Art Facts

September 2, 2004

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Horse of a different color

Just as Cirque du Soleil revolutionized the circus arts, "Cavalia" may be the show that reinvents the equestrian arts.


If you experienced Cirque du Soleil in the early years, before the avant-garde circus became a name known in households everywhere, you may remember what it was like trying to explain the shows to your friends. It's a circus but there aren't any animals; it's theatrical but not quite theater.

It's much the same for "Cavalia," a new show created by Normand Latourelle, one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil.

"It's a show with horses but it's not a horse show; there's a lot of dance, a lot of acrobatics, but it's not acrobatics, it's not a dance show," Latourelle said in a recent interview. "We have a lot of multimedia, but it's not a technical show -- it's very difficult to explain."

"You just have to see it," he said.

Just as Cirque revolutionized the circus arts, "Cavalia" may be the show that reinvents the equestrian arts. The star performers are 36 horses from all over the world, accompanied by more than 60 performers of the two-legged variety. The show -- which Latourelle said has an undeniable Cirque sensibility -- involves acrobatics, live music, projected images and a 160-foot wide stage that allows the horses space to gallop at full speed.

Thematically, the show follows the historical relationship between horses and humans, from unbridled life in the wilderness to early domestication, and ultimately to a relationship with humans based on freedom and mutual respect.

"Cavalia" was a long time in the making. Ten years ago, Latourelle had created a show featuring about 100 performers and one horse. The horse's job was to simply walk across the stage at one point during the show. Latourelle found that during this moment, audiences always focused on the horse.

"I thought my God, he's the star -- he's stealing focus from the actors," said Latourelle.

He became fascinated with the history and relationship between horses and humans, and the seed for "Cavalia" was planted. Latourelle began attending rodeo and dressage competitions, jumping contests and circuses, and found that all the horses performed essentially the same routines, using the same techniques, that they had for the past 100 years.

He wanted to do something different with his show. He wanted to bring the acrobatic artistry of Cirque du Soleil to the equestrian world. Hence the costuming evocative of Camelot, the ethereal live music, the aerials and vaulting while performers ride bareback, the mounting and dismounting of steeds running at a full gallop, the wraith-like women on wires that seem to fly around the men on horseback.

Fr?d?ric Pignon shares a playful moment with horse Aetes, in the touring production of "Cavalia." The show opens Sept. 21 under the big top at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Latourelle doesn't consider himself "a horse person" -- though he playfully points out that he doesn't consider himself an acrobat, either -- but that never stopped him from creating Cirque performances. Still, his unfamiliarity with the equestrian world allowed him to push boundaries and try new things. Riders and trainers often told him that his ideas were crazy, impossible.

"I said 'let's try it. Let's see how far we can go, how artistic we can be, and how we can manage to mix the acrobatic and the equestrian,'" said Latourelle. "All of that together, after years of work, became 'Cavalia.'"

The principal human performers in the show are Fr?d?ric Pignon and his wife Magali Delgado. Pignon's reputation is well established in France as a master trainer who can get horses to perform simply through use of his voice, facial expressions and body gestures.

"Fr?d?ric is considered a kind of 'horse whisperer,' but he prefers us to say he's a horse listener," said Latourelle. "He knows the horses. He brings them on stage and when they come it's always a playful situation -- the horse comes on stage to play, not to work, which is a big difference in approach."

Delgado is a classically trained horse rider and reputed trainer. Together, the husband and wife team have established a relationship of trust, rather than dominance, with their horses. Whips are never used, and many of the animals go without saddles and bits. The show plays out in "horse time," with the horses dictating, to some degree, how the performance progresses. That means the performers have to be ready to improvise. Each show, said Latourelle, is unqiue.

"Cavalia" also incorporates images projected onto a 210-foot-wide screen, using 20 huge video projectors. Without dialogue, the images transport the audience in time and space, recounting the history of the horse and human relationship. Latourelle expects audiences to walk away in reverie, with a new reverence for horses and the delicate bond humans share with them.

"Some parts of the show are very thrilling -- there's some high skill, trick riding, bareback riding -- but at end of show, you go out of there as if you had a very great dream, a very colorful, very peaceful dream."

PROGRAM: "Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man," created by Normand Latourelle

Tickets: $29-$69

Dates: Opens Sept. 21, runs through Oct. 1

Show times: Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m.

Location: Under the big top, Del Mar Fairgrounds

More information: (866) 999-8111,

September 2, 2004

September 16, 2004

September 23, 2004