Ko Murobushi 1947-2015
The Centaur & The Animal (2012)
The Guardian
The Centaur and the Animal – review
Sadler's Wells, London
Judith Mackrell

The Centaur and the Animal may not be an ideal way for the horsier elements of the British public to get their first introduction to Bartabas and his equestrian theatre. In contrast to the theatrical colour and flourish of his large-scale productions, this is a work that steeps itself in the dark poetics, and sometimes excruciating slowness, of Japanese butoh.

Horses don't even appear on stage for the first 10 minutes, as veteran dancer Ko Murobushi begins to make his infinitesimal progress across the stage. His face masked, his movements grotesque, he looks more bestial than human. Brutal shards of music clash with recorded extracts from Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror – a proto-surrealist prose poem that summons up fervid, fantastical images of animal life.

It's one of the toughest openings to any piece of dance theatre I've seen. And you can sense the beginnings of mutinous restiveness in the theatre – until the first of the four horses appears, ridden by Bartabas in an enveloping black robe – and suddenly there is magic.

Slowly the horse begins to turn on the spot, and as the sleeves on Bartabas's robe ripple outwards, the two of them fuse into something that's part man, part bird, part beast. The effect is somewhere between JRR Tolkien and Loie Fuller, the great symbolist dancer and stage designer of the early 20th century. Bartabas, who is no mean designer himself, orchestrates a sequence of increasingly remarkable images – in which the intelligence of the horses becomes more and more eerily manifest.

In one, the horse is racing and dodging a shadowy third dancer – copying the latter's ragged sideways bursts of speed. In another, the horse is mimicking Bartabas by repeatedly falling gracefully to its knees and rolling on to its back. In another, it joins Bartabas in a classic butoh moment, standing under a spotlit stream of falling sand, and nuzzling and nodding along with Bartabas as he performs his own slow, ritualised movements.

The empathy between man and horse is astonishing – apparently sidestepping a conventional trainer's commands. By the time we get to the final horse and its short but concentrated performance of classical dressage, the rhythmic grace and command of the animal appear both mysterious and majestic. Murobushi, too, is instrumental in creating that sense of mystery. With his own dancing becoming more primitive and minimal throughout the piece, it's as if the horses' intelligence is summoned out of the dark shadows of the butoh. Yet fascinating as the concept is, the stage balance feels wrong. These horses are so incredible to watch we want to see more of them. And having to sit through the intervening sections of Murobushi's dancing induces as much impatience as it does wonder.