Back in its glory days, Versailles was known as the horse capital of Europe. But the sound of hoofbeats faded with the monarchy, and the stables were soon put to other uses. Then in 2003, Bartabas, the eccentric director of the magical Cirque Zingaro, opened his spectacular Academy of Equestrian Arts in the Grande Ecurie. Once again, Versailles boasts equestrian entertainment fit for a king. We asked Bartabas’s friend Jean-Luc Hees, a journalist who shares his passion for riding, to tell us about this mysterious horseman and his latest creation.
According to the Petit Robert, that ultimate authority on the French language, “un phénomène” is “everything that manifests itself to human consciousness through the senses or otherwise.” By that definition—and in the more colloquial sense of the word—Bartabas is a genuine phenom.
But who is this Bartabas? Suffice it to say that the man’s a walking paradox, a sort of gentleman gypsy shrouded in mystery. Some say he was born in Rajasthan, others mention Georgia or even Africa, but reliable sources point to the outskirts of Paris. As for his real name, few remember it, as he always goes by the moniker he adopted as a symbol of his commitment to his horses and his craft.
Other parts of his résumé are more straightforward: Now in his mid-40s, Bartabas created his first theater company at age 17. He went on to found the Cirque Aligre in the early ’80s, and in 1988 transformed it into Zingaro—a one-of-a-kind equestrian theater combining dance, world music and fantastic feats of horsemanship. Zingaro, Italian for “gypsy,” took its name from Bartabas’s first horse—a remarkable creature that could gallop backwards. Or rather, he didn’t know he could until Bartabas asked him to. (It may be just a footnote in the Bartabas legend, but I can assure you that watching a horse willingly gallop backwards takes your breath away—it almost restores your faith in miracles.)
What else is there to say about him? Well, he’s tall and thin with dark eyes and very narrow wrists—uncommon among the horsy set (which he doesn’t frequent)—and a gait one associates with equestrians, bullfighters and adventurers. Explosive yet exuding charm and commanding respect, he cultivates his outsider status, loves everything about life except its constraints, is an attentive listener once he deems you worthy of interest and embraces adversity with a warrior’s energy and exhilaration.
Clearly, it’s hard to describe Bartabas objectively when you’ve known him for years. But what matters most is that audiences love him, flocking to his indescribable shows in Paris, New York, Moscow and now Tokyo, where Bartabas-mania has reached epic proportions. Not known for being horse-crazy, the Japanese built him a 2,000-seat big top, where audiences eagerly immerse themselves in the performance, the costumes, the lighting and the eclectic music. It’s a magical experience, and they come back again and again, fascinated by the marvelous, mysterious world Bartabas opens up to them.
Bartabas is always happiest when he’s flirting with a new adventure and mastering a new challenge—failure simply isn’t in his vocabulary. His latest venture tops them all. In 2002, he took on the task of reviving the spectacular Grande Ecurie de Versailles. Since the days of the Sun King, the greatest equestrians have put their horses through their paces in this historic setting, so perhaps it was just a matter of time before he too would leave his mark. But it’s still a leap to imagine Bartabas, in jeans and tennis shoes, cap pulled low over his forehead, in that revered temple of equestrian culture.
From the moment he first set foot in the Royal Stables, he knew how he would breathe life back into this magnificent landmark. Instead of a state-funded school such as Saumur’s venerable Ecole Nationale d’Equitation, with its nearly 200 years of military tradition, he envisioned an academy that would train the best equestrian artists both in classic dressage and contemporary choreography. It would be financed by their own performances. And who would attend this iconoclastic academy? Bartabas insisted that the requirements be straightforward. Applicants must be at least 19, ride at an advanced level and be willing to make a long-term commitment—he can’t stand dilettantes. Students would get only a small stipend, but they would never, ever get bored.
The importance of being truly motivated cannot be overemphasized. In addition to becoming world-class equestrians, students must master a range of other disciplines. For example, they devote hours and hours to artistic fencing. Why? Because fencing develops flexibility, grace and respect for one’s partner. The same holds true for dance. A great teacher, Bartabas realized long ago that dance can make you suffer, and a horseman who has felt cramps in his limbs is that much more attentive to the discomforts of his mount.
And as if riding, fencing and dancing weren’t enough, how about breaking into a baroque air as you practice your moves? The maître believes that singing improves your breathing, removes inhibitions and instills self-confidence, a precious asset when you’re on horseback. Teamwork is another priority. Equestrians often practice alone, Bartabas observed, and he has effectively ended that splendid isolation. Finally, he emphasizes the importance of the basics. After all, the people he admires most—dancers and musicians—keep on rehearsing their positions or practicing their scales regardless of their fame.
The Academy of Equestrian Arts’ current crop of students—15, including one male—hails mostly from France but also from such faraway places as Russia and Hawaii. “Schools usually train teachers,” Bartabas likes to say, “not riders.” Obviously, that is not his intention. Those who have what it takes to endure Bartabas’s grueling regimen for three years will become true cavaliers, finally earning a grudging compliment from their demanding master. But if the discipline shown by the graceful young women of the Academy is any indication, their mentor’s apparent curmudgeonliness has less to do with chronic bad humor than with riding school decorum. In Bartabas’s world, maintaining a proper distance is de rigueur.
For some people, Bartabas at Versailles seems about as unlikely as the Queen of England at a rave party. But when you stop to think about it, it makes perfect sense. During his “angry young man” phase, he used to train rats—partly for the shock value, no doubt—and would mount little rodent performances during the prestigious Avignon Festival. In other words, there’s practically nothing Bartabas can’t do when he sets his mind to it. He’s a man’s man, yet his moving performances reveal an almost feminine gentleness. And he has the gift of telling the truth, or at least his own. Modestly, he claims that he owes all this and much more to his horses.
Practice sessions and performances take place several days a week. For schedules and ticket information, visit acadequestre.fr.