Laughter and joy erupt from breathtaking games
Uninhibited entertainment, the pace of the performance triggers feelings of excitement and childlike pleasure at the exciting rhythm of life
For Bartabas, the creator of Battuta, the principle of the show is that there is no story. 'It's open to interpretation,' he said. 'The audience makes its own story.' With the show's fast tempo, here are some highlights to look out for and, as he would have it, make of it what you will.
The lustful, mischievous character looks alarmingly real in his bear suit until he starts to move about like a big puppy, or jumps on to his hindlegs on the back of a galloping horse, slapping his keeper cheekily with a giant paw. In ancient myths, the brown bear accompanies the eclipse of the moon. He could be ritually shaved, as is the case in the Pyrenees, or, as in Portuguese tales, be killed for raping a young girl. In many countries, the bear comes back to life as a human hero. In Battuta, the naughty bear has his way with the bride on a bed in a comical scene aboard a fast-moving carriage, resulting in a baby bear.
A lone rider brings an element of the surreal, ephemeral and a transitory theme to the show aboard her white steed dressed in a spectacular white wedding dress with her long white veil floating behind her lifted by helium-filled balloons. Appearing intermittently between the fast-paced riders, she circles the arena looking passive, disenchanted or provoking - a symbol of desire and perhaps also naive purity and lost illusions. Her perilous encounters with keen adolescents and the lustful bear result in an element of the bizarre when she appears in the end as a young wife, travelling in a gypsy cart breast-feeding two babies and a bear cub (with three bouncing breasts).
Unlike everything else that moves about at breakneck speed, the circular shower of water that is lit up in the centre of the arena remains constant and flowing. A symbol of life, fertility and imagination, it is central to the gypsy theme - for whom water is life. 'For gypsies, the water is never in a pot, it is always flowing. Therefore, the fountain is life, the idea of the fountain of life - you don't know where it's going,' said Bartabas, the creator of the show. For the horses, the shower is a chance to cool off at the end of the show when the manic pace slows down and they move independently in the moonlight as if in a dream.
Present in every show created by Bartabas, the goose is a migratory bird in Battuta, representing a passer-by. In French the name of a goose is jeu de l'oie, and in the show, it 'flies' with wings outstretched (held up high by a galloping rider), searching through the maze, and departing in pursuit of light.
Laughter and the joy of surprise erupt from the breathtaking games in Battuta, some of which are easily missed if you're not concentrating. Highlights include two suited riders exchanging hats while riding next to each other, throwing shapkas (Russian fur hats), the two-horse race with each rider standing aboard two steeds, playing the violin and the horn on the back of a fast-moving horse, the cup-and-ball game, an acrobatic striptease, somersaults and handstands and a race between two riders running (or flying) beside their galloping steeds while holding on to their saddles.
In true gypsy style, the carts and carriages in the show are a mish-mash of car bodies melded together with traditional wooden carts and tricycles all pulled by horses, and their contents are cause for much amusement. A gypsy woman smoking a pipe, a half-naked holidaymaker having a shower, and then later skinning a full-sized pig in his bath, noodle eaters, card players, a transporter of cardboard boxes fleeing from bird flu, a Madonna with feathery underwear made up of geese wedged between her holy legs, a hearse carrying a cadaver. Shocked, delighted or amused, it's impossible not to get carried away by the spectacle.
The elements of freedom and danger integral to the gypsies' lives are cleverly represented in the thundering speed at which this show moves around the circular arena. What is their goal? Where are all these beings and things going at such a high speed? Who is chasing them? What are they chasing? As in real life, at any moment, they could fall, be injured or even killed. Uninhibited entertainment, the pace of the performance triggers feelings of excitement and childlike pleasure at the exciting rhythm of life. But what a relief when the tempo slows down, the chase seems to come to an end, the music quietens and the horses gather once again around the falling water for their moonlit shower.