A vast army slept, motionless and impassive, deep in the ground, waiting several centuries to honour the first Emperor of China whose posthumous glory required an imposing military parade, and whose terror of finding himself alone for all eternity called for the company of a close-knit troop of guards. It is to the uncompromising Qin Shi Huangdi that we owe the Great Wall of China and the reunification of his country.
He was buried in 210 BC to the east of the city of Xian in a mausoleum that spread for some 35 miles, but long before that he had his entire army, including the generals, sculpted in terracotta, and ordered that they be arranged around his monumental tomb. This meant thousands of life-size warriors and horses, each one unique, down to their facial features, forming impeccable legions in the clayey bowels of Shaanxi province.
It was not until 1974 when some peasants were digging a well in their fields that this fantastical imperial army captured in clay suddenly saw the light of day once more. Some figures were covered in lacquer but the colours had faded, some equipped with gilded bronze chariots, with swords, armors, helmets, caparisons and harnesses.
Along with eight thousand cavalry, foot soldiers, archers, crossbowmen and grooms, there were also the remains of the men who had built the necropolis and had been walled up inside it. Exactly forty years after those horsemen and their silent chargers reclaimed their freedom and stood paralyzed to discover the bustle of the modern world, the majestic doors of the Grand Palais are opened to them by Bartabas (and, by strange coincidence, a previous Bartabas show – “Entra’perçu” at the Châtelet – was a beautiful calligraphy-like celebration of Immémoriaux by Victor Segalen who, it turns out, visited Emperor Qin’s tomb in 1914). Picture them now after a five thousand mile journey, these warriors with no war to wage, still covered in clay, imprisoned by time which has petrified them, hieratic escapees of an abolished dynasty.
Now they are rallied by Bartabas, the peaceable emperor of equestrian showmanship whose kingdom reaches from Japan to Rajasthan, from Moldavia to Kerala, from Korea to Mexico, not forgetting valiant Tibet. These men and horses from eternity will slowly metamorphose beneath the glass roof of the Parisian Palais, shedding the clay that paralyzes them, the weapons that burden them, the history that weighs them down. They will resume all their colors, become lighter, more human, more fluid, more approachable, and more feminine too, thanks to the graceful horsewomen of the Versailles Academy and their young four-legged dancers. In the realms of the centaur Zingaro, the magisterial director of endlessly recurring themes, there is never a show without reincarnation, never a celebration without metamorphosis.
Bartabas does not often frequent show jumping competitions, but this is the third time he has agreed to put on a performance – a unique, living work of art – for the already legendary Saut Hermès at the Grand Palais. This year China inspired him, the horses of Xian bore him on his journey, and Qin’s archers escorted him. For he too comes from the mists of time, the mists of China and of intoxication to dazzle and reinvent our own era, and to set free the resolutely immutable to gallop outside time.