As I joined lines of people shuffling into a covered arena in Kiba, eastern Tokyo, one night recently, the scent of the air became distinctly more rural than urban.
Then, when I took my seat, it was immediately clear that the farmyard wafts were to do with the dozen white horses, their muscular bodies bathed in blue light, standing silently in the center of the sawdust ring drinking from a “waterfall” coming from on high, but which somehow disappeared into the ground.
These four-legged stars of the French equestrian spectacular “Battuta” were on standby, waiting like true professionals for their cue to step into the spotlight.
First, though, there were the formalities for us all to endure as a voice from the PA warned against anyone using cameras or recording devices — or even budging from their seats or flinging scarves over their face once the performance began, so as not to spook the horses.
“Spook the horses?” It was enough to scare this writer, whose closest horsey contact was a one-minute pony ride years ago.
But as the show kicked off in this purpose-built theater, which will be demolished after the run, it soon became apparent that the horses were not about to run amok and were just as disciplined as the riders, executing to near perfection all their complex choreographed movements at speeds I was told reached 100 kph.
They raced around the perimeter of the arena as equally muscular male riders in colorful costumes showed off one acrobatic stunt after another.
When the riders weren’t jumping off their careening mounts and immediately bouncing back to straddle them facing their tails, they were upping the ante to stand up on their backs with their hands in the air, then performing somersaults or the splits.
Since its inception in 1984, the Zingaro company (meaning “Gypsy” in Italian) has built a solid reputation for this kind of horseback spectacle, though not all the six programs it has staged have been quite as acrobatic as this one.
The ongoing “Battuta” show in Kiba (meaning “jokes” in Italian), which marks the group’s second visit to Japan and is themed on the action-packed lives of Romanian nomads, is accentuated by the quick-tempo live music of Romanian folk musicians — one, a 10-member brass band and the other, playing from the opposite side of the arena, a string quintet.
And yet not all the action is fast-paced. One of the most striking parts of the show is the appearance, again and again, of a petite woman in a white wedding gown astride a pure-white horse, which gallops elegantly around the ring as her stunningly long veil, with bunches of balloons on its hem, drifts dreamily behind in her wake.
But why horses? And how do they get them to change their pace in time with the music? And perhaps more importantly, how do they respond to all the action and acrobatics on and around them?
It was with such species-spanning questions in mind that, the following morning, I returned to Kiba and went backstage to meet Bartabas, the mysterious mastermind of “Zingaro” (which was also the name of one of his earliest, favorite horses).
Immaculately attired in a black leather jacket, blue jeans and a gray tweed cap, Bartabas, who discloses little about himself except his stage name and the fact he was born in a Paris suburb in 1957, equally avoids giving me a straight answer when I ask how he started working with horses.
“Well, you would have to psychoanalyze me to know why I’m interested in horses,” was his response (in French).
OK . . .
So, taking a different line of questioning, I asked how he got the inspiration to use horses in a theatrical setting.
“That’s difficult for me to answer,” he fired back again. “It’s like asking (Mstislav Leopoldovich) Rostropovich what inspired him to play a cello.”
But then the high-profile horse trainer, who is reputed to have a shamanistic ability to communicate with equines, finally opened up and communicated with me, saying that “horses make you a better person.”
“Working with horses requires restraint on the part of trainers,” he confided through our interpreter. “Horses don’t speak, so humans must listen to them intently.”
He went on to explain that, since horses don’t understand why they are in this performing situation, the last thing you should do is force them.
“You propose ideas to them and prepare them for whatever you want them to do, both mentally and physically,” he said. “Most importantly, you must control yourself. Unlike humans, after doing something horrible to horses, you can’t go back to them and say, ‘Sorry about yesterday. It was my fault.’ “
During that recent performance, though, it was obvious that — despite years of preparation — not all goes as planned in every routine, every time. Once, for example, when six horses were racing around the ring, one of their riders fell off and stood inside the carousel as his mount galloped on at top speed, keeping its place among the five others. With so many horses and riders entering and leaving the ring all the time, only remarkable discipline shared by both man and beast prevents a slipup like this from so easily presaging disaster.
But Bartabas said that the 35 riders and 38 horses in the show were all trained to such a high standard that the risk of injury was “controlled.” Moreover, he declared, any act that may look risky or a bit dangerous was in line with the show’s theme that freedom in life is never risk-free.
“The theme of this show is freedom,” he said. “And with freedom comes risks. This show is about keeping up a challenge in life — and that’s why such high-speed action is prominently featured. Riders do fall, but they know how to fall. In that sense, the risk is controlled.”
While the horses may sometimes look like they are dancing, Bartabas claims they are not; they are only manipulated by riders to look like they are. But the riders’ musical intentions “could be conveyed to horses,” he acknowledges.
After wrapping up their performance in Japan on March 26, the whole human and animal cast will fly to the next stop: Moscow. Indeed, Bartabas, like a zingaro himself, has led a nomad’s life, jetting around the globe with his horses from show to show. But, I wondered, would this charismatic artist/horseman be happy to continue his “Zingaro” lifestyle indefinitely?
“I don’t know,” he said, assuming once again a defiantly enigmatic air. “I think horses will give me the answer. If they stop giving me the inspiration, I’ll call it quits.”
So whatever happens, he’ll hear it from the horse’s mouth.