Tuesday, 17 August 2010 10:05

Horse Power and Play

Written by  Cappy Tosetti
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Emotions stir deep inside when it comes to horses, whether it’s tending to a favorite mare giving birth in the early morning dawn, or standing on the curb watching a team of mighty Percherons prance down the avenue during a small town parade. It happens when a little child reaches up and feels the softness of a muzzle for the very first time, and continues when a seasoned teamster says goodbye to an old pal in the pasture. There’s no denying horses have a way of touching our souls like no other animal.

This was the case recently when the Canadian Touring Company presented Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man under the big top in Scottsdale, Arizona. Created by Normand Latourelle, one of the founders of Quebec’s famed Cirque du Soleil, Cavalia has completely captivated audiences with rave reviews since it began its United States road trip two years ago in San Francisco, continuing on with sold-out performances in Seattle and Los Angeles, before venturing to Arizona where it was held over with extended dates way beyond the original run of the show. It’s now back in Canada, where folks in Toronto are clamoring to buy tickets, filling the seats to capacity. Cavalia is definitely the talk of the town where forty magnificent horses frolic freely with acrobats, aerialists, dancers and riders from Canada, France, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Morocco and the United States.

Right from the start, it was obvious this show was going to be something special. Just seeing the larger-than-life logo of a mystical white horse prancing across a black background on the fleet of semi trucks parked outside, had a way of grabbing one’s attention with great anticipation.

And, who could resist the big top, a massive medieval-looking tent rising from the desert floor like a giant sailing ship on the horizon. It could be seen for miles away, day and night, all in white with those four 90-foot towers reaching for the sky.

Manufactured in Italy, the big top is actually four tents: the entrance and refreshment area, the stables, the main performance arena, and a large canteen for hosting parties and gatherings. It’s quite impressive, especially standing next to something that’s the equivalent of a ten-story building. It’s made up of 71,400 square feet of a strong wind-resistant canvas that looks like thick white leather. It takes seven days for a crew of 40 to erect the tents, and seven more to dismantle everything and pack it away for transport. That doesn’t count the time it takes to bring in and spread the 1,500 tons of sand used on the 150-foot wide stage.

Entrance to the big top is made through a maze of curtained corridors that leads to the audience seating area which is a series of elevated tiers along one long interior wall. At first glance, one looks for the usual round arena most equestrian shows have, but Cavalia is different, using instead a very elongated rectangular area. This space is meant to accommodate horses at full gallop.

To determine the maximum dimension required for the stage, Normand Latourelle visited many equestrian events throughout the world. “I estimated that the horses need 150 feet to gain their full speed,” he explains. “Then we added an additional 20 feet in the wings for starting and stopping.” The cast and crew affectionately call these areas the garages.

Before the show begins, a massive curtain divides the 150 foot front of the stage with the giant back section that features a “cyclorama,” a huge translucent curtain on which changing images are projected throughout the show, representing the caves of Lascaus, deep forests, Chinese sculptures and a Roman arena. The “cyclorama” is actually a projection screen–160 feet long, the size of two panoramic IMAX screens. To fill such a large curtain, as many as ten projectors churn away during each performance. All this is just one of the many aspects of the show that continues to dazzle and enthrall each and every audience member.

A Dream of Freedom

“The approach to Cavalia is the opposite of the relationship based on domination that has been practiced by trainers for thousands of years. There is no ‘power struggle’ with the horse. The trainer isn’t forcing him to do ‘tricks’ –he’s simply playing with him.”

Cavalia came to be in 1998 in the town of Drummondville, Quebec, where Latourelle had just finished producing Les Légendes Fantastiques, a folkloric summer show that’s still going strong. There’s a brief scene where one horse meanders across the stage, weaving its way through 125 actors. “It wasn’t even a crucial moment in the show. The horse was merely ‘passing through,’” the producer and artistic director recalls with vivid memory. “I noticed that at that precise moment, all eyes from those fifteen hundred spectators in the amphitheater were riveted on that animal, neglecting the rest of the cast and action.” That’s when Latourelle decided to pursue his notion of putting horses on stage in a new aesthetic form; in spite of the fact he is not a “horse person.”

