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The Mane Event: Horse and rider must trust each other in 'Cheval.'

Gala at a Gallop

Former Cirque du Soleil creative director mounts an equine extravaganza

By Tai Moses

Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful. If a dancer were forced to dance, she would be no more beautiful than a horse trained under similar circumstances. The horse must make the most graceful and brilliant appearance in all respect of its own will.

Xenophon, The Art of Horsemanship

THE GREEK historian and cavalry officer Xenophon wrote these words, taken from one of the earliest known texts on equitation, in 360 B.C.E, but they could easily serve as the credo for Cheval Theatre, the equestrian show that opens May 1 in San Jose under the world's largest hand-painted big top. Thirty horses, representing 17 different breeds, and 30 human performers demonstrate equine-human interaction in its highest form.

This interspecies theatrical collaboration is the brainchild of Gilles Ste-Croix, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil and the creative force behind a decade of wildly popular Cirque du Soleil shows such as Alegria, Quidam and Dralion. With credentials like that, it's no surprise that Cheval displays classic Cirque du Soleil sensibilities, from the ethereal music, audacious makeup and elaborate costumes to the imaginative sets (set designer Michel CrÍte has designed many Cirque du Soleil shows) and even the lighting, designed to correspond to the color of the horses' coats, which are curried to a high sheen.

A romantic-comic plot, about a man who must overcome his fear of horses before he can win the heart of the woman he loves, also runs through the 90-minute performance.

In a phone interview, Ste-Croix comes across as thoughtful, modest and even poetic. It's clear from the words he chooses to describe them that horses have been in his thoughts for a long time. In fact, when Cheval had its world premiere in Montreal in May 2001, he realized a lifelong dream.

Raised on a farm in Montreal, Ste-Croix grew up around horses and was lucky to have a father whose method of horse training, he says, "was being very gentle and very kind." In 1999, Ste-Croix decided to take a break from Cirque du Soleil to assemble the cast members for Cheval. He needed horse trainers, acrobats, actors, vaulters, musicians, trick riders and dancers, and, of course, horses.

"If you're going to do a show with horses you have to find beautiful and talented horses," Gilles explains. In his search for equine talent, beauty and brains, he kept an eye out for horses who already showed natural ability at certain things.

Equestrian theater has long been a major art form in Europe, but only recently has it begun to make inroads into the United States, where people are generally divided into two camps: horsy people and nonhorsy people. Ste-Croix hopes Cheval will demonstrate to the latter that "horses are individuals--they are talented and sensitive."

"People come to horses through their history," he says, "and the history here is very Western, with rodeo and competitions. The last great pantomime with horses was done by Buffalo Bill, when he re-enacted the taming of the Wild West." The Wild West archetype of man vs. mustang is as far from Cheval as a Laramie, Wyo., ranch is from a Loire Valley castle (the inspiration for Cheval's round, multipeaked tent).

Strengthening equine-human bonds is one of Ste-Croix's goals. He hit upon the idea of introducing audience members to horse culture by having them walk through the stable tent on their way into the big top. That way, he says, spectators can see the horses preparing for the show and get up close to them, making the ensuing theatrical transformation even more magical.

The $6 million production features an international variety of equestrian choreography, including Cossack vaulting, bareback vaulting, the ancient art form of master dressage, acrobats who form human pyramids on galloping horses, a routine with a miniature horse Chabo and the show-stealer: the equine comedian, Bohemio, who came to Cheval from a career in French cinema.

One of the centerpieces is an act called the "Liberty," an intricately synchronized equestrian ballet in which six bay Andalusians trot, change direction, pirouette, pair off, trade places, turn, stand up on hind legs and waltz--all with only voice and body language commands from their handler, Caroline Williams. The horses are untethered, but they are in constant eye contact with Williams and look to her for reassurance and guidance.

"Every movement that I make means something to the horses," says Williams, 32, an eighth-generation circus performer who made her debut at the age of 2 riding a pony in a Ringling Bros. Circus. Like Gilles Ste-Croix, she emphasizes the uniqueness and intelligence of her equine partners.

"A lot of people make the mistake of not taking the horses as individuals. I know each like the back of my hand."

All acrobatic acts require a high level of trust among the participants, and those involving horses are no exception. Horses have a highly developed fright-or-flight instinct, a fact that any novice rider whose horse has bolted at the sight of a piece of paper in the middle of the bridle path knows all too well.

"I have to look out for anything that would make them uncomfortable, and I have to make sure that nothing I ask them to do will give them a fright or scare them in any way," says Williams. "That establishes trust. They have an incredible memory for the bad things, more than the good things."

Despite the polished appearance and inherent drama of "Liberty," Williams says she isn't done with it yet. "The 'Liberty' act is like an unfinished symphony, in that I'm always teaching them new and complicated things," she explains. "I have two horses that have learned to stand on their hind legs together, and next they'll walk together. There's always something new to add."

Cheval doesn't leave anything to chance. Along with the theatrical entourage, a team of equine specialists, including veterinarians, blacksmiths and grooms certified in equine massage, travels with the company and keeps the horses healthy, happy and well cared for.

Philosophers have long wondered if animals have an aesthetic sense--if, like humans, they appreciate beauty. I asked Gilles if he believes his horses understand that they are active participants in creating art. He considered the question in typically thoughtful fashion. "I don't know what the horse thinks of us, but they certainly respond to the collaboration we have with them. And the best way to express beauty is through the relationships you have."

Cheval, concludes Ste-Croix, is "nature in movement--an expression of nature at its best. Mixing it with human relationships it becomes a work of art."

Cheval premiers Wednesday (May 1) and runs through May 19 at Delmas and San Fernando streets, San Jose. Shows are Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 4 and 8pm and Sunday at 1:30 and 5pm. Tickets start at $49/adults, $30/children. Student/senior discounts available. (877.528.0777 or www.admission.com)

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From the April 25-May 1, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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