A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man"
Right now, looking down toward the bay from Berkeley's hills, you can see two magical white peaks rising like meringue from a single very large white tent. The spectre appeared out of the blue last week near the estuary by the freeway on the site where we go for pumpkins in October and Christmas trees in early December, a spot not far from where murdered Laci Peterson and her fetus's body washed up in January. Next door is the enormous Golden Gate Fields racetrack, and as we approached the tent, I noticed that there were cars in the parking lot encrusted with enough dust to suggest that they had been abandoned there by race track junkies years ago. Shiny new cars belonging to circus goers (tickets are a steep $28-$78.70) slid in among them. It is probably where picketers gathered last Sunday to protest the troupe's use of non-union labor.
Before long, Theo and I smelled horses and fresh hay and could feel the cold sea mist against our cheeks. It all made me walk a little faster. Theo, however, remained unimpressed until we got inside: it turns out that if you are 11, as he is, the anticipation of events in a circus tent pale compare to seeing filmmaker George Lucas looking over Cavalia tee shirts with his children, which we did within seconds of arriving.
"Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man" is the former Cirque du Soleil director Normal LaTourelle's first production with animals and the production's second time through the Bay Area. LaTourelle was said to have been contemplating a circus with horses for some time, but what he had in mind wasn't a simple circus show; it was to be a vision of a more natural and sublime world with a theme-or several: freedom, beauty, wildness and animal divinity. To get there, he and director and visual designer Erick Villeneuve. Rather than give up the anti-nouveau idea of circus animals, though, director Norman Latourelle decided to rethink the concept got a theme—or several: freedom, beauty, wildness and animal divinity. Along with director and visual designer Erick Villeneuve he added an endless thread of well rendered new age music and song, Renaissance-inspired costumes, 200 feet of sumptuous visuals, 1500 tons of sand, gallons of water, bushels of leaves and arms full of fake snow across a stage 160 feet wide. He and Villeneuve made sure to keep alive a vague mood of Arturian romance and nobility as though in keeping with Middle Earth or the Court of the Round Table. They projected quotes from Chinese proverbs, gypsy sayings, the Bible and Shakespeare telling us how miraculous the horse is to man. But it wasn't until Latourelle rounded up 36 exquisite and exquisitely gentle horses, two expert equestrians (Frederic Pignon and Magali Delgado), a cache of trick riders and a huge arena in which to let the animals fly that he had anything like a show. And then he had himself a strangely beautiful and often mesmerizing production at that. It was a hit last February in San Francisco. It promises to be one in Berkeley.
The show's opening was idyllic. A black and a white foal (Aramis, an Arabian, and Pompon, a Quarter Horse) with the impish splendor of toddlers and the electrical energy of teenagers nibbled one another then scampered and darted around the arena with winged ease against a beautiful backdrop of earth and rock projections. With a minimum of fanfare the message was clear that through sheer physicality these creatures transcend physicality and begin to look like angels, as only the best dancers can do.
But as soon as long-haired waif Julie Perron joined Aramis and Pompon, hurling her hair about and dashing this way and that, part hippie, part gypsy, we saw the mawkish side of "Cavalia." We also got a taste of the woefully mediocre choreography that Brad Denys concocted when there was neither horse nor trampoline nor bungee cords for the performers to use. But "Cavalia" relied very little on actual dancing, which was all to the good, because ordinary leaps and battements looked insipid and forced in that vast arena, especially against the easy Olympian grandeur of the horses. The real dance was in the airs, the gallops, the prancing, the bows and the pirouettes the horses with their riders performed, which they did with the oneness of true lovers. Alain Lortie's lighting gave the action quiet elegance, and Miche Cusson's compositions rarely intruded (the band, in fact, were positioned behind the cyc in an aerial box) but, like the visuals, provided a generally pleasing layer of sound to support the performance.
The scenes of "Cavalia" flowed one into another, and as the program advanced, a sweetness between man, woman and horse, a wordless but profoundly sentient bond, revealed itself. When Frederic Barrette held a torch and clownishly manuevered up the gently arching back platform on an enormous, dun colored ball with Mandarin, the Lusitano, nibbling at him, we saw a man at the silly mercy of love, giving sugar cubes to his beloved. The gorgeous curving projections of the Lascaux cave paintings reinforced the mysterious endurance of the human affair with the animal: we may have converted to horse power, but we still love horses. And when the bareback riders dashed around the ovoid arena at full gallop, we saw speed and daring joined at the hip.
While "Cavalia" combined elements of high brow horse ballet, equestrian competition, traditional circus horse tricks, and circus nouveaux side acts with trampolines and acrobatics, "Cavalia" soared best when the muscular elegance and liquid speed of the horses was put first. Some of the loveliest scenes in fact came when the tall lean horsewhisperer Pignon, his hair a mane in its own right hanging in a ponytail to his waist, played with the animals on the ground, or rode bareback, his body an extension of the horse's, his communion with them always sweet, gentle and total. Sisters Magali and Estelle Delgado (Magali is married to Pignon), whose parents raise Lusitanos, share Pignon's refined communication with the animals, plus an ever-gentle repertoire of instructions; to watch them atop their horses is to see the seamless duet of woman and animal.
Aerial dancing by Anne Gendreau and Nadia Richer aptly mirrored the flight-like quality of horses on the move, emphasized by their interplay with two horses and their riders on the ground. Roman riding, with one rider planting one foot on one horse and one on another, was thrilling, especially against a backdrop of a sweeping image of a Roman coliseum. But it was the trick riding, when members of the troupe whooshed from the wings at full throttle, the riders hiding, vaulting, standing, somersaulting and riding backwards that the sheer aeronautic magic of horse and man was summoned. This should have been the penultimate number, right before the whole troupe finale, and the beautiful but too langorous dressage should have been moved up earlier in the program. It 's never a good idea to let arty notions of man and beast get in the way of the trajectory of a good circus show.
All photographs by Frédéric Chéhu.