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Finding the soul of a horse

Bartabas began Theatre Zingaro 20 years ago as an avant-garde experiment combining animals and dancers. Now it's a French institution.

October 20, 2002|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

Aubervilliers, France — Each winter, Parisians venture to the ring at France's celebrated Theatre Zingaro on the outskirts of the city to sit on wooden bleachers and watch man and horse tangle in a mysterious pas de deux. Six women in flowing hair and dresses float in on white horses. A horse charges past, ridden by an owl. Acrobats bound weightlessly off the bare back of a cantering horse. Dressed in a black cape, Bartabas, the troupe's straight-backed, 44-year-old leader, perches regally atop a black stallion that marches in place to the click-clop of passing time. He chases a black horse through a pool, then the horse chases him.

Zingaro ("Gypsy" in Italian) is a high-concept mix of music, movement, theater and art that has been variously labeled equestrian opera, ballet and cabaret, and its pieces come together like images from a far-flung dream. The company's 60-odd horses -- among them Picasso and Goya, Nijinsky and Baryshnikov, Balanchine and Farinelli, North, South, East and West -- are not one-trick ponies, nor do they perform with any clowns, mimes or jugglers in what some people, to Bartabas' dismay, call a traveling circus. The only thing his troupe has in common with the circus is a ring, Bartabas says, and anyway, circus is about showing off technique. His work, like all artists', flaunts emotions. In particular, the spiritual liaison between man and horse.

"In America, people ask me if I'm a horse whisperer," says the tall, chain-smoking Bartabas, who talks at a gallop as horses clop by and scrappy dogs bark at the tops of their lungs. "I don't whisper to the horses, I listen to them. I'm a horse listener."

His life is his art

It's a sleepy summer morning at the compound where Bartabas works and lives with his 45-member troupe and their various pets and relations, in green-and-red-painted caravans. In a nearby pen, a girl and a horse stretch their legs. A few feet away in immaculate stables lighted by a chandelier, 20 Portuguese cremolo Lusitanian horses nibble demurely and shake their sleek blond manes from sky-blue eyes.

"For me, Zingaro is a whole life, it's not a show," Bartabas says, shifting his long legs in a wooden chair set in an outdoor gazebo. "You could say that I work all the time. Or that I don't work at all."

Master of his own stylized bohemian universe, the once-bourgeois Bartabas adopted this name 20 years ago and started over in life, creating a singular art form and a lifestyle to match. But what began as an avant-garde adventure is no longer considered fringe: Zingaro is now one of Europe's leading theater companies, regularly premiering new work at the prestigious Avignon Festival and -- as quirky as it might sound -- it's a French cultural institution that is more art than entertainment.

When not in France, Zingaro lives up to its peripatetic name, visiting about seven cities each year. Bartabas prefers to choose just one city in a country and cultivate an audience there: In Spain, it's Barcelona; in Switzerland, Lausanne.

The troupe has traveled to the United States only twice before, to New York's BAM Next Wave Festival with "Chimere," featuring Indian gypsies from Rajasthan and "Eclipse," a black-and-white piece that included a Korean singer and Himalayan dancers. Earlier this month, Zingaro set up camp at the Eclectic Orange Festival in Costa Mesa, where, through Nov. 8, it is performing "Triptyk," the company's first foray into the classical music repertory. Twenty-three horses perform with dancers from Kerala, India, trained in martial arts, moving to "The Dialogue of the Double Shadow" by Pierre Boulez and Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and "Symphony of Psalms" in the 90-minute, three-act piece.

Dean Corey, director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which organizes Eclectic Orange, first saw Theatre Zingaro in 1986 in New York and persuaded Bartabas to break his one-city rule and bring the show to Southern California. "Theatre Zingaro embodies what the Eclectic Orange Festival is all about," he says, "a melange of world culture and traditional art in one exceedingly unique and refreshing package."

Personality is key

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