The Centaur and the Animal

Created and directed by Bartabas
Théâtre Equestre Zingaro
Sadler's Wells Theatre
(2011)

The Centaur and the Animal production photo

Surrounded by a white proscenium and forestage, a silk curtain produces ripples like water on a pond to the barely heard tintinnabulations and gong-like sounds at the beginning of Jean Schwarz' score. There are chords on a piano and a voice begins reciting.

The text is drawn from Lautréamont's macabre and nihilistically surreal prose poem Maldoror in English translation, William Nadylam's voice is close-miked, accented and atmospheric, sometimes multiplied and mixed and appearing to come from different parts of the theatre. It is not always easy to understand what is said, its sense less important than its part of the sound score, but certain phrases come through clearly: 'My heart still beats', 'The spiteful viper has devoured my prick'.

On an upright piano to the left a small figure in black is crouching. It is Japanese butoh master Ko Murobushi, co-choreographer of this work with Bartabas, moving infinitesably slowly. For those who are not passionate devotees of the minimalist butoh dance form this may seem an interminable sequence but it establishes the necessary slow pace which is echoed in the rest of the work. Suddenly there is a rapid movement: a foot appears to slip and crashes on the keys, but it exactly echoes the piano in Schwarz's music.

Now the curtain ripples and falls to reveal a black void and Murobushi descends from the piano and begins a slow and painful crawl across the forestage. His head is wrapped in voile, his hands and feet shine silver. Gradually a spectral figure of a horse and its draped rider become visible crossing and re-crossing the stage.

This is not a narrative piece but a succession of powerful images that seem to explore the subconscious and set the bent human figure against the powerful figure of the horse and rider. The text at times speaks of metamorphosis, of man becoming animal, of angels and of horses (though briefly glancing at my copy of Lautréamont in hope of greater understanding I failed to find these passage), and such concepts are reflected in Bartabas' images as his cloaked figure sweeps like a huge bird with beating wings or seems to give a benediction. Is he each of those four horseman of the Apocalypse, is he death?

In one sequence, when Murobushi repeatedly stands then crumbles to the ground, horse and bare-torsoed rider echo him almost in slow motion, as they do so looking very like a centaur. In another powerful image the horse's head seems to replace that of the man standing below it and, most movingly, there is a sequence when, the man raising his arms and rising from the ground, the horse licks his hands and arms as though transferring some life force into his body.

Murobushi's head also disappears in a long held position when, near-naked and silvered, he seem to have it buried in sand, balancing somehow on his shoulder blades, and he also creates some striking images as he stands below cascading columns of sand that arc like spray when they bounce from his body. The visual effects, here and throughout, are created with the help of Françoise Michel's careful lighting.

Butoh, of course, depends on discipline and control but the impression here is of the "poor forked animal", a powerless creature before the authority of the horse and rider. Only when the horse takes on the humanity of the rider in its centaur form does it become vulnerable.

The discipline that Bartabas elicits from his horses is very different from that of the dressage event (though one sequence would surely win a gold medal in competition) for he achieves remarkable stillness and at times a feeling that it is the horse who is making the decisions rather than the rider.

At one point, when the human seems to be confronted by the horseman, being rounded up or ridden down, there appears to be another performer on the stage but those credited are only Bartabas and the three quarter horses and a Lusitano (who all appear solo): Horizonte, Soutine, Pollock and Le Tintoret. They bring a quality to this work that is very different from any conventional equestrian circus act and well deserve their place on the stage of a dance theatre.

At Sadler's Wells until 6th March 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton