Bring on the dancing horses as Zingaro troupe rides into Athens

Little is known of Bartabas, the man who has turned horses into dancers and his dancers into centaurs; his means of communication is Zingaro, his equestrian and musical theater troupe, an adventure for the audience and performers alike. Zingaro does not rely on a tradition; it’s one of a kind. I don’t have other examples and I don’t know its future. By working, we opened new doors and as we educated ourselves, we began educating our public, says Bartabas. The troupe, currently in Athens, has a public, increasingly global in nature, ranging from aficionados of equestrian art to those who never attend cultural events. Every novel performance by the company is an experience to be added on top of the previous one. People remember all our different spectacles and I like that, says Bartabas. They even prefer one to another, and wherever we are, on tour or in France, it is like a dialogue. One of the characteristic features of Bartabas’s oeuvre, however, is that even though every spectacle’s choreography and set design is documented, a show that was presented a few years ago is technically impossible to repeat, meaning that Zingaro is not building on a repertoire, as is the case with theater. Nevertheless, preparations for each show may last two and a half to three years. I work all the time, and I don’t allow myself to work outside the company. I have been asked to direct an opera, for instance. It would certainly be an enriching experience, but if I started doing it, it would never end, says Bartabas. Besides, it is precisely this constant work with the horses that gives birth to new ideas. The troupe’s current production, Triptyk- Dance of the Centaurs, is all about fresh and primitive emotions -but the audience will have to fill in the gaps. An equestrian narrative divided into three parts, it begins with Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece The Rite of Spring, followed by Pierre Boulez’s Dialogue de l’ombre double, reaching a joyous conclusion with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. There are 24 dancers and riders, including eight dancers from the Indian state of Kalaripayatt; Annouk Tissot and Julio Arozarena, a former member of Maurice Bejart. Above all, there are 21 horses, including, among others, Nijinsky, Lifar, Goya, Picasso and Nureyev. My inspiration is not at all French, says Bartabas. If you come to the show blind-folded initially and then you see the show, you’ll be incapable of distinguishing its origins, whether it’s French, Moroccan or Indian. It’s beyond countries and I’m interested in global cultures, I care about its universal aspect. The horses remind us of our ancestors; they remind us of ancient times. And this universality has everything to do with the horses. Take Greece, for instance, it is not a traditional horse-breeding country, but the horse is very much present in the culture, in mythology, for example. An original language This great connoisseur of horses, however, does not have a didactic approach. Part of Zingaro’s success, according to its founder, is that even though horses are no more part of our daily lives as they were 100 years ago, they are very much present in the collective consciousness and in images. Working with horses, Bartabas developed a new, original language, not unlike German choreographer Pina Bausch, for instance. Bausch’s work is very much connected with the people in her troupe, says Bartabas. In the same way, the reason why I exist is because of the people and the horses. It’s the horses that have offered me so much. It’s the same as Jorge Don and Maurice Bejart or Bausch’s dancers bringing out their personalities. Zingaro is a powerful spectacle for a large audience. In the United States, for instance, the public was highly receptive from the very beginning. Zingaro is not a horse show, says Bartabas. I’m not at all interested in showing horses; there are races and competitions for that. I’m interested in the relationship between man and horse. And what you get is what you are able to construct. What does it mean to train a horse? You came face to face with an animal you don’t know and you have to establish some kind of communication, a vocabulary, a dialogue and then you have to express something together, says Bartabas. And it takes a long time to do this, five or even 10 years. It is the horse that inspires the master. The work is based on the horses’ reactions, says Bartabas. I choose a horse because I like it, because of a detail. Then I ask myself: Why did I like this horse and what would be interesting to say with this horse? The horses have taught me everything and you have to listen to them. They are like a mirror. Depending on what kind of relationship you build, you will send back whatever you gave in the first place. If you are brutal with a horse, you will get a submissive or an aggressive reaction. No matter what happens, the horse is stronger than you and it is not by force that you work, but with patience and understanding. It’s about having an accomplice, not just a tool. If you work well, you get a good salary; in the circus, if you perform well, you get a piece of meat if you’re a dog, and a salad if you’re an elephant. Equestrian art is not about motion, but about doing it with grace and conveying a feeling. That is when it becomes an art. And that’s why you have to prepare it physically and psychologically, during a long time. We always say that you never impose something on a horse, you only propose. Don’t forget that an artist, a dancer, accepts suffering on account of their art; the horse does not understand this and thus should never suffer. If it does, it always remembers. Is Bartabas a horse-whisperer then? I’m not the one who whispers to the horses, I’m rather the man who listens to them, he says. Besides the spectacular Zingaro equestrian troupe, Bartabas plans to establish an equestrian academy in 2003, situated in the old stables of the Chateau de Versailles. With a majority of female riders, the academy will ensure the training, development, continuation of the troupe and will be a source of new blood for both artists and horses. But who will follow in the artistic footsteps of the great master himself? I never ask myself that question. Nothing is calculated; everything comes instinctively and is impossible to repeat, says Bartabas, Knight of the National Order of Merit in France. The whole discipline might disappear; it’s not like the Greek statues and that is precisely where its beauty lies. Zingaro Equestrian Theater, at the Hymettus Municipal Stadium, is the first event of the 2004 Athens Organizing Committee’s cultural program and is organized by the Attica Cultural Society. For more ticket information, see What’s On, Page 7. The career of Bartabas Born and raised in France, Bartabas began his career as a street entertainer at the age of 17, together with a few friends. In 1976, he was the co-founder of the Theatre Emporte, following it up with the Aligre Circus. In 1984 he established the Equestrian Zingaro Theater, while in 1989, the Zingaro Theater moved to the Aubervilliers area of Paris. (The troupe was named after Bartabas’s own horse.) This is where all the members live and work together. One of the reasons for this is that horses require round-the-clock attention, another is that Bartabas is entirely immersed in his art, never disassociating art from life. I’m interested in this as a total adventure, he says. Not just in its creation, I’m interested in its daily life, the rehearsals, everything, he says. In what he refers to as a village, there are 45 people on salaries, plus spouses, partners and children. They come from all over the world, having arrived by chance or by word-of-mouth.

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