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!

Show Hide image

It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.