As we enter the theatre, a performer dressed in chorister’s robes repetitively enters and exits the performance space, on each entry lighting a candle placed on a centre-stage lectern. He comes into the stalls asking for money. It is as if he is conducting a collection, transforming Sadler’s Wells into a place of worship, and us – the audience – into a congregation. This opening motif is cyclical and ceremonial, setting the scene for the evening’s themes of religion, rhythm and ritual.
Golgota – a collaboration between equestrian performance artist Bartabas and flamenco dancer Andrés Marín – is an atmospheric collage of sacred imagery with an unlikely cast of performers. One dancer, three musicians, a comedian, four horses and their trainer present a work inspired by the rituals of Holy Week in Seville, and amaze the audience with a unique combination of spectacle and imagistic significance.
It’s like a Caravaggio painting come to life, which is apt due to the artists being inspired by the paintings of Francisco de Zubarán, who was dubbed “the Spanish Caravaggio”. We observe fleeting sacred scenes that allude to historic Catholic practices. Marín chillingly flagellates his bare back with a horse’s tail and Bartabas creates intricate smoke patterns by swinging censers whilst astride a rotating horse. There is a stand-out motif of sacrifice that is particularly prominent as Bartabas recreates poses reminiscent of characters meeting their death in Renaissance paintings. These images occur whilst he is astride a horse cantering in circles around the stage; it is if he has been shot in battle and is no longer able to direct his stead.
Whilst the novelty of being presented with four majestic live horses onstage is undeniable, Marín’s dramatic flamenco demonstrations equal the equestrian element with intensity and engagement. He has an ability to make the audience “see” rhythm merely through his bodily movements, yet this is accentuated with his use of body percussion. His intricate footwork echoes the innate movement of horse’s hooves, a parallel that is highlighted throughout the piece. In one scene Marin mirrors the horse’s movements, and in another he dons horse-hoof shoes and transforms into a hybrid, faun-like creature.
Golgota is accompanied by three live musicians, who play music by Tomás Luis de Victoria, the most famous polyphonist of the Spanish renaissance. The interwoven sounds of a lute, a cornet and a piercingly beautiful counter-tenor atmospherically complement the reverent nature of the dance and physical performance.
The gravity of the subject matters and the solemnity of the accompaniment could arguably become overly intense and sombre; however, this issue is intelligently combatted by the presence of William Panza, a comedian who adds subtle humour to the evening’s events without distracting from the serious thematic explorations. He takes the role of a jester serving the characters on the stage, a role which draws parallels between the religious rituals and circus practices. This comparison does not at first seem to make a political comment, until a perverse concluding scene juxtaposes Marín hanging on an elevated crucifix with Panza, who wears a jester’s hat and dances around the stage laughing wildly.
Golgota is a spectacle. It is impossible not to be stunned by the beauty of the stoic, affectionate and well-trained steeds gracing the stage. However, it is also inspired. Not merely a novelty “trick show” demonstrating the skill of Bartabas and his team, Golgota explores timeless themes and the nature of artistic collaboration to create a theatrical experience that I predict you will never encounter again.
Golgota is playing at Sadler’s Wells until 21 March. For more information see the Sadler’s Wells website.