The French Entrepreneur Who Created An Incredible Show About Irish Travelers

One of France’s most original artists, a maverick genius who has been producing impressive equestrian theater for nearly 40 years, is showcasing the culture and history of travelers in a cabaret that runs until the end of the year.

The production opened at his theater, Zingaro, in a northeastern suburb of Paris in mid-October. There are five evening performances each week in the 700-seat theater. The shows have been selling out; the public has been responding with standing ovations every night.

“The reaction here in France to the production has been excellent,” says Bartabas. “People and the press love it. They are delighted to discover this people and their culture”.

The production, Cabaret de l’exil – Irish Travelers, is the second installment in a Zingaro series on the theme of exile. The focus of last season was a tribute to klezmer music and the Yiddish culture of Eastern European Jewish communities.

Bartabas was drawn to Irish traveling culture for several reasons: his love of horses; the fact that they have their own language, Cant; the centrality of oral tradition and music in their culture; and their curious situation: while, say, the gypsies emigrated to other lands, the Irish travelers are strangers in their own land.

“Zingaro has always been inspired by the different cultures that we encounter,” says Bartabas.

“We are a nomadic company that travels around the world and we are interested in Irish travelers because the theme of the program is exile and they are in exile in their own country. Their way of life is contrary to the normalized in Europe, but for us, nomadic life is the natural way of life for human beings.

“I find it interesting that their nomadic way of life goes back to the origins of humanity. Today, their lifestyle is in complete opposition to the ‘orthodoxy’ of the world and to notions of power, ownership and the withdrawn nature of our societies. For us at Zingaro, their way of life is attractive. Their nomadic beliefs are in harmony with our philosophy.”

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A scene from Cabaret de l'Exil- Irish Travelers.  Image: Hugo Marty
A scene from Cabaret de l’Exil- Irish Travelers. Image: Hugo Marty

Zingaro is a singular theater company, a circus tribe that has followed Bartabas since the 1980s. Bartabas was born in a middle-class Parisian suburb in 1957, the son of an architect. He was attracted to horses from a very young age. A teenage motorcycle accident ended his dreams of becoming a jockey, but he became consumed with circus performances, especially with horses.

At 18, he dropped the name he was given at birth, Clément Marty, for Bartabas the Furious (he later dropped the Furious part). At 19, he was touring with his own circus, a mix of friends and animals, including horses, dogs and rats. They fused music, commedia dell-arte and circus entertainment. In 1984, he founded Zingaro, an equestrian theater company, which began putting on more elaborate productions, adding elements such as archery and acrobatics, falconry and fencing, for embellishment. However, the basic ingredients of equestrian art, dance, comedy and music remained.

To date, Zingaro has made more than 20 productions. He has toured all over the world, from Mexico to Moscow, from New York to Istanbul. Philip Glass has written music for his productions. The renowned French composer Pierre Boulez has directed it. The flamenco dancer Andrés Marín and Kô Murobushi, a master of butoh, the Japanese dance, have collaborated.

In 2003, Bartabas set up an equestrian academy in the former stables of the Palace of Versailles.

He has directed films and worked with ballet companies. She has choreographed a landmark interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

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American producers once tried to lure him to Nevada, trying to get him to do a circus residency on the Las Vegas strip. He turned down the huge amount of dollars they offered him. He’ll only make his horses perform five nights a week tops. His horses are always the stars of his shows.

There are 22 horses performing on stage (and a year-old mule) as part of the Cabaret de l’exil – Irish Travelers production. They perform classical dressage; their riders sing and play instruments astride them. Bartabas likes to work with older horses because he has to know them perfectly for the theater.

He works with your breath to relax them. His instincts are less docile than many other types of animals. They march to his own tune. It is unlikely that one of his horses will defecate on stage, but if, for example, a horse urinates on stage one night during a production, it is likely that he will urinate at exactly the same time every night that follows.

The theater company lives, when not on tour, on a ranch next to Aubervilliers, a 19th-century fort on the outskirts of Paris. The site features a circular wooden theatre, a restaurant and, of course, horse stables. The staff, and their families, live in caravans on site. They include stage performers, horse trainers, jockeys, production technicians, and costume designers. Zingaro also lives in a caravan.

“Zingaro’s purpose was to create a half-man, half-horse company that has a love of music and wants to show the public the relationship between man and animal,” says Bartabas.

“For us, it is important to cultivate the bond between us and the public around the world and point out that the way we treat horses is directly related to the way we treat humans. Horses provide a mirror of how humans treat each other.”

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Thomas McCarthy, the Irish traveller, singer and narrator of sean-nós, is the lynchpin of the production each night, as he immerses himself in his repertoire of traditional Irish songs. He is accompanied by violinist from Louth Gerry O’Connor and several French musicians.

Bartabas is also involved in the production. McCarthy was invited to Paris last March by him to see a performance of Zingaro’s Yiddish-language exile cabaret. He was mesmerized by the production and delighted to accept Bartabas’s offer to explore the culture and heritage of Irish travelers.

Thomas McCarthy, singer and traveler storyteller.
Thomas McCarthy, singer and traveler storyteller.

“Bartabas is absolutely incredible,” says McCarthy. “It’s not just for the show. I admire his vision of everything.”

“He’s doing an exploration of four years of exiles. I went to see the first show and it was fabulous. In this show, he incorporated ancient Irish history: the colossal role, let’s say, that travelers played during the famine, which he hasn’t documented, taking babies from women who could no longer feed all their children, as the travelers knew how to live off the land.

“He runs a very strict ship. It has a great group of old French, young French involved. Without all of them, it wouldn’t work. He likes people who like horses, whether they are nomads or not. He has some awesome horses. They are out of this world. And what they can do is shocking!”

Bartabas is equally impressed by McCarthy’s talent: “Thomas is a singer with extraordinary sensitivity. He is a living memory because he keeps within himself more than 1000 songs transmitted through his family: from his mother, his grandmother, etc. He is also a beautiful soul who enlightens the Travelers.”

  • Cabaret de l’exil – Irish Travelers runs at the Zingaro Equestrian Theatre, Aubervilliers, France through December 31. Watch:

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