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Indulging a Love of Horseplay

This is the Year of the Horse, according to the Chinese calendar, a designation that will be underlined this week when Gilles Ste-Croix’s “Cheval” gallops into Costa Mesa.

A new touring production, “Cheval,” which means “horse” in French, mixes four-footed and two-footed performers with elaborate sets, costumes, lights and a bit of a story line into a form of in-the-round entertainment that’s unusual, at least in North America. It’s one in which a full-time blacksmith, equine massages, 200 pounds of carrots a week and specially blended arena footing figure into production logistics.

“When I started my show, I wanted to go back to the origin of circus,” Ste-Croix says.

The director, 52, knows something about the art form. He’s one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil. As that company’s director of creation, he developed such shows as “O,” now running in Las Vegas, and “Dralion,” which just opened its second Los Angeles County run in Long Beach. Now a consultant for Cirque, he started “Cheval” in 2001, in part to pursue an interest that goes back to his childhood, growing up with horses on a farm outside Montreal.

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“For the past 20 years, I’ve been making different circus shows, but more in the Asian way,” he says. “The Chinese don’t use animals in their shows. All the juggling with the foot and the plate and the contortion, it’s all resting on the humans.

“‘Cheval,’ for me, is a way of bringing back the origin of [modern] circus, which was with horses, but putting it in the context of today, with an environment that technically is modern--a set which has lights through it, smoke effects, and all that put together with costume design and live music.”

With a cast of 30 horses and 27 equestrian artists from around the globe, the $6-million production has an original score, a live orchestra and two female vocalists. Costumes, lighting and sets all have the flavor of Cirque productions, and many of them are created by Cirque collaborators.

For instance, the show unfolds beneath 69,513 square feet of hand-painted canvas designed by Cirque tent architect Guy St-Amour. In this case, however, the look is reminiscent of a Loire Valley castle. “It had to be unique. I wanted it to feel like you walked into a cathedral,” Ste-Croix says.

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Spectators enter the 1,500-seat big top via another tent, this one a stable, which allows them to get a backstage look at the featured horses as grooms ready them for the performance. Individual stall tags indicate each horse’s name, theatrical resume and breed (there are 17 breeds, from draft horses such as Percherons and Belgians to quarter horses and Friesians, originally bred as carriage horses).

A loose narrative links 16 equine acts. An aspiring Romeo, portrayed by French Canadian comedian Christian Ferland, 36, must overcome his fear of horses to win a woman. “Cheval” opens with a scene of traveling performers following a horse-drawn wagon. A net filled with golden platters soars skyward, seemingly levitated by carriage lights.

Meanwhile, Ferland’s clownish character roams the sidelines, occasionally trying to join in as one act follows another in the ring. The comedic element hits high gear in the second half when Ferland--who had no horse experience when cast--meets his equine thespian equal, Bohemio. A French-trained horse with movie credentials (“Lucky Luke,” 1991), Bohemio sits down, rolls on his back and refuses to budge, while lovelorn Ferland tries every stratagem to get on his back.

In typical Cirque du Soleil fashion, however, “story line” is a relative concept, sometimes present, sometimes not. The main attraction here is the gathering together of a wide range of accomplished equestrian performers, mostly from European circuses and shows. Many have provided their own horses, and some are showcasing their own tricks for “Cheval.” There is a bareback act starring five members of the Zamperla Zoppe circus family, of Italian heritage; 9-year-old Ermes tops a three-tier human pyramid on galloping horses. Cossack riders, who careen off onto moving horses at speeds of 32 mph, were choreographed by Moscow Circus veteran Igor Kassaev.

“Cheval” also showcases Caroline Williams, an eighth-generation circus performer and the 32-year-old niece of the late Ringling Bros. animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. Born in Germany, where she trained in dressage, Williams plays Ferland’s elusive love, enchanting him the moment he spots her in chartreuse riding dress aboard a glistening black Friesian horse. Never mind that she’s being serenaded by a violinist as her horse circles and moves in an elegant passage--think springy trot with lots of attitude.

Williams’ gift for communicating with horses shines during an extraordinary “liberty” act, which means that the horses aren’t being ridden and aren’t linked by a lead line. Wearing a strapless black gown and heels, she directs six bay Andalusian horses from center ring as they spin in pairs, change directions, form lines and move as one.

“Every move I make means something to them,” explains Williams, who first rode in the spotlight at 2, and was training and working with Lippizaner stallions by age 10. “When I move my shoulder in and my body back it means ‘come toward me.’ When I’m sort of present and looking straight at them, that means ‘stay over there.’ It’s body language and voice commands,” she explains. Williams uses German, French, and occasionally Italian with the horses, which Ste-Croix purchased from a European show. They were in an Italian circus for a while, she notes.

“It’s a definite relationship. It’s talking, it’s playing off that horse’s character. But if they don’t want to do something, they’re not going to do it.”

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An American miniature horse owned and trained by Williams, 30-inch Chabo, does in fact occasionally preempt Williams’ signals in a whimsical act with three gypsy dancers. “He’s completely wise to the whole show thing,” she says. “He’s supposed to do three pirouettes with the girls in the beginning and on the fourth one the girls leave,” Williams explains. “Every time we practice, it’s exactly that way. But when it’s a full house, he’s the ham. He’s pirouetting--and I’m not telling him, ‘Pirouette.’”

Not that this concerns her. She lists Chabo’s talents like a proud mother (he can “pray” on command, lie down, wave his feet). “He’s really a treasure, I love him.”

Which is precisely what Ste-Croix wants to get across. “What we are trying to convey is that with care and with understanding and with partnership, you can obtain a great deal. This show is the proof of it,” he says.

It was in 1999, after finishing “Dralion” and a long string of other Cirque shows, that Ste-Croix decided to pursue a horse show, something that simply didn’t fit the Cirque style. He knew the history of modern circus, which is credited to Philip Astley in the late 1700s. An English cavalry hero, