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!