He jotted down some notes and sketches, stuffing them into his briefcase before boarding a flight for France, a country renowned for equestrian games and horseback riding. Latourelle was intent on attending as many events as he could, hoping that networking and observing would lead him closer to finding the right people to help him launch this new project. In Paris, he accidentally stumbled upon a video featuring the husband and wife equestrian team of Frédéric Pignon and Magali Delgado and Magali’s sister Estelle. He was spellbound.

Frédéric’s reputation in France, Europe and beyond is well known and respected, where he’s much more than a proven artist; he’s also a trainer of some of the world’s finest Lusitano horses. He began playing with horses as a youngster, honing his skills as an equestrian stuntman that led to a passion for letting horses run at liberty. He enjoys “playing” with his horses–running with them, stopping and starting up again–a lively game of catch. He treats horses with great respect and tenderness, speaking to them through subtle body gestures, without restraint. Many say this incredible man is part horse–literally dancing with these magnificent creatures as if he had hooves and wings. Watching him interact with his beloved herd is breathtaking, especially at home at the couple’s breeding farm near a small village in France. There they can romp and play together, running through fields of flowers with sheer delight, flopping down by the creek for an afternoon nap–such contentment, such friendship.

Magali Delgado’s passion for horses was influenced by her parents, who were breeders of Lusitano horses in southern France. It’s a family tradition that she and her sister Estelle continue today. While being trained at a young age with some of Europe’s finest riding masters, Magali soon became a reputed cavalier, a specialist in the discipline known as “haute école” (a series of maneuvers that are taught only after horses master the figures of advanced dressage).

Together with Frédéric, Magali has traveled the world performing and training horses. Their style is one of lightness and balance, ignoring the usual bit and bridle others use. They simply use a thin collar, or many times, nothing at all. Their horses are free to perform or not. Their approach, called ethological dressage, is founded on an intimate communication with the horse based on mutual love and understanding, above all, on freedom.

All this fascinated Latourelle, himself a lover of freedom. He had to find Frédéric and Magali, which wasn’t easy because there wasn’t any contact information on the video. But, the horse world is a close-knit one, and he soon found his way to a tiny village near the Mediterranean Sea where someone said the couple was performing. He literally bumped into them in between shows on a busy street full of vendors and strolling musicians.

They talked late into the night after the last performance, followed by more conversation the next couple days. Latourelle was mesmerized as he watched the twosome go through the paces with their beautiful Lusitanos–they were definitely the equestrian experts he had hoped to find. The trio exchanged ideas and talked in depth about creating something unique and special; cementing their business relationship and newfound friendship with solid plans for launching what would later be Cavalia.

There was plenty of work to do back in Canada, pulling together a production and marketing team, sponsors, performers, horses, trainers, groomers, veterinarians, farriers, musicians, a crew and all the zillion other things that go into a touring company. It took time and persistence, but together with Frédéric and Magali, plus an ensemble of talented and dedicated individuals, Latourelle saw his vision come true.

He’s still awestruck every time the curtain goes up-watching from the wings as each horse takes center stage, giving its all with such joy and delight. What might have been a business venture in the beginning, has grown into something more meaningful and powerful than this dedicated producer ever imagined– he proudly proclaims he’s a “horse person” now.

Behind the Scenes

Long before the audience arrives, things are busy backstage. Performers are stretching and focusing on the performance ahead, getting into costume and makeup. Out in the stable, the horses are gearing up with excitement as groomers open individual gates, bringing them out in the order of appearance to an adjoining warm-up area just off the main stage.

Templado, a stunning white Lusitano stallion, stands patiently in his stall as the braids in his floor length mane are unfurled and brushed. Even though he’s Cavalia’s big star, personally owned by Frédéric and Magali, this sweet-natured horse is known as the “darling” of the stable. He thrives on attention, especially when his personal groomer, Charlie Tessier, gives him a rubdown every night before bedtime.

All the horses in the troupe are either geldings or stallions. Everyone agrees it makes life on the road a lot easier to leave the mares at home. Each one is pampered and treated like royalty with weekly shampoos and conditioning, brushings and massage. Many get their manes braided nightly to show off those beautiful wavy tresses on stage. They all have their own roomy and comfortable stall, plus daily exercise and playtime outside. They’re fed well with ample food rations and special treats, and there are routine veterinary checkups and regular visits with the farrier. Show business is definitely the good life.

