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For the first time on stage, the equestrian arts are infused with unprecedented magic and emotion in Cavalia, an innovative multimedia extravaganza.
Homage to the poignant history and fascinating bond between human beings and horses, Cavalia is a poem written in the language of sound, image, and extraordinary performance.
Blending dramatic visual effects, lively music, dance, and acrobatics with the bold presence of over thirty magnificent horses – including the incredible Lusitanian stallions – Cavalia raises the bar for spectacular entertainment in the 21st century. (From Cavalia.net)
Playing to sold-out houses and rave reviews, an innovative show honors the horse and his role in human history.
Frédéric Pignon is a quiet presence at perfect ease among his stallions. He beams his sweet smile at a trio of silvery Lusitanos, who cavort, play, and dance around him in an ever-shifting landscape of light, color, and sound. It is the closing act of Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Man and Horse, the critically acclaimed equine theater that has taken the West Coast by storm and is now preparing to move eastward across the United States for the second year of a projected three-year tour.
The brainchild of Cirque du Soleil cofounder Normand Latourelle, Cavalia is a grand-scale spectacle involving daring acrobatics, original music, projected images, and more than 60 two and four-footed performers, including 13 Lusitano stallions, 12 Quarter Horses, two Belgians, two Percherons, and Aramis, the lone Arabian.
Each act of the two-hour show features an aspect of the horse-human relationship through history portrayed with a multisensory, multimedia mix of elements. “It is like a poem for all the senses,” says Latourelle.
The inspiration to create Cavalia can be traced to Latourelle’s Canadian show, Legendes Fantastiques. “I brought a single horse across a huge stage with 150 performers,” he recalls. “Night after night, I saw that the audience was looking at the horse, not the performers. I said to myself , ‘That’s a star. Let’s explore the world.’”
Latourelle had never been on a horse, so to gain insight, he began attending jumping and dressage shows. “One day, I bought a video and saw two remarkable artists, Frederic and his wife, Magali Delgado,” Latourelle recounts. “I tried for a year to reach them, but the producer was not very willing to give me their number.”
Eventually, Latourelle’s persistence paid off. The producer invited him to an event in the south of France. The next day, Latourelle was walking in a park and recognized Pignon and Delgado. “They invited me to see their horses. I was expecting to see them performing in a ring, but instead, they brought three stallions to a field and started to run with them. It was my dream coming true.”
The couple’s approach to horses – sometimes called ethological horsemanship – captivated Latourelle. He had seen enough circuses with lions in cages, elephants on chains and Cossack riders snapping their whips and shouting commands to hyped-up horses. Cavalia, he vowed, would be different – very different.
”Imagine what we could do on a good stage, with fabulous costumes and music,” Latourelle told Pignon and Delgado. Soon, they began working toward their goal of a large-scale production that would tour North America for two to three years. It took six years and $27 million before the show opened in 2003 in Canada to capacity crowds and enthusiastic reviews. “That’s when we realized we had something very unusual,” Latourelle recalls. Front page coverage in the Toronto Star thrust the show onto a national stage.
Latourelle considers Cavalia his most satisfying accomplishment to date. “Horses have given mankind so much,” he says. “We’ve used them for work and we’ve used them for war. They have brought us freedom. Cavalia is a chance to give freedom back to the horse.”
”Everything [having to do with the show] is dictated by the horse,” says Latourelle. This includes the height of the tent that houses the production (nine stories), the size of the stage (160 feet wide), the volume of footing (1,500 tons of sand), the number of grooms (six full-time, four part-time) and the downtime allocated for the equine performers (two weeks between cities, no more than seven shows per week).
The 26,264-square-foot tent holds 1,855 spectators, who experience each night the edge-of-your-seat exhilaration that comes from viewing four-in-hand Roman riding and jumping as well as a rollicking display of trick riding and vaulting.
Equally moving is the sight of Delgado, who is grace personified, riding Dao, her masterpiece. Together, they glide across the stage, moving effortlessly through a dressage rider’s dreamscape: passage, piaffe, tempi changes, extended trot, collected canter, canter pirouettes, hand gallop. In “The Mirror,” they enter the arena through a curtain of falling mist to perform a pas de deux of graceful symmetry with Estelle Delgado, Magali’s sister, and Penultimo.
And then there is Pignon leaping lightly onto the broad rump of Aetes, who stands with his forefeet on the stage barrier and lifts a hoof in greeting to the spellbound audience. When Aetes kisses Pignon tenderly, the response from those assembled is palpable.
Each stallion has a distinctive character and personality. Aetes, for instance, is the patient one, the obliging one, the half-bred with a fallen crest who is happy to squat, roll, stay down, and play the clown. He is a foil for the liberty star, Tempaldo, the horse Pignon and Delgado credit with challenging them to rethink and refine their philosophy of training.
Now 19, Templado had a tempestuous beginning in life – a far cry from his heritage and his name, which means temperate. He was foaled on the Delgado family farm in southern France and then sent to a new home as a weaning. Three years later, he returned a troubled stallion – isolated, fearful, full of fury and easily panicked. It took Pignon another three years to earn the horse’s trust and even entertain the tought of establishing a career. As Pignon and Delgado wrote in the photo-book Templado: A Star at Liberty, “We were happy to just follow the clues he gave us, to take the time and understand them and leave him enough time to accept us.”
Pignon and Delgado’s training philosophy is based on kindness, trust, and positive reinforcement. “They make the animals perform with such ease that even those who consider themselves specialists are taken aback,” says Andre Dallaire, DVM, MVSc, professor of veterinary medicine at Saint-Hyacinthe in Quebec, Canada.
How do they persuade mature stallions to work together in total freedom – without a trace of tack – in the presence of lighting, music, and more than 1,800 spectators? “Without a doubt,” says Dallaire, “it is because they never intimidate the horses. Through intelligent observation of these animals in their natural habitat, they have been able to develop a perfect communication based not only on human emotional language, but on the language of the horses themselves.”
To watch the pair work with their equine partners is inspirational. It revels the possibility of a new way of relating to horses.
On a sunny afternoon in Glendale, California, Delgado guides her 6-year-old Mandarin in-hand in the practice tent. “He must be flexed and relaxed in the walk, relaxed and round and bending” before he is mounted, she says.
Mandarin, a tall, handsome buckskin with a heavy black mane and forelock down to his nose, movies lightly on his feet and crosses his legs over nicely as Delgado signals him with feather light flicks of a slender stick and occasionally speaks to him in French.
Pignon and Delgado build trust with their horses moment by moment, with whispered nuance, body language, quiet French words and play. The line between spontaneity and script is a feathery one, but the horses’ wishes are always honored. Given a choice, rather than a command, the stallions step willingly into the space their human partners have created, accepting their invitation of working together.
Keeping the horses fresh and nurturing their playful spirits is all in a day’s work for Pignon and Delgado, who continuously tweak the acts to keep the horses mentally stimulated. If a horse becomes distracted or anxious or isn’t up for the day’s work, he is asked for less or given time off.
”Fourteen minutes is the most I ride, and then we play,” says Pignon. “I start in-hand with Spanish march and piaffe, then I ride a little bit; then I take off all of the tack and run, and they run after me. Every day we play with them and have fun.” Between every city the horses enjoy two weeks off. In private pastures, paddocks or pens, they romp, play, graze, or just enjoy being horses.
Pignon and Delgado met some 15 years ago at an equestrian center near Avignon, France. Pignon already knew of Delgado and her family’s famed stallion Perdigon, who is the sire of nearly every Lusitano in Cavalia. When he discovered she was working at the center, he was quickly smitten. “The first time I saw her there, I knew this was everything I wanted,” Pignon says.
”We had the same passion, the same direction, the same vision for our future,” Delgado reflects. “He was the man I was waiting for, and I was the girl he was waiting for.”
Inseperable to this day, they do everything together. “It’s important for a couple to put their energy into [the relationship],” says Delgado. “We support each other’s ideas. We are really strong together.” When Delgado wanted to compete in dressage in France for instance, Pignon encouraged her. Likewise, Delgado supports Pignon’s passion for drawing. Before they have finished one project, they already have the next one in mind.
”We found a mutual balance,” Delgado says. “We are very lucky to be able to live our passion and enjoy every moment of the day.”
It is quite possible that Cavalia will do more for the horse’s public image than any single event since Secretariat won the Triple Crown more than 30 years ago. Little girls clutching plush ponies in the Rendezvous tent after the show will never forget it. Nor will their parents, many of whom return again and again to be reminded why we need horses, why they are still here, and why they will continue to be our companions and partners as long as the seasons go round.
(From the February 2005 issue of Equus Magazine)