The Centaur and the Animal is like a slideshow of images; each image being incredibly beautiful, but the piece as a whole always remaining cold and distant. Murobushi dances alone at the front of the stage, slowly and intensely, the dreamy, frog-infested text of Lautréamont floating over him. He crashes his foot onto the keys of a piano, crawls on his knuckles, crashes his head against metal (which sounds like thunder) and stands stoically under pouring sand. His little episodes are alternated with an appearance by Bartabas and one of his four, unimaginably glossy, horses.
Bartabas and Murobushi have similar presences as performers. They go through the motions of intensity and are both skillfully aware of the huge visual power of the stage. However, as I experience the strength of the images I am never really touched by them. Their intended effect is not graspable and they are too disjointed for me to find my own understanding of them. I cannot quite pin-point what it is that keeps me at bay as a spectator of this spectacular piece, but my instinct tells me that it is Bartabas and his horses.
Bartabas’ work is dressage with theatrical and aesthetic sensitivity. He appears again and again, cloaked and disguised like a series of ghostly, romantic highway men. The horses emerge silently from the dark (the stage is covered in earth so their hooves make no sound), they pace up and down, round and round, picking their feet up, trotting in flourishes or flailing madly from side to side on command. Everything is on command. Everything is the result of a life’s work of training. The life of the horses and the life of Bartabas. His control over the animals enables him to create repetitive and hypnotic movement and the results are singular and striking. However I am not enchanted by the horses, as I might be by a highly trained dancer, because I am always so aware that the horses’ movement only exists because Bartabas’ demands it of them. I realise that my desire to see the show, as with any show, does not to come from wanting to see the physical shape of a body but to see a person (or, in this case, animal) who is going through their own process of physically shaping their body. The horses therefore are suddenly not interesting because I cannot see horses – I can only see discipline and that does not make for interesting theatre. Bartabas (mounted on the horses) gestures gallantly towards drama by donning flowing, flying cloaks, but it does not hide the rigidity. Instead it only gestures towards particular (and questionable) taste.
The reasons for which I put down this piece are strengthened by the good I did see in it. The moments in which the horses shape their own movement, rather than stepping under the rhythm of their rider, are amazingly beautiful and make me frustrated at what the rest of the piece is lacking. There is an extended moment in which one of the horses comes on, free of rider and reins, rolls on the floor, gets back up, wanders over to where Bartabas is dancing, stands with endearing attention to his master and begins to sniff and nibble him with real curiosity. The horse is not misbehaving, he is doing what Bartabas intends for him to do, yet his curiosity is his own, his steps are his own and his snorts are impulsive. This scene is so captivating and so charged with its own liveness that it throws the rest if the piece into darkness.