Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Equilibre Retrospective

Rebecca Nesvet looks back on the work of Equilibre Horse Theatre

A dark horse runs in slow circles around the midpoint of centre stage, its black-clothed rider chasing a woman who travels at a leisurely pace about forty-five degrees away from him, a few yards up in the air. She rides sidesaddle on a trapeze. Her feet rest on nonexistent stirrups. Directly opposite her, another horse pulls the cable attached to the trapeze’s pulley, turning the contraption like a high-up, horizontal mill. As she passes upstage, a man sitting in a swing suspended opposite the trapeze floats by. One leg crossed over the other, eyes cast upward and outward, he appears to be daydreaming. The woman on the trapeze and the horseman meet side by side. Their hands touch, and they ride together, before she drifts away again and another cycle begins. It is an unusual pas-de-deux (or three, or, counting the horses, five), exploring the problem of personal connections in a restless, drifting community. The characters are ‘Gypsies,’ travellers, or Romani, and so the dance shows their literal experience, but the abstract relationships, impulses, and obstacles depicted are more universal.

In moments like this, Equilibre Horse Theatre’s aim to combine classical riding with dance and other performance media to “show equitation as an art form” tests the definition of ‘total theatre’, revealing something surreal as well as unique. The dreamlike circle-dance made Equilibre’s summer 2003 show, “Homage,” staged at Carreg Dressage in Machynlleth, a great finale to the project’s decade-long history. This year, Equilibre will go on indefinite hiatus while Lloyd Francis pursues other equitation projects and recharges her creative batteries.

Equilibre’s stated aim may account for the episodic nature of “Homage.” The show’s self-contained pieces are loosely linked by a concern with Romani myth and culture, rendering the whole closer to a showcase of thematically linked performances than a single narrative. In Iberia, Equilibre artistic director Jane Lloyd Francis was exposed to Romani culture firsthand. As she explains in an interview of September 2003, she was captivated by the romance of the ‘travelling people’ in part because horses play a central role in their mythology as well as their everyday lives. In the Romani creation myth, the earth is rejuvenated after a primordial apocalypse when new life grows from the carcass of a horse. Allegorically, this myth recognises that travellers depend upon horses for their community’s basic survival. Equilibre 2003 opened with an ensemble retelling of this story, as the travellers come to rest and gather for a banquet. Equilibre’s spectators are invited to celebrate this feast day with them. At the same time, Equilibre acknowledges that the horse is not an invariably benevolent figure. A spoken-word piece tells of a ‘horse of flame.’ This creature runs through war-torn villages and cities spreading destruction. In order for peace and safety to return, the horse’s flames must be extinguished.

Lloyd Francis recognises the double-edged sword that is the romance of the ‘Gypsies’, and portrays them with conscientiousness and apparent accuracy. For example, when questioned about the performers’ costumes, Lloyd Francis explains that they are copied from the dress of Romani people she encountered in Spain. Ornate beading is sewn onto the cuffs and hems of the women’s warm, pragmatic clothing so that, with limited space for luggage, work clothes can double as fancy dress.

The art, literature, and music of the more static European nations is rife with representations of the nomadic Romani, many inaccurate and unflattering. Their rootlessness could appear both fascinating and threatening to firmly planted outside observers; it is well known that they were among the demographic groups the Nazis targeted for genocide. In a longstanding British folk ballad genre, ‘Gypsies’ are credited with seducing non-traveller women away from their husbands, homes, children, and community ties. In some such songs, women go AWOL with the gypsies in order to lose such constraints; in others, they and their gypsy lovers are punished for doing so. Bizarrely, in the 1930s, Woody Guthrie transposed this myth to his midwestern America, in which “the boss came home from the factory” to find that his wife has absconded with one “Gypsy Davy.” A few decades later, in Wales, Donovan re-interpreted the legend to reveal the ‘Gypsy’ as an inspiring muse and exemplary storyteller, who leads dreamers away from the closed-minded communities that refuse to understand their literal and figurative wanderlust. “His caravan is painted by the hand / That has touched every pebble in the ocean-o,” Donovan sings, “And the figures there, they move in thin air / Forever to go a-telling-o / The tales of the enchanted gypsy-o.” Equilibre’s Gypsies are carriers of ‘tales’ and ‘figures’, not caricatures of kidnappers and outlaws. My only reservation about the script of “Homage” (if the plan for the event can be called a script) is a lack of suspense plot. There is no tension to make the celebration a release. Theatre needs conflict, and the idea for “Homage” could have provided conflict. The travellers’ life is challenging, iconoclastic, and jeopardised by the incomprehension and intractability of the rooted, recognised nations. In that sense, debates about sustainment of Romani culture and community sound much like those concerning devolution. I wished that the characters in “Homage” could have engaged with these issues and achieved the same level of tension throughout the show as they did in the segment described at the beginning of this article.

Nevertheless, the concept of horses as actors raises interesting issues about the nature of performance. When horses go onstage in front of an audience, are they aware that they are performing? Do they sense any difference between performance, rehearsal, and more conventional, practical work? Lloyd Francis insists they do. She claims that Lusitanian horses, the Portuguese breed of most of the Equilibre horses, are acutely aware of being watched. “They like to show off,” she adds. Consequently, they make attentive, committed performers. I find it very impressive that equine performers can distinguish when they are play-acting from when they are being themselves. Are human performers, or human beings in general, always aware when we are performing masquerades?

There are several horse theatre companies in continental Europe, particularly in Spain and Portugal, but Equilibre was the only one in the United Kingdom. In the “Homage” program notes, Lloyd Francis expresses hope that some spectators “will be inspired to make your own personal artistic gestures in a world that needs relief from the mundane.” In keeping with this wish, perhaps those who have seen the ten Equilibre shows staged since 1994 will revive and develop performance incorporating equitation in this country.

author:Rebecca Nesvet

original source:
08 February 2004


Privacy Policy | Contact Us | ©2006 keith morris / red snapper web designs /