Monday, November 28, 2005
A Lipizzaner stallion of the Spanish Riding School
PSAYINGS.5A.9. It was a fluke, really. One brief ad on television. If it ran again, I didn't see it. But it gave the dates for two performances in Philadelphia by the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. The rest was fore-ordained -- run to the computer, sign on to Ticketmaster, buy some seats for a prince's ransom, and journey to Philadelphia for two hours with the legendary Lipizzaner stallions.
For those who haven't heard of them, the Lipizzaners are a 400-year-old lineage of equine royalty, bred and trained to perform ancient feats of precision and beauty that transcend horsemanship to become a kind of liturgy. The riders are the best you'll ever see, but you hardly see them at all because they appear to be motionless adornments of the horses, which are a wonder of the world:
Th(eir) movements range from the exact performance of walk and canter to the piaffe, a sophisticated “trotting on the spot,” and the passage, or Spanish step... describe(d) thus: “The horse throws the diagonal pair of feet upward with the greatest of energy and pauses a moment longer than when trotting. This awakens the impression that he sways free of all earthly weight.”
The feats also include pirouettes and half pirouettes, the mincing cross-steps of the plié, the intricate weaving and shuttling of the quadrille and pas de trois--and much more. Most dramatic, of course, is the “work [airs] above the ground”--the courbette, levade, and capriole.
Stylized these various exercises certainly are. Yet, paradoxically, they are all based upon the spontaneous action of the horse in nature, a formalization of the leaps and kicks, curvetting and prancing that can be observed in any pasture. Nothing artificial or grotesque enters the curriculum of the school--none of the three-legged gallops, the backward canters, the waltz steps of the circus and the trick-riding ring. Each movement simply develops to its ultimate refinement a natural pace or position.
Natural, yes, but also disciplined, intricate, and deeply imbued with human history and civilization. The horses and riders are exclusively male because the ancestry of the movements they execute is war. The famous "airs above the ground," in which the Lipizzaners stand and even leap forward on their hind legs, were originally conceived -- in the time of the ancient Greeks -- to protect the rider from enemy swords in combat.
Yet the overall impression is not martial. Many compare the group interactions of the Lipizzaners to ballet, and it is true that the performances are accompanied by Austrian waltzes and symphonic works (including Mozart's Jupiter), but the spectacle would be just as dramatic with no music other than the faint clinks of harness, the steady muffled footfalls of the horses and their occasional soft snorts. For there is, despite the beauty and grace of it all, an underlying sense of seriousness, of work being done, a ritual of practice for a moment when all the discipline will be not a show but a requirement. That moment will probably never come, but the horses are nevertheless ready. They know what they are doing. They look focused, solemn, and proud. Having seen them in person (at ring level, so close that horses frequently passed less than ten feet away), I was not surprised by the following account:
In the closing days of World War II, as the guns of the Red army were thundering at the gates of Vienna, Colonel Podhajsky [head of the Spanish Riding School] confronted a desperate situation. He had managed unobtrusively to smuggle many of his stallions out of the city to a refuge at St. Martin in Innkreis in Upper Austria. But the Nazis balked at dissolving the school altogether; the people, they argued, would take it as a sign that the jig was up.
The colonel was left, then, with ten horses and two riders to survive the approaching cataclysm as best he might. Bombs probed at the vitals of the capital with fingers of fire; buildings to right and left of the riding hall flowered suddenly into flame and collapsed in smoking rubble.
“The horses--they behaved like veterans,” the colonel told me. “Magnificent! The air-raid signal would sound, and, without even being called, they would calmly file out of their stalls, ready to take shelter in the passageway alongside the riding hall. A bomb would come down --crash!--in the Michaelerplatz, the glass would fall around us like hail, and the Lipizzaners would crouch down, down, down, like this”--and he held his palm out flat--”until the attack was over, and then they would just get up. They shivered. But they never panicked.”
It was General George Patton who rescued the endangered Lipizzaners, in defiance of his orders, and the general's grandson Benjamin Patton was the guest of honor at the performance I saw in Philadelphia. He got a standing ovation from the crowd. It was a moment of American pride, but the larger emotion was one of human pride, pride that the worst of man, war, could give rise to this sacred joining of two species into a kind of prayer of motion and devotion to perfection. Such a joining is not easily accomplished, and no part of it is a trick. Both the horses and the riders spend upwards of 10 years learning to work seamlessly with one another. Some of the stallions who perform are 25 years old. They can execute their routines with or without a rider, and the riders must aspire selflessly to invisibility:
Here, indeed, we come near the heart of the haute école. For the objective of this demanding discipline is not so much the hackneyed goal of “making the man and his mount seem like one,” as it is that of causing the man himself virtually to disappear. So serene must be the rider in his seat, so disguised or invisible his guidance by the pressure of thigh or heel, rein or body weight, that the audience’s attention slips away from him altogether and becomes focused wholly on the fluid movements of his horse.
And thus the human role in the relationship is both exalted and humble. The uniforms and the long switches that stand in for swords also disappear, and one is left with a sense of awe for a creation that includes both man and beast manifesting the spirit in the flesh.
But words will not do to capture the Lipizzaners. The only two remaining venues are in Atlanta and Houston. If you live anywhere near these cities, go to the Spanish Riding School website and get tickets. It's almost a quarter century since they last performed in the U.S., and they probably won't return here anytime soon. Go to the website. There is also a video at the site featuring brief performance segments. It, too, is insufficient, but still worth viewing by those who won't get to see them in person.
For additional information about Lipizzaner history and the current tour, go here, here and here.
A last look: