Bartabas’ first Theatre Zingaro production – Cabaret Équestre, 26 years ago – was a rollicking frenetic romp, complete with drunken waiters, out of control clowns and lots and lots of wild, singing, swirling gypsy music. The productions since then have become steadily more cerebral, and the music less approachable, be it the sound of a Korean singer who used her three octaves to screamher way through Eclipse or the monotone chanting of the Tibetan monks in Loungta.
Battuta, Bartabas’ latest production, marks a return to those madcap basics. And according to Bartabas, that is probably a simple reaction to the three years he spent with the Tibetan monks in the previous the show Loungta. He likes to say that the monks have left to him a huge peal of laughter.
The music for Battuta comes from the Central European Romany tradition – the string musicians of the Transylvanian taraf of Cluj-Napoca, and the horn players in the Shuka fanfare from Zece Prajini in Moldavia.
Not only did the music and thematic content of the Zingaro productions grow more and more esoteric, but the sets and design of the shows grew more and more overwhelming – from the painterly dream like set of Trytyk with its huge wooden moving sculptures to the amazing effect of the covered capsule that encompassed the action of Loungta, giving the option of images from the outside covering the inner action entirely, to create two worlds of imagery.
Not so with Battuta, here the set is simplicity itself…
The theatre is in total darkness as the violin takes up the first gently melancholy refrain, the lights come up to reveal a column of water pouring from the ceiling about a metre wide, and standing stock still around the water are horses, so quiet and motionless. Now we see a couple of women sitting at the horses’ feet, now we see bodies sleeping on the edge of the circle, and the simple caravan at one end. The music of the violins, bass and cello gains strength, day is coming, time to break camp and move along, the horses are swirling around the ring, the caravan has joined the procession, these are heavier horses, the working horses of the travelling people. These are the melancholy slow songs of the travellers…
But this quiet meditation is broken by the other group on the opposite side of the ring: clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, horns, bass and drums, a raucous, pulsating riot of sound, the water of the central column has turned from blue to gold, and on cue, a taffy in a cart leads the way, followed by more of Bartabas’ seemingly endless supply of creamy horses. Two guys dance a wild jig around the water as it changes back to blue, and the strings rise to the challenge – they can cut it too.
A lone rider gallops wildly around the ring, holding aloft a huge puppet in the form of a goose, the speed at which he is travelling making the wings flap… aah, the geese of the early productions are back, if only in symbolic form!
Those early Zingaro shows were also dominated by hair-raising trick riders – as some of them moved into a retirement you never thought they’d live to enjoy, the excitement level of the tricks subsided – but wow, new trick riders are in town and they are wild! Swinging crazily under their horses bellies at full tilt, dragging their shoulder through the dust, three circling the ring at once, heads down, toes pointing to the sky.
For Australian death-defying trick rider, Bridie Sparkes of the team Girls, Girls, Girls, just watching the video of the show was enough to have her using words like ‘breath-taking and inspiring’.
“The manoeuvres are complex vaulting combinations – layovers springing into splits on the neck, tail stands and the very dangerous trick known simply as ‘under the belly’ requiring precise timing and an enormous amount of courage – and all executed at high speed by riders possessing unbelievable stamina…”
The mood changes in Battuta, a bride rides in with the most amazing train, flowing some 15 metres behind her, tied to a balloon. It floats along behind the bridal princess as she tosses off some one times changes…
Vaulting was always one of the great strengths of the Zingaro group, and it is once again a feature of this production, try standing on a cantering horse’s back then jumping in the air and touch your toes! A girl joins the act, and is waltzing with one of the male vaulters as the horse circles the ring, the crowd clapping in time with the brass.
The elements of raucous humour are back, two of the female riders are flat out around the ring joined by a clothes’ line complete with washing, and screaming abuse at each other. Now the ring is filled, seven horses, and seven death-defying riders, flat chat, picking up each other’s hats from the ground.
One solo bareback rider circles the ring and disrobes – first his coat, his tie, belt and his trousers – down to a leopard skin leotard – he comes back to camp it up and soak up the applause before tumbling through the column of water in the centre of the ring. Another rider borrows a fiddle from the band, and tries a little string solo, again, standing on the horse’s back – and then his pal, borrows a trumpet from the group on the other side of the ring.
The bride has now discarded her train and is pursued hotly by several admirers, and her outraged ancient father, backwards and forward she swaps, at times riding two horses at once, a foot on each, the action becomes wilder, more anarchic, like something out of the Keystone Cops or the Marx Brothers, a manic silent movie that is anything but silent, the bride and her lover leading the posse of her avenging family armed with a fork, a broom and a shotgun, rushing in and out of the four entrances to the ring.
There’s even a sexy lady bareback rider showing large quantities of elegant leg lying across the rump of her voltage horse.
The bride and her beau are back, jumping little steeple fences, followed by their herd of four faithful blacks, now the ring is filled with eight pairs of horses, each ridden by one performer, each boasting that he is the star, and imploring the crowd to clap!
Grandpa is back this time with a bear – and it is so realistic that for a horrible moment you think it might be a real bear, not guy in a bear suit who is now leaping on and off the cantering horse.
The caravan is whirling around the ring, a cart piled with techno junk and computer screens, the bear is back this time in bed with the bride, a genuine moveable feast – two guys eating and drinking on the back of a wildly swaying buggy, the bear is back but by now the bride is firmly in charge, the brass band is absolutely frantic, the driven vehicles are getting faster and more dangerous, the scenes more absurd: one guy is taking a shower, the bride is back with a brace of little baby bears, one individual is carefully skinning a pig! There’s a madonna and a turkey, a wildly out of control undertaker’s carriage…
Now the ring is full of free horses – 12 creamies, 12 blacks, we are more or less back to where we started. Amazingly one of the cream horses decides he wants to stand in the middle of the column of water. The creamies are starting to roll and settle…
The cast are back on horseback to take the cheers of the crowd, as Bartabas himself makes his only appearance, a wild scuttling run around the ring on a donkey.
This has been a good fun riot of a show – even Françoise Gründ, the Parisian intellectual who writes the preface in the program – the sort of writer who can find inner significance in the life-and-times of a house brick, concedes ‘Battuta (is) pure uninhibited entertainment.’
It is a triumphant return by Bartabas to his roots which were the travelling shows that criss cross the highways of France.
However there is one thing lacking – in those earlier shows, Bartabas himself demonstrated some very interesting High School work – not just his celebrated canter to the rear in the style of Baucher, but pirouettes without hands, even some fine passage and piaffe. As well as impressive work in hand. This thread is lacking from Battuta – hopefully if Bartabas has decided to absent himself from the ring, he will discover through his other project, the Académie at Versailles, a rider, or riders who will carry on the great tradition of equitation as a theatrical art in France.
Will there be high school work in future shows?, I asked Bartabas: “Who knows? In this show anyway, you probably noticed the horse of the bride, that is High School trained…”
At least with this production, I don’t have to lie awake at night pondering its inner significance. Surely Bartabas will return to more complex themes and treatments in the future, but in the meantime, Battuta is a gust of wildly energizing fresh air.