Thursday, March 3, 2011

Horizonte, Soutine, Pollock and Le Tintoret

Le Tintoret & Bartabas
Horizonte, Soutine, Pollock and Le Tintoret are dancing horses. But that description will certainly not give you the true flavour of the dance performance I saw at Sadler's Wells. I don't go to dance performances very often (I keep waiting for everyone to start singing) but this one looked interesting. I was certainly right about that.

Ko Murobushi
The show is entitled "The Centaur & The Animal". There are two performers, six if we count the horses, and we probably should. The performers are a Frenchman with one of those single word names, Bartabas; and an elderly Japanese man named Ko Murobushi. The Frenchman trains and rides the horses and does various other set pieces; the Japanese man I doubt I will ever forget. His dance style is called Butoh, which is described in the program as a combination of dance, theatre and improvisation with influences from Japanese traditional performing arts and German Expressionist dance. I can tell you that his chiropractor would not like what he spent the evening doing.'Contortionist' comes close, but doesn't convey the extreme angst and violence and tension the little performer managed to create from the very first moment - and much of it by staying still. My own back began to ache and I wondered if it was just in sympathy, but then realised that I had been holding myself very taut because of what I was watching. I couldn't take my eyes off those little silver painted hands clawing about. And when he began writing about naked, with sand pouring all over him...

In a way, the horses, lovely though they were, were a bit superfluous. It was all very controlled and beautiful. One section involved a lovely white horse (Horizonte, or Soutine, or Pollock or possibly Le Tintoret) performing some fairly amazing dressage steps. Horses doing dainty little dressage steps always seem strange and amazing - that such a large and obviously strong and lively beast would be bothered! In other set pieces, one of the horses 'died' repeatedly (only spoiling the effect on the last repeat by raising its head for a bit of a look around). Another white one, with its legs wrapped in blood red cloth, dashed back and forth with a rider in swathes of red, menacing a sand coloured figure trying to escape.

The horses sometimes performed without reins, and once without a rider. The rider (Bartabas) was on the floor, performing a very dramatic 'arising from the earth' sort of dance. The horse came over and began licking his arms and hands, and nuzzling him. No one was sure if this was part of the show, or just the horse being sweet. Or perhaps these sort of equine improvs are meant to be part of the show. It looked good, just a little distracting, perhaps.

There was a particularly dramatic bit where Bartabas stood in front of the dark horse (if you'll excuse the phrase) to create the impression that he was a man with a horse's head (a Centaur - geddit?). That was very well done - visually arresting.

Dark. Revolting. In a poetic kind of way. You had to be there.
The show doesn't actually have a storyline as such (as dance so rarely does) but it does have a voice over (exceptionally well-performed by William Nadylam), reciting excerpts (in English) from a poem by Lautreamont called Chants de Maldoror. I was a little uneasy when I read the program notes, which described the words as "some of the most barbaric and revolted writing"; "incredibly raw and wild"; "a general feeling of rage". I was right to be concerned. The stuff was shocking, and I worried about the small boy sitting in front of me, probably brought along by his mother to "see the horses". As the program also put it, "The abrupt Chants de Maldoror perfectly accompanies Ko Murobushi's body in mutation". In mutation? Is that what was happening? I must keep up (or read the program more closely). I understand that the Surrealists and Dadists were very keen on the  Maldoror. I wouldn't recommend that you look up the words of it in English, unless you are feeling too euphoric and want a real come-down. The first sentence contains a "warning" to the reader:

God grant that the reader, emboldened and having become at present as fierce as what he is reading, find, without loss of bearings, his way, his wild and treacherous passage through the desolate swamps of these sombre, poison-soaked pages; for, unless he should bring to his reading a rigorous logic and a sustained mental effort at least as strong as his distrust, the lethal fumes of this book shall dissolve his soul as water does sugar.
Having spent an evening listening to a bit of it, I'd say that's a pretty fair warning.

Bartabas in full flight.

There's not much more to tell you about the performance, except that I'm glad I overcame my prejudices and went to see some dance. The Butoh stuff was enthralling and visceral, and the horses were darling. The lighting designer needs to get a mention - thank you Francoise Michel - because with one of those plain dance sets the lighting was needed, and superb. The audience was fairly appalling. I have never heard so much coughing in my life (might be the time of year - colds about, but still); and why is that dance audiences discuss things while the performance is still in progress? They actually chat - they'd be thrown out of the Opera House for that.

Here's a clip of Bartabas talking about his "dance company but with horses" - very interesting.

Oh, and Sadler's Wells - you'll be wanting to know my impressions. Lovely. The theatre is new (1998) and modern and swish, and easy to get to from Angel tube station (one stop for me). However, there has been a theatre continuously on that site in Islington since 1683! And the odd name? The first entrepreneur was a Mr Dick Sadler, and he found an ancient 'medicinal' well in the backyard, which he promptly turned to a profit by selling the 'spa waters'. Thus: Sadler's Wells. That's one for the trivia parties.

The theatre has, as you can imagine, an interesting and varied history, my favourite part of which is that in 1804 it opened its doors as an aquatic theatre - with a vast tank under the stage, and a channel out to the river for the water supply. The shows had huge ships in full sail, sea creatures, fireworks and special effects like burning castles and volcanoes. Bring it back, I say! In the 20th century Sadler's Wells launched several companies that became (and still are) amongst the top performing companies in the country, including the Royal Ballet (formerly Sadler's Wells Ballet) and English National Opera (formerly Sadler's Wells Opera). These days, Sadler's Wells is one of London's main dance theatres. Not bad for over 300 years of continuous theatre history.

Auditorium at Sadler's Wells
Sadler's Wells, Islington

Horizonte, Soutine, Pollock and Le Tintoret are the latest in a very long line of performers. The night I attended was opening night, so the reviewers will be having their say in the papers tomorrow, I expect.


The Guardian's review did indeed appear today. Judith Mackrell gave the show three stars (out of five) and appeared to have a diametrically opposite reaction to me - she wanted more horses and less Japanese butoh. She complains that the horses don't even appear on stage for the first ten minutes - I was so entranced and tensed with watching Ko Murobushi that this never occurred to me. According to Judith, "It's one of the toughest openings to any piece of dance theatre I've seen. And you can sense the beginnings of mutinous restiveness in the theatre". Not where I was sitting, Judith...perhaps it was different in the free press seats. She clearly belongs to the 'want to see the pretty horses' crowd -- but hey, I'm a dance novice and Judith is presumably paid to see lots of it. I just think she was a bit snide about Ko Murobushi after he almost broke his back in an absorbing, if excruciating, performance. 

Images from:'s_Wells_Theatre

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