Wednesday, April 8, 2009

In the King's stables

I hate circuses. I’m afraid of horses. And I never felt the least urge to visit Versailles, which I perennially dismissed as a McMansion on steroids. So how to explain the fact that I was spending a balmy evening this spring indoors, sitting on a lightly padded wooden bench at the edge of what suspiciously resembled the ring of a one-ring circus, waiting for a troupe of performing horses to appear – at Versailles?

The short answer is that I was there with my daughter, an avid rider, who had wanted to see something called the Academie du Spectacle Equestre during her visit to Paris. The even shorter answer is that, against my inclination, I was intrigued.

A few years ago the French Ministry of Culture realized they had a diamond in the rough at Versailles. It is a building just outside the gates of the Sun King’s palace called the Great Stables, where Louis XIV, housed a small army of pages and grooms and his 600 magnificent horses. He favored a Portuguese breed called Lusitano, known for their gracefulness, mellow dispositions and striking appearance – cream colored coat and startling pale blue eyes.

In its glory days during the late 1600s, the Great Stables was a place of dazzling opulence. It was designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the same architect who did the famous Hall of Mirrors in the King’s residence. From the stone frieze of three stallions leaping out just above the doorway, to long rows of burnished wood stalls illuminated by lamps hanging from armatures of hand-wrought cast iron beneath arched stone ceiling it was Valhalla for the prestigious royal cavalry.

But time had not been kind to the building. The once elegant structure was variously used over the centuries as an army barracks, an assembly building for gun carriages, offices for bureaucrats and most recently as a musty warehouse for old government files. By the turn of the 21st century it was a derelict building, in the word of one architect, a “soulless space.”

In 2002 the government’s Ministry of Culture decided to rehabilitate the structure and searched for a head of the stables. One obvious choice was the aristocratic Michel Henriquet, revered teacher and master of French dressage, a formal series of movements by horse and rider which evolved from cavalry warfare. Instead the Ministry opted for a wildcard: a French impresario named Clément Marty, who prefers to be known as Bartabas.

A former street performer, bullfighter and steeplechase jockey, Bartabas is self-taught horsemen who founded a troupe of performing horses which is called Zingaro – Italian for Gypsy. It is a kind of equestrian Cirque de Soleil which is so quirky he has been invited to avant garde art venues around the world, from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to the Tokyo Arts Festival.

He agreed to take on the challenge of restoring the Great Stables at least partly to their old glory and donated 30 Lusitano horses. Today, after a 300-year absence, the ghostly white animals again occupy the stalls.

He also established an Academy of Equestrian Performance which invites experienced young riders from all over the world to learn the higher skills of horsemanship in a two-year program. The students are given modest stipends and living quarters and participate in a curriculum which is unique. They are instructed in fencing, dance and even singing, as well as the finer points of riding. They help keep the Great Stables financially solvent by putting on performances for tourists who come to Versailles.

The government has invested heavily in the stables and it shows. Riders have saddles made by Hermes. The 15 chandeliers in the performing ring are crafted from Murano glass and the performers wear elegantly brocaded jackets created by high fashion designer Dries van Noten. And the show did not disappoint. It was a combination of displays of traditional demonstrations of horsemanship and demonstrations of the animals intelligence, which were magical. Visitors can either pay to watch dressage practice or the full-blown show, performed to classical music by riders. In neither case should one miss a visit to the awe inspiring stables and a close-up look at the magnificent animals.

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