In their oversize stalls, the three draft horses in the show wait affectionately for their trainer, Enrique (Ricky) Suarez to come in through the back door. Arete, which means earring in Spanish, is a loveable eight-year-old dapple grey Percheron who’s eager and always raring to go. Buddy the Belgian, lives up to his name–he’s like a big Golden Retriever puppy who wants nothing more than to be by your side. He just turned seven. Then there’s Coffee, the massive black Percheron, who’s also seven, but prefers to act more reserved and mature. He’s the serious one in the bunch.

They’ve already spent quality time with Ricky earlier in the day, going through their maneuvers and mastering new techniques outside in the large paddock, but these boys always look forward to some quiet moments with their good friend before each performance.

“It’s just one more way of connecting with these wonderful animals. I savor this time alone where I can talk softly to each one, reassuring them how much I appreciate and trust them. Often I simply stop and lean up against each massive body, feeling their warmth and steady heartbeat. It’s a soothing experience that’s not only relaxing, but it gives me an opportunity to focus on our routines and time together out there in front of everyone.”

Ricky is a fifth generation circus performer whose family has been renowned for their talents with horses for decades in Mexico and the United States. Many of his relatives, including his parents, Enrique and Rosa Suarez, were trainers and acrobats, a fact that brings on a big smile, “I guess you could say I began my career long before I was even born when my mom continued working on horseback through her pregnancy. I got used to all those somersaults and tumbling on a moving horse, so it was only natural that I’d follow in the family’s footsteps.”

It was a solid beginning that shaped this athletic young man of 25 into the exquisite performer he is today. He’s one of only a handful of bareback riders in the world who can execute an airborne full twist from one moving horse to another, which he does with such finesse and grace. “It’s one thing to learn and perfect all these maneuvers by yourself over the years,” he explains, “but I have to be able to convey this to the horses, where timing and trust really come into the picture. All that whirling and jumping that vaulters do over them is not a natural thing for a horse to accept. They have to learn how to keep moving and maintain a steady beat for me to be able to execute each maneuver–it’s like the precision workings of a clock, moving together in perfect harmony. I still marvel at these gentle giants’ ability and willingness to perform with such joy and playfulness. It’s magic being out there together with them.”

Ricky is a multi-talented artist somersaulting in the air one moment, and then after a quick costume change, returns to center stage, standing atop two fast-moving Quarter Horses in full gallop for the Roman Post, an amazing feat inspired by the chariot races in ancient Rome. His partners this time are Eddy and Hollywood, two spirited steeds who move effortlessly with the speed of lightening around the arena. Following close behind are three other riders and their horses, whooping and hollering, making the race even more exciting, especially when the horses fly through the air, jumping over strategically placed logs along the path.

The crowd roars with delight, totally fixated on the unbelievable sight before them. Who would ever believe a person could balance themselves between two fast-moving horses. Suarez and the others agree it’s an adrenaline rush like no other, “It’s all about balance and keeping those knees bent. Everyone has had their share of tumbles, especially when the horses dart off in opposite directions. Fortunately, bruises and egos heal.”

Before joining Cavalia, Suarez was the draft horse trainer and one of the main characters at the popular dinner show and equestrian extravaganza, Arabian Nights, in Kissimmee, Florida (Orlando area). As fate had it, a friend contacted him just before his contract came up for renewal at the dinner theatre, inviting him to tag along on a short jaunt up to Canada–just to talk to the folks launching a new show called Cavalia. It was a meeting that changed his life, especially after Normand, Frédéric and Magali saw what he could do with horses.

“I couldn’t resist the opportunity, especially when I learned I’d be able to help select and train the draft horses for such a challenging show like this. What an experience!”

It’s almost show time. Calmly coordinating everything is backstage manager Karine Choquette, a competent young woman from Quebec, who has double duty the rest of the time as Cavalia’s stable manager.

She’s like a mother hen watching over her brood, tenderly nudging them along with soothing words of encouragement, speaking softly in both French and English. She answers questions, gives out announcements and changes, all the time keeping things moving as performers and horses line up in the holding area that leads out to the stage. Sophisticated headsets keep her in constant communication with the directors, musicians and technical crew.

