or the tradition, and yet you are touched – there is a universal emotion, that’s why I don’t even want to know what it means, I’m working on the feeling of it.”
But the music of the earlier productions had a relationship to a horse culture?
“Not especially so. You can say that the rhythm of the music is the rhythm of the animals. At the very beginning of man, you can say the first music was the wind in the trees, and the rhythm was the animals. The people were looking at horses, or camels, and saw the rhythm of their movement – you can say that this music for Eclipse is slower, more inside, but that’s what I wanted when I chose this music – because the music is always the first thing I choose when I prepare a new production.”
“The idea was to illustrate the inside of the relationship between man and horse, not the outside – not the horse galloping, more the inside. So it was music from Asia because that is more inside, very slow. I went to Korea to find the performers.”
Looking at the work from Cabaret to Eclipse, is it four parts of your personality or a progression…
“I always say, each performance opens the door of the next one. It is an evolution. Every artist who is honest with himself comes to simplicity because it is more difficult to be simple. To take out all the easy things, all the artificial things, just to have the quality of the emotion, and the quality of the movement. In this way you can say that Eclipse is purer, you take out all but the essential. It is also an aspect of personality. I say to the people in the company, ‘you not playing a role, you are playing yourself’. It’s not like theatre – ‘this year you are going to play the old man or the killer…’ No you are playing yourself. So during the time that these people have been working with me – sometimes ten years or more – it is different aspects of their personality, the performers have to find it in themselves to propose something different. It is like that with the horses too…”
In Eclipse it was almost as if you were challenging the audience?
“In a way yes, but it is my personal evolution. When you are working with horses you put inside what you are looking for in the horse. The horse is like a mirror. What is the definition of the dressage? You are with the horse: first you create a vocabulary, then a grammar, then a dialogue. There is no bad horse and no good horse. The horse is the reflection of what you are. With the same horse you can have a relationship that is very brutal, violent or very sophisticated – with the same horse, and the horse will respond to you, how you are. It is the same if you have a Stradivarius, you can still play like a butcher. The instrument will respond to what you give to the instrument, and the horse is the same.”
“What is interesting is that when you are dealing with the horse, you are dealing with what you have inside yourself. So it is an evolution. We see things now in horses that are different from what we saw ten years ago. Maybe Eclipse is more difficult, I understand what you are saying, you have to make an effort to understand. But I want to take all my public to that, not only a part of that public – that’s why I go slowly with concessions. A little voltage to make it more easy, because if you go too far in the other direction, part of the public will say Zingaro is fantastic, and another part of the public will not understand, we have to go slowly.”
“Maybe the interesting phenomenon about Zingaro is that we learn with the time, fifteen years ago I would not have had the idea to do Eclipse, it took fifteen years of work to be able to do that. And maybe if we had been able to do Eclipse for our first performance, maybe the public would not have been able to understand, what is this kind of thing, it is crazy! At the same time as we learned, the public learned with us, to be able to look at a horse like a dancer. And maybe this is the more interesting thing about the story of Zingaro, it is not the success for the success, but the growing with the public.”
“The support is very strong – when we do a new performance it is booked three or four months before we come. It means that the public trusts us – in fifteen years we have done only six new performances. People say to me, for the year 2000 do you want to make a special show? No. My evolution is when I feel it, I do a new performance, so every time it is a very important step and the public is waiting for you.”
For the new millennium you have gone to the music of Stravinsky…
“But it’s not because it is the new millennium, it is because it is time for a new show. But yes, to work next time with recorded music is a new evolution. In the past I has always made my own opera with traditional music – I make like a puzzle. This is different because I work with a piece that is already written, it is like a box, you have to come inside the box. Generally I always work with the people and the horse, I feel the impressions how this horse can do this or that – now this is different, you have to work with groups of horses, and you have to prepare six or seven of one type, of the same level of dressage – and the riders too will have to be different. It is a new experience… we shall see.”
How far has the new performance developed in your mind?
“I try not to have an idea before, I take more risks, I can’t tell you what is going to be the next performance, just that I have chosen the music. When I get back to Paris, I will start rehearsal, to work with the people, but I don’t want to have an idea before because generally I find that the idea you have beforehand, when you come to re-write, that is the idea you take out. It is better to have the idea when you are working with the people, and with the horses.”
And there are many new horses in the next production?
“Maybe more than twenty new horses. It means there is going to be a lot of risk because you don’t know how the new horses will react.”
Also with recorded music, the orchestra cannot take care of you?
“This is the big problem. If there is an accident, the music doesn’t stop. That’s one of the challenges to see if it is possible to be so precise with horses like dancers. This is going to be one of the questions. I am also worried about the horses, it is very easy for them to learn the movements by heart – it is going to be worse with the music exactly the same. The horse is going to memorise it very quickly.”
Was there any particular reason you went to Stravinsky?
“Many reasons. Firstly, this piece ‘Rites of Spring’ is really important because it is the only music I feel is for animals, for horses, because there is a power inside, and the theme is going to be interesting. It is not going to be between the man and the woman, but between the people who have horses, and who have no horses, and the balance of that.”
You will be using dancers?
“Seven people from Kerala in the south of India will work with us, I have been there and chosen them already. They are not dancers – they are fighters. It is a martial art, but I am going to use them like dancers. It is interesting, it is the origin of all the martial arts in the world. It is work that relates to animals, the same as with Kung Fu. They have many weapons, but I will not use them, only the movements, and they are based on the original observation of the animals.”
To do a show without Zingaro is going to be very different?
“Yes, of course. But he is still behind us, maybe if I choose a music, there is a reason… ”
In the town of Namur we found a wonderful collection of poems by André Velter, entitled ‘Zingaro suite équestre’, illustrated by Ernest Pignon-Ernest. The poems celebrate each of the productions of the Theatre Zingaro. They are all wonderful poems, but it is the last in the book that I wish to quote from, as a farewell to Zingaro, the horse. I am sorry that my French is not good enough to attempt a translation…
je te nomme maître de l’éphémère
toi le gardien du nom
tui l’emblème des insolences
toi le mastodonte farceur qui joue
à la bête mythologique
et prend plaisir à étirer le temps quand on te fête comme une idole