Dancing with horses

Bartabas in Eclipse, 1997Image copyright

The Theatre Equestre Zingaro has an unusual stable of performers – the leading stars of its dramatic shows are horses. They combine dancing and acting in a remarkable way, writes Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore.

Flip through the early programs of Theatre Equestre Zingaro and you will find a sketch by the late cartoonist Cabu. It shows a butcher’s shop in disarray with the door knocked down. Bartabas, Zingaro’s flamboyant founder, is running away, a rescued horse on his back.

The cartoon harks back to the pioneering French equestrian theatre’s earliest days. Bartabas, then in his early 20s, could only afford to buy his ponies for a few francs from the meat markets, saving the animals from certain death.

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Last year marked Zingaro’s 30th anniversary and Bartabas has come a long way. He now owns 37 trained horses, from elegant Arabian stallions to piebald shires and bonny Shetland ponies. His shows tour the world over, often featuring dozens of performers. And, since launching in 2003, his Academy of Equestrian Arts has occupied the grand stone arches of the royal stables at Versailles.

Celebration, however, is tinged with tragedy – 2015 was also the year when Cabu, Bartabas’s close friend, was killed in the Charlie Hebdo massacre alongside his colleagues from the satirical magazine. In reaction Bartabas premiered his show On Acheve Bien les Anges – Elegies (They Shoot Angels – Elegies) at Les Nuits de Fourviere festival in Lyon last June.

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Cabu – who was killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack – pictured in 2007

Elegies delves into a darker side of humanity, touching on grief, death, loss, and religion. Horses plunge, gallop, and rear, evoking otherworldly spirits, or spin around in a mass of fluffy cloud-like foam, conjuring up images of an uncanny, uneasy heaven. Some acts feature skeleton riders, others fallen angels atop snow-white horses, their wings drooping with despair.

“It’s not just a terrorist attack,” Bartabas, 58, insists. “It is an attack on artists. They were artists and that’s why they were killed.”

He adds: “In the past I used to do very provocative shows. But now, as [the world] is quite aggressive, my new way of doing things is the contrary: to be softer, tender, and to define the poetry of things.”

Equestrian theatre, or hippodrama, has graced Europe’s stage since the late 18th Century. Plays were written for large numbers of horses and mass audiences, with early riders often cavalry veterans, and themes touching on war, chivalry, hunting, and highwaymen. Scripts were minimal; after watching one rehearsal of Hamlet, the British hippodrama star Andrew Ducrow famously said: “Cut the dialogue and come to the ‘osses'”.

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A performance at Philip Astley’s Amphitheatre where horses were often seen

By the mid-19th Century the trend had travelled the Western world, with hippodramas being staged in as far-flung cities as Sydney, before falling out of fashion.

In recent years it has come surging back. Canadian hippodrama company Cavalia often plays to crowds of thousands, and in 2009 Franz Abraham directed a £6m re-enactment of Ben Hur at the 02 Arena in London, featuring 400 actors, 45 horses, and an epic chariot race.

But other companies care less for extravaganza than for high art. They include the Icelandic equestrian centre Fakasel, which opened in 2014 and celebrates the beast locals dub “the most useful servant”. In France Baro d’Evel, an equestrian circus, features just two horses and a black-and-white African pied crow.

It is Bartabas, however, who nearly single-handedly revived the genre, giving it panache, soul and a dose of celebrity – the renowned American composer, Philip Glass, is one collaborator.

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“There was nothing like [Zingaro] before. It’s like he invented these kind of shows,” notes Dominique Delorme, director of Les Nuits de Fourviere.

Previous equestrian displays largely acted as vehicles for technical prowess, featuring military marches, jumping, and dressage. Zingaro by contrast, combines drama with ballet-like precision and dance. In Elegies, Delorme says, “the man turns to the horse, to the animal, and asks himself: ‘What’s the sense of life?'”

Alistair Spalding, artistic director of London’s Sadler’s Wells, where Zingaro will play from 14 March, agrees that Bartabas has totally reinvented equestrian theatre, “bringing in an element of artistry, magic and meaning previously missing from the tradition”.

Born Clement Marty, Bartabas was raised in a middle-class Parisian suburb, where as a teenager he gathered together a motley crew of friends, falcons, dogs, and horses, and then took to the road, appearing in small-scale festivals.

In 1979 – a rat perched on one shoulder – Bartabas the Furious, as he re-christened himself, galloped down the street in Avignon, his troupe riding behind him. The dramatic entry to the city’s fringe festival marked the beginnings of what would later become Zingaro, named after his beloved Friesian stallion.

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Hugo Marty

At more than 6ft tall, Bartabas is a commanding presence. His unbuttoned grey waistcoat is set off with rakish side-burns. Usually based in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers, where the troupe lives full-time in a gypsy-style camp, we meet in a moment of calm before an evening show on tour in Lyon.

Irish travellers’ music pours out of Bartabas’ handsome red and green wooden caravan and a Dalmatian dog picks its way lazily over the grass. Bartabas serves tea in chunky ceramic cups under dappled sunlight. Some of his horses graze nearby; others stand, tails flicking away the flies, coats gleaming, in their makeshift stables.

For Bartabas each horse is “like a mirror”.

“I am not saying: ‘Look how the horse is beautiful.’ I am saying: ‘Look at the relationship between man and horse,'” he says.

“The horse you prepare physically and mentally to be an artist – like a dancer,” he continues. “It’s a job. It has to learn to [move] with emotion, with elegance. The horses are part of the company so even if they don’t speak they influence the result.”

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Hugo Marty

Training animals to do complex moves in front of an audience is, of course, tricky. In the shows horses often perform alone, without bridles or riders. They lie down on the floor comatose, gallop while performers jump furiously from back to back, and stand utterly motionless, as if frozen into marble statues.

If Bartabas shies away from empty spectacle and pure dressage, he is drawn towards rites and ceremony. The exploration of religion has been a constant in his work.

“The ritual of religion, it’s the first theatre,” he says. “I respect religion but I don’t believe in God. But I believe in the idea that man needs god. The animal does not need to have a god because they don’t have consciousness of the universe. That is the problem of the human, they have to resolve what is before, what is after, why I’m there.”

The show coming to London is Golgota, inspired by Seville’s Holy Week, and featuring flamenco dancer Andres Marin, who struts the stage while Bartabas conducts his own equestrian pas de deux.

Thinking back to the events of last year, and the death of his friend, Bartabas shakes his head sadly. “I did read comics and cartoons and now I’m realising it’s not possible any more to laugh about anything.”

Through their movements, animals can sometimes express things, he suggests, that are hard to put into words. “Take the risk and let the horse do what he wants a little,” he says. “You don’t make him super-controlled, so sometimes it’s not perfect – but it’s always more true.”

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