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!

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.


Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.


May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.


Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.


Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump