On, prancers

Horses share top billing with humans in 'Cavalia'


Cavalia may be the only dance show in the Mid-Atlantic region where the performers wear iron shoes.

The 47 horses in the multimedia extravaganza have hooves as cosseted as any ballerina's feet. They wear out as many horseshoes as a diva discards toe-shoes; but luckily, Cavalia travels with its own blacksmith.

The horses include Fasto, a milky-white Lusitano with a mane so long and lavish it would be the envy of any teenage girl; Aetes, a Spanish Friesian that steps as delicately as if he were walking on china teacups; and Arete, a dapple-gray Percheron gelding with a calm temperament and broad back ideal for bareback riders. All the steeds are sleek and muscled, have shiny coats and seem genuinely to love their two-legged counterparts.

Cavalia traces the sometimes-mystical relationship between horse and human. The loose plot follows the evolution of horses from their origins running wild on the prairies, to their early domestication, to an idealized relationship with humankind based on understanding and respect.

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acrobats; New Age music performed by a seven-member band; a 210-foot screen on which ghostly images are projected; and such special effects as a waterfall.

At times, Cavalia may push the mystic aspects a bit hard. During one number set in winter, thick "snow" falls over the audience, coating people's clothing and hair. The flakes turn out to be soap suds, making Cavalia perhaps the only show in recent memory to include a shampoo with the price of admission.

The show was created by Normand Latourelle, the Canadian-born co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, which is often described as a circus without animals. Though Cavalia began performing in Canada in 2003, its engagement in Arlington, Va., is its area premiere.

Horse ballets date to about 1550. Originally, they were a preparation for battle, with some of the more complex maneuvers designed to protect riders and inflict injury on the enemy, according to Kate van Orden, an associate professor of music history at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of the book Music, Discipline and Arms in Early Modern France.

This form of equine entertainment developed at the same time as jousting. As warfare shifted from one-on-one combat to advancing columns of riders, as the use of lances decreased in favor of the pistol, the movements of the horses became choreographed and synchronized.

"Horse ballets were used to show off the capability of a new military technique: the light cavalry," van Orden says.

Among the most famous was Ballet a Cheval, performed before 200,000 guests at the wedding of King Louis XIII of France in 1612.

Modern audiences are perhaps most familiar with Austria's famous white Lipizzaner stallions, which have been performing for more than four centuries. But unlike Cavalia, in these shows someone always is holding the reins. In Cavalia's most impressive numbers, the horse seemingly chooses to go along with the trainer's and rider's requests.

In "Liberty III," Federic Pignon, the show's equivalent of a horse-whisperer, appears to be running joyfully barefoot through the woods in autumn. (The French-born trainer wears his nearly waist-length hair in a ponytail, rather like his mounts.)

The four horses that join Pignon on stage are not constrained in any way. One could - and occasionally does - leave the stage at any time.

In response to Pignon's cues, the horses rear, lie down and prop themselves up on their front legs like marble statues. On stage, Pignon holds a whip, but doesn't use it. At most, he may toss a few grains of sand at a horse's legs to get its attention.

Pignon spends hours observing the behavior of horses in pastures. "I've always wanted to speak with them, to understand them, to communicate with them and to learn with them," he says during a post-performance chat.

"They express so much with their eyes. Once you show them that you understand, they try to speak and communicate more. When I am breaking a horse [getting him to accept a rider], I will sit on his back. As soon as he starts to show that he's uncomfortable, I jump off. That tells him that the dialogue is open."

Horses naturally are sociable and like to follow a leader, he says.

"Sometimes I will see a horse, and his eyes just call to me," Pignon says. "It's hard to explain."

Half of his four-legged performers are stallions, the others are geldings, or neutered males. In the wild, stallions will battle until one drives the other away. But Pignon somehow keeps all that raging testosterone in check and has these macho animals trotting contentedly side by side.

(Because Pignon must be constantly vigilant to keep the stallions on good terms, there are no mares or fillies in the show.)

"The horses persuade us to do what they want to do," Pignon says. "I cannot ask them to do the same thing every day. If a horse tells me he doesn't want to do something, I ask him to do something else. Otherwise, he won't like me."

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