Beast meets butoh

Bartabas does remarkable things with horses at Sadler's Wells.

Move over War Horse: the real deal is at Sadler's Wells this week in The Centaur and the Animal. Four horses, trained by the French master equestrian Bartabas (whose one-word name has a certain pop star flamboyancy), take to the stage in a singular show where beast meets butoh -- a contemporary Japanese dance form. The last time live horses were used on the London stage was in 1972 when a young Bonnie Langford was starring in Gone With the Wind. (When the horse shat on the stage, Noel Coward apparently quipped that shoving the child's head up its arse would solve two problems at once.)

Not an easy piece, this one, and it's hard to imagine what the Cholmondeley-Farquhars of the Pony Club will make of it, or indeed the dance contingent, positioned as it is somewhere between the two.

Two questions occur in rapid succession while watching The Centaur: the first one being, how did Bartabas get his horses to do such extraordinary things? And the second: why? The answer to neither is clear, but there are at least clues to the first: information on his empathetic training methods and background is abundant and well-documented - for a quarter of a century he has run a horse/theatre company in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers; his techniques involve years of practice, and "listening" rather than "whispering". For this show, he taught his horses to breathe more deeply, and accept an entirely unnatural stillness.

The results are visually, viscerally spectacular: a succession of truly arresting images. Under invisible control, a horse pivots about the fulcrum of its hind legs; later a horse falls slowly to the ground. The most difficult dressage moves of passage and piaffe are executed, but without the pumped perfection of competition equestrian events: these horses are not only drilled, they are chilled. At one point a loose horse strolls in and has a blissful roll on the ground; they weave in and out of sable-black flats soundlessly: I have never seen a horse flit like a bat before.

Their human counterpoint on stage is butoh practitioner Ko Morubushi, the animal to Bartabas's hybrid centaur, and here's where, I suspect, western audiences will lose interest, if not the will to live. Perhaps our generation is ill-equipped to deal with the excruciating minutiae of this opaque discipline. He's a convulsing, twitching Gollum, painted silver, buttocks bifurcated by the slenderest of thongs, his lineaments, bones and stretched skin scraped bare by the same extraordinary lighting that conceals a horse one minute, and reveals its gleaming, velvet nap another.

And yes, we understand that there is a connection, or continuum, between this split, forked creature and the magnificent beasts that prowl around in the black dreamscape, but how we long for the hoofers to come back on! Especially as our man is accompanied by a voice-over of heavily accented, impenetrable surrealism. Here is a sample line: "light appears like a herd of gnus raining down on lavender". Admittedly I was having a bit of trouble with the accent, but in the context of the rest of the text (toads in the armpits, crabs up the anus), I'm inclined to believe I heard correctly.

One suspects that Bartabas is not merely in the business of schooling horses, but audiences: we are forced to patiently accept repetitions, longueurs. All is slowed, so we focus on a shower of sand, or the texture and ripple of the centaur's wings. It's not just the horses that are put through their paces, and end the show with heaving flanks and nostrils flared. With a show of such uncompromising abstraction, with little by the way of the usual seductions of narrative, character and so on, there is little to snag a restless audience. The Zen of the horse is beyond doubt; the Zen of the audience, less so.

In the end, Bartabas takes his audacious project too seriously to be entertaining. His showman instincts, honed from the age of 17 when he performed in the street with his horse and a few rats, seem subordinate to an over-intellectualisation. I'm minded to side with David Niven (and the Cholmondeley-Farquhars): bring on the empty horses!

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder