Review: Bartabas & Andrés Marín - Golgota - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 14 - 21 March 2016
Reviewed by Sarah Kent - Wednesday 16 March 2016

Bartabas & Andrés Marín - 'Golgota', Sadler's Wells, March 2016. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 14 March

Bartabas has been performing with horses for over 30 years and in France where his company Zingaro is based, he stages grand spectacles featuring up to 40 animals. His most recent production, Golgota is inspired by another dramatic spectacle – Seville’s Semana Santa, when nearly 70 religious confraternities parade through the streets carrying statues of Christ and tableaux depicting scenes from the Passion.

Thousands take part in visually stunning processions that can be so long they take over an hour to pass by. Penitents carrying wooden crosses are dressed in monk’s habits with hoods that hide their identities; others walk barefoot wearing tall, pointed hoods and carrying long candles. Bartabas has borrowed elements like the pointed hats, monk’s habits, crosses and candles and, inexplicably, added the starched lace ruffs worn by 17th century Spanish royals and nobility.

The big question must have been how to downsize from a vast pageant to a production modest enough to fit on a theatre stage. For further inspiration, he turned to Francisco de Zurburán’s paintings of saints and martyrs. The 17th century Spaniard dramatised the spiritual life by placing single figures in barren settings illuminated by extreme contrasts of light and dark.

It didn’t take much imagination to adapt these stark portrayals of monastic solitude for a black, sparsely lit stage empty save for a black ladder, a prayer stool, bishop’s chair, incense burners, various draperies and a Turin-style shroud.

Watching Bartabas expertly guide one horse after another round the space is like seeing a Zurburán painting come to life, albeit with a surreal equestrian twist. In place of piety, though, the Frenchman has opted for melodrama; with mouth wide open and arms outstretched to the heavens as though in despair, he persuades his horse to crumple under him so that he can feign disaster. And later, with his arms strapped to a cross, he enacts a bizarre horseback crucifixion that even to an atheist like myself is distasteful in its hammy theatricality.

When Bartabas came to Sadler’s Wells in 2011, he shared the stage with Japanese butoh performer, Ko Murobushi. This time the Flamenco dancer, Andrés Marín joins him on his quasi-religious journey. But there’s a problem; the stage is covered in soft rubber chippings so the fancy footwork for which Marín is justly famous can take place only on a small rectangle of board and the seat and arms of the bishop’s chair.

These moments are sublime; most of the time in what seems like a tragic waste of talent, though, he dances barefoot on the chippings often imitating the movements of the horses as they prance or canter round the space. The identification between man and beast reaches a climax when Marín ascends the ladder to be crucified – wearing hoof-shaped shoes.

The processions in Seville are accompanied by brass bands whose raucous music creates a carnival atmosphere. Bartabas has replaced them with the sacred music of Renaissance composer, Tomás de Victoria; although beautifully performed by countertenor Christophe Baska, these exquisite songs are out of keeping with the melodrama of the evening as a whole, and they soon pall.

No matter how arcane they may seem to outsiders, the ceremonies of Seville’s Semana Santa have real meaning for the faithful; Golgota, on the other hand, is dressed in borrowed clothes. Theatrical spectacle is not the same as religious ritual and to conflate the two is to cheapen both.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until 21 March

Best known as an art critic, Sarah Kent began writing about dance for The Arts Desk in 2012, only stopping last year when she was invited to serve on the dance panel of the Olivier Awards. A keen dancer herself, she brings a fresh perspective to the role of commentator.

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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