The UK premiere of the Centaur and the Animal is a dark piece of experimental equestrian theatre which combines elements of dance, dressage, music and poetry. Four magnificent horses perform under the direction of world renowned French rider, horse trainer, and director Bartabas, alongside his co-choreographer Ko Murobushi a master of Japanese Butoh.

© Nabil Boutros
© Nabil Boutros

Butoh is a rigorous dance form which is traditionally performed in white, or as in this case silver, body make-up, using slow, controlled often misshapen movements which are then held. It is a challenging discipline which dictates the pace of this production. Bartabas and Murobushi have created a mysterious, brooding, nightmare of a world where death is never far away. The story follows the rider and his animal as they begin to exchange attributes, before finally merging into one. At the same time Murobushi takes on the character of the evil Maldoror whose story is told by the extracts of poetry from Lautreamont’s poem of the same name, recited by a lone voice off stage. The poetry is surreal, violent and at times repellent in effect its repetitive drone simply distracts our concentration from the action on stage.

Drawing upon a palette of black, white and grey we are presented with a sequence of powerful, sometimes disturbing visual images. Virtually naked and painted in silver Murobishi showers in the sands of time and holds some gruelling positions for what seems like an infinite amount of time. Bartabas wears a winged cape appearing as an angel of death as he sits on horseback and extends his hands skywards. Memorably he positions himself in front of his horse so that we see the body of a man with the head of a horse staring at us.

Both men show immense skill in their respective discipline but each inhabits his own world. The lack of connection between them is in marked contrast to the intimate relationship between Bartabas and each of his horses. There is no doubt that Horizonte, Soutine, Pollock and Le Tintoret are the stars of the show. Amazingly the horses perform measured movements in the style of Butoh. They are statuesque in their stillness while in their movements they trot, canter and perform elements of dressage with a calm precision. Clearly they are completely under Bartabas’s control, yet they appear to perform so naturally that they almost appear to be making their own decisions.

It can be a challenge to show animals on stage without lapsing into sentimentality. However this overly long production has gone to the opposite extreme in the creation of this cold, dark, empty fantasy world. It is a privilege to see these wonderful animals on stage, but it takes more than great horsemanship and physical prowess to create a successful theatrical experience. Bartabas wanted to express the internal power of the horse in this production. He succeeds; indeed the horses are more compelling than the humans performing alongside them.