misinformed, misled & missing Versailles for the equine theatre of Bartabas

We arise early – for this relaxed phase of the itinerary, if after a night in the city – to see Versailles. First info off: that the first Sunday of the month free entry is being offered. No. In a month or so. Regardless, follow the second tip: buy passport to Palais at station.

At Invalides, it happens. Second info off: passport no longer on offer. Jump on the RER with return tickets in hand. Arrive at Versailles, Rive Gauche, having barely left Paris, it seems, and for want of a loo, avoid the early queue at Tourist Info. Office, ducking into the Pullman Hotel for expensive espressos – and pee stop. Upon reappearance into the harsh reality of tourist timeline: third dodgy piece of advice.

Tourist Office allegedly preferable to queuing at the Palace. But we wanted to visit the stables as well, tickets for which we were told were only available at the Palace proper. (Advice dodgy on two fronts: it later came to light that we could have bought a double ticket for palace and stables; and even if tickets in hand still an horrendous queue to simply enter the palace, i.e. no warning that the ticket queue is the ticket queue while the entry queue is a beast of a thing on its own.)

We skipped off up into the forecourt of the Palace where the queue to present hard-won tickets snaked up and down and vacillated. Checked out the queues attendant on the gardens, through Marie Antoinette’s apartments and: fourth foul fare. The gardens are only free outside of the weekends when the fountains are playing and a fee is charged for musical water play.

We doubled back to take on the more contained of the snaking queues, that to buy tickets to the Palace. Moved through surprisingly fast. It only took an half hour or so and we were in. Finding that the line then passed through doorways down the wing of the building and up the other side.

Ten or so minutes later we stood in front of an obliging information officer who told us that tickets to the stables – we expressed an interest in seeing La Voie de L’Ecuyer, a performance at the stables, in preference to visiting the static installation of Louis’s goldenness and sunny royal wealthiness and to queuing up in an even longer line – were only available at the stables. (No. No mention that there might be a dual pass, including both the stables and the palace.)

Having wasted 40 minutes we did what any sensible tourist-in-apostasy would do. We ran away. Down the cobbled incline to the stables. Where the ticket box was shut.

It was one o’clock by now. An half hour went chewing baguettes with jambon and tasty mayonnaise imported from our local boulanger. Kicked a ball for another half hour in front of ticket box, the ball misbehaving on the uneven cobbles, until a small number of over-zealous equitation fans had gathered. We were first in to buy the tickets this time.

Expensive. And picking up a flier, we read about the double pass. Too late.

At the front of the line to get to the foyer cafe. Where more time passed before the doors to the auditorium opened. By this time, 3 pm, we’d read all associated material and discovered the show had been choreographed by Bartabas – about whom a small cult of celebrity, he being the master of horse-theatre, equine theatre, thesbian-cavaliery. And that the stables had only been brought back to life in 2003. That the auditorium was designed by Patrick Bouchain, who’d also done the new stables. The ‘stables’ I’ve been referring to meaning one of a series of buildings allocated to that purpose in Louis’s time, the Small and the Grand. I think where we were was the Grand. Yes. Completed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart in 1683 and rehabilitated for the Academy of Equestrian Arts by Patrick Bouchain. Under, it appears, the guiding hand of the master, Bartabas.

The auditorium is constructed of three-by-ten, approximately, planks and square posts, the wood left unstained or finished, planed only, with a pencil gap between the horizontal planks. A woody blondness prevails. Stalls and beautifull consistent boxes in two levels, up to a gallery and gods. The boxes literally that. An elegant piece of engineering as well as design.

We look out on a sand-filled arena, with mirrors following the arches of the original architecture, and sketches on the walls, either side of the audience, like graffiti. Of horses.

The fascinating thing about this show – which teetered on the edge of being pretentious. Or indulgent. Or you could say was pretentious and indulgent in the best way possible -: a study of the movement of man and horse, beast-human machines. So this really interesting tension between the ostensibly artificial movement inflicted on the horse and its natural gaits, enumerated as three: walk, trot, canter. I would even put the word artificial itself under stress, to suggest that the show calls into question the categories of naturalness and artificiality, forced and free movement, per se. It ought to be compulsory viewing for dancers. Because: what is going on here?

A horse turns in circles, keeping one hoof anchored to the ground, faster and faster. The mise-en-scene comprises four fencers without mounts, and an amazonian figure mounted on the turning horse. It’s difficult to get a horse to do this. Outside of a disciplinary regime in which the animal’s behaviour in performance has clearly been negatively reinforced. And it was not the ease or grace which was so striking. Pieces like this were genuinely moving. They had pathos. The pathos that at last no one knows what a body is.

The thinking was so good and right about this show. “The Academy is not a school of horsemanship but rather a ‘company school,’ a laboratory of creation.” Then, it is also committed to and displays various ‘princely’ disciplines, archery, equitation – obviously -, fencing, and courtly ones, dancing and singing. Albeit that the equerries are, bar one, women. Women with ponytails.

Another section had four equerries enter in darkness with four horses, three white, one black, to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The women wore orange skirts to their ankles. They withdrew, as the lights came up, to the four corners of the rectangular arena. The horses were left to ‘play.’ The music continued. The playing was quite natural. The three Lusitanian ‘white’ horses rolled. There was one who picked on the black Lusitanian. And right at the point when we, the audience, were asking ourselves if this was to orientate young horses to the nature of performance, an exercise, a picturesque, even romantic one, the horses began to canter in a circle, the equerries came to the middle of the arena, spinning their skirts, and the music coming to a percussive climax, each of the horses finds its mistress, now collapsed in the centre, and all movement and music suddenly stops. Everything stops at the same time. The most artless natural improvisation comes in the most artful synchronised end.

This show, like the other, The Misanthrope in Berlin, asks to be further thought about. Something I haven’t quite the energy to do here.

Our tickets included a visit to the stables. Aesthetic as well as functional. With a pretentiousness to the fluoro tubes set vertically in wrought iron – like unicorn horns, at the ouside of every box. Reported as such in the flier. Since the great Bartabas had asked – read, demanded – that it be so. He’d architect-whispered.

Thinking to finish our evening with a stroll of the Palace gardens, we returned, several times bitten though we were. To find we had 20 minutes to wait before the gardens were again free and whatever music the fountains were playing was over for the day. The rider on this was that the groves would also close at 5:30, leaving only the long expanses, the vistas, to traverse, on foot, in the evening, too late to enjoy. We tried. We waited and joined our last queue of the day to pile in when the barriers were lifted. But with no fountains playing and without the interest of the groves, it was simply too large a job to contemplate, getting from the terrace down to the ornamental lake, and so on.

We turned our backs on it, and on Murakami’s annoying sculpture in its middle. We returned to the station. Boarded the train.

Home. Nothing open apart from the Traiteur Chinois. Another expensive night (21:43) – but necessary, but tasty -: Chinese takeaways heated in our apartment.