“This is a dream job I wouldn’t trade for anything,” Karine says with great pride. “Sometimes I feel like an air traffic controller just before the curtain goes up, but that’s OK because we’re all part of something wonderful. My job is both exciting and exhilarating, but it’s also very calming out there in the stable. I love the quiet times, especially early in the morning when the horses begin to stir, greeting me with a nicker and a nudge–there’s always time for a scratch behind the ears.”

Karine is a natural with it comes to horses, growing up on a small farm in Canada where she trained many breeds, rode and did her share of jumping. That early experience built a solid foundation for perusing an equestrian career–something she cherishes deeply. She’s highly respected, not only for her knowledge and skills, but for the dedication and love she lavishes on all the horses. Many a night she’s slept in the stable, and when it’s time to load up her charges on an airplane for the next destination, she’s there in the cargo section, soothing any jitters and making sure it’s a smooth flight for everyone.

Showtime!

Karine waves her hand, stepping aside as Aramis and Pompon, two young stallions saunter onto the stage, sniffing and slowly trotting about in a playful mood. Haunting music fills the air, and the magic of Cavalia begins to unfold.

One needs to see this production to believe it. Words simply can’t express the emotion that weaves its way through the audience, connecting everyone with those on stage. It’s mesmerizing and moving–so much so, that even individuals who think this is just another “horse show,” sit there spellbound and speechless. Cavalia has a way of drawing you in and touching your soul.

It’s a kaleidoscope of sparkle and color, music and movement. The choreography is flawless, incorporating many equestrian movements and methods that allow horses to show off their dancing and aerobic abilities. Horses have a strong reaction to music. Their sense of rhythm is highly developed, and many can actually recognize their individual musical numbers from the very first notes. They also have style that really shines through, like the synchronized number in “Carousel,” where six white horses move in unison to a magnificent ballet. It’s a real show stopper, especially at the end when each one bows ever so gracefully and elegantly to the crowd.

Cavalia is full of beauty and intrigue, with lightheartedness and laughter sprinkled in for good measure. There’s also side-slapping comedy as trick riders (Ricky Suarez included) frolic fearlessly back and forth across the stage, hanging off the sides and underneath the bellies of galloping horses going a-mile-a-minute within arm’s reach of the front row. It’s a fast paced, jam packed routine that has the crowd jumping in their seats, begging for more.

Bringing the evening to a close is a number that is pure poetry in motion. Three white stallions, Aetes, Fasto and Templado, run freely through the misty forest with long manes flowing in the breeze. Their dear friend Frédéric joins in on the fun, skipping and romping with glee. Around and around they go, in playful harmony that looks like the most fun thing a person could ever imagine–to actually have the freedom to “be” with horses, like one of the herd. For a moment in time we feel the connection and take the memory with us, tucked in our hearts forever.

With that, it’s time for the curtain call where everyone comes out to say goodbye–ecstatic performers holding hands and bowing gracefully with heartfelt thanks and pride, surrounded by all forty horses who feel the excitement in the air. It’s a beautiful sight.

Joining the lineup between Frédéric and Magali is a man in a blue shirt and khaki trousers, grinning from ear to ear. It’s Normand Latourelle, who shares jubilant words of thanks and appreciation to everyone in the troupe, and then turns to the audience with heartfelt advice about following one’s dreams.

“Take a chance! All life is a chance. The person who goes furthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare.”

With that he looked to the sky, saluting upward with a wave of his hand. Perhaps Normand was thanking that dashing young horse in Quebec who started it all.

Bravo! Bravo!

For more information on Cavalia: www.cavalia.net (866) 999-8111

Tickets are priced from $49.50 to $75.50 for adults.

Children under 12 - $29.50 to $49.50.

Seniors and students - $39.50 to $65.50.

Cavalia Rendezvous (VIP) packages (pre and post performance gatherings with stable visits). Check prices on the website.

A special thank you to Cavalia’s Equestrian Liaison, Elizabeth McCall. She made all things possible with updated production information, press pass privileges and behind-the-stage interviews.

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