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Hoofing it in Style
Dorothy Chansky

International Istanbul Theatre Festival
May 5-26
Istinye, Istanbul, Turkey


Artistic Director and founder Bartabas (he goes by just the single name) uses each production to explore a cluster of cultures and themes. When "Eclipse" played at BAM in 1988, for example, reviewers made much of the piece's Korean pansori music, multi-sized horses, and eerie ambiance. In "Battuta," the inspiration is gypsy music (Zingaro means gypsy), but Bartabas lets his memories and fantasies run riot, pulling from silent films, stories of abducted damsels, surreal peeks at what an iconic Madonna's crotch might look like under her robe if she were into feathered underwear, and interspecies sex that starts as rape and turns consensual.

"Battuta" ran in May as part of the 15th annual International Istanbul Theatre Festival. This year, the Istanbul Festival merged with and hosted the 4th International Theatre Olympics, a moveable feast previously held in Greece, Japan, and Russia.

Circles, circulation, and circuitousness dominated my experience of this captivating and sometimes frightening show. Performed under a bigtop tent in a circular dirt arena, the production is ninety minutes of almost nonstop riding, usually at a gallop. As the riders go round and round, exiting and entering in different costumes and on new mounts, imagery and moods flash and flee. A bride canters by on a white horse, her long veils floating behind her and held aloft by helium balloons. Pairs of stunt riders jump on a single horse and ride standing, trading hats and visual gags, somersaulting off their mount's back and vaulting back on at a single bound. (Forget mounting blocks.) The stunts per se are nothing new, and, in fact, the sort of tricks these riders execute with such verve and joy are standards at big rodeos and in circus riding. (Dressage moves, with horses changing gaits and performing dance-like prances are barely present in "Battuta," as they were in "Eclipse," but this is an observation, not a complaint.)

A column of water (picture a cylindrical rainfall) pours down at the center of the performance arena. Of course the water is recycled, just like the images of silent film chases, cowboys, religious symbols, and even the gypsy culture Bartabas so admires. (Program notes point out that gypsy culture is the product of encounters with multiple peoples and practices on the road from India to Transylvania-its own pastiche of recyclings). Indeed, "Battuta"'s two musical ensembles--positioned on platforms behind the audience on opposite sides of the tent--are a 10-pýece brass and woodwind "Moldovian fanfare" and a 5-piece string "taraf," both traditional gypsy cultural staples. "Battuta" is like a reel of intrapsychic, fantastical film made up completely of memory outtakes. The circle is unbroken, but hardly because the unconscious is serenely heavenly. Rather, it is a place where bears ride horses, escape into the audience, and jump onto horsedrawn wagons to rape sleeping maidens (the interspecies sex), who in turn re-emerge after a short exit to pursue ursine copulation with abandon. The couple later reappears with a human baby and a tiny Cub--a weird spin on happily ever after.

Physical danger is as real as psychic perversity, and the close interplay between riders and musicians is a reminder of how much the musicians set and monitor tempo and help out if there is a problem causing a rider to need an extra few bars to retry a failed trick or to retrieve a dropped hat or reclaim a lost stirrup. (All three happened the night I attended, and the stirrup derailed a routine that required standing in it as well as disconcerting the horse. Rider and musicians covered and recovered.)

"Battuta" was one of the few festival events advertised as being suitable for children. Much like puppetry, though, it appeals across generations but is really sophisticated adult material at heart. If we are such stuff as dreams are made on, "Battuta" is a reminder that dreams are where Freud found our deepest feelings, phobias, and fears--these no less scary for being in technicolor and accompanied by brass bands.

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