New York

Zingaro

Zingaro’s Chimère (Chimera, 1996) the recent large-scale “equestrian theater” production presented as part of BAM’s “Next Wave Festival,” sought to stage a hybrid cultural form combining circus act, dance, and performance art. Held in a tent erected in Battery Park City at the margins of Manhattan (much as Renaissance London theaters, prisons, and hospitals were built outside the city’s walls), the production immersed itself in the cachet of exclusion, precisely in order to elevate a mass-cultural form to the arena of high culture.

Distinctions between high and low, center and margin, nature and culture have, of course, been long under siege, as have the universalist assumptions of value that underpin them. But this largely French troupe, led by artistic director Bartabas, seemed, romantically, to wish to retain such oppositions, precisely in order to suggest that this spectacle could become a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk of expression, equal parts theater of cruelty, collective unconscious, Nirvana (the old variety), and Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey.

Zingaro means “gypsy,” and what the audience was offered was a willed nomadology, to borrow a term from Deleuze and Guattari, with which to combat the pitfalls of nationalism and the “war machine” this ideology promotes. The astonishingly beautiful, graceful horses, topped by acrobatic riders in “exotic” attire, capered around a dirt-filled ring to the swirling, percussive beat of music played by Rajastani musicians (Rajastan being the supposed site of an ancient equine-oriented culture). These intricately choreographed and genuinely dazzling routines, interspersed with brief tableaux of, say, a young Indian peasant girl wading in a pond in the center of the ring, ended with a modern Western clown figure, who had up to this point been located on the other side of the arena, actually “crossing over” to join the “ancient” Rajastani musicians in a rousing, celebratory finale as the horses sashayed to the music.

But cross-cultural difference is not such a simple thing to conquer, any more than is the tenuous distinction between man and animal, though this production succeeded more fully in the latter attempt. In exploring the extraordinary intimacy between human and equine forms, the production asked what, precisely, humanness is, and where, if anywhere, it stops. If culture or art begins in the mastery of nature, then what was at stake in this production was perhaps not some chimerical collective-unconscious experience, linking us to nature or our “dreams” as the press kit would have it, but rather the loneliness and irretrievable loss represented by culture’s ancient scar, which marks its separation from that very nature.

Zingaro seemed to want to insert itself in a dialogue with recent artistic practices that explore corporeality and cultural hybridity. Ultimately, however, it was largely unable to escape the bankrupt logic of its assumptions and consequently sunk to the level of such animal handlers as the Las Vegas–based duo Siegfried and Roy, who confront what they are doing more forthrightly and with a good deal less theoretical bluster.

Nico Israel