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Pre-dawn art festival wakes up Paris

As dawn breaks over a sumptuous Paris garden that was once the playground of kings, a lone horseman puts his mount through his paces. The magnificent steed prances in fancy circles, stretches his forelegs and canters almost in place — in short, he dances.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As dawn breaks over a sumptuous Paris garden that was once the playground of kings, a lone horseman puts his mount through his paces. The magnificent steed prances in fancy circles, stretches his forelegs and canters almost in place — in short, he dances.

A crowd of spectators, gathered in the inky darkness at the Jardin des Tuileries, watched transfixed as celebrated French equestrian Bartabas rode his horse, Le Caravage, in complicated figures, giving him the occasional congratulatory caress on his muscular neck. It was not so much a performance as an intense training session, imbued with a mystical touch by the live music of a Turkish duo and the faint early morning light.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, one of several hundred spectators Friday, hailed the event as "extremely beautiful and poetic."

"It's clearly the fruit of years of love and rigor between a man and this extraordinary horse," he told reporters.

The event, dubbed "Lever de Soleil," or "Sunrise," is part of an annual festival aimed at shaking up Paris during the summer months when many inhabitants leave for the beach and the French capital becomes something of a ghost town. The festival includes a musical theater performance, Spanish flamenco dance and a circus.

With "Sunrise," Bartabas — who heads the Theatre Zingaro, a Paris-based equestrian troop that has regaled audiences from New York to Japan — shows off Le Caravage in gardens throughout Paris. Besides the Jardin des Tuileries, a neatly manicured park next to the Louvre Museum which once belonged to the royal palace, the duo will do their dawn dance on the grounds of a sprawling university complex, at a suburban Seine-side park and in the Marais district of central Paris. No photographs are allowed.

On Friday, the crowd of several hundred gathered at the entrance to the Jardin des Tuileries at what felt like the dead of night. Ushers scolding them to speak in whispers guided them through the dark to a square.

There, two somber shapes, a hooded horseman and the steed, traced circles around one another. The sound of their footsteps on the pebbled ground echoed in the silence. A bigger figure, also clad in a monk's hooded robe, mounted the horse.

Without appearing to move, Bartabas led the horse in an astonishing dance. Le Caravage glided diagonally across the ring, scissoring his legs like a 1,200 pound (544 kilogram) Fred Astaire. He executed curlicues and neat, tight circles, his hooves so light they barely kicked up dust.

After an enchanting hour, Bartabas removed the saddle and bridle and Le Caravage gave a big yawn and laboriously lowered himself to the ground for a well-deserved dirt bath.

"Sunrise" runs through Aug. 9.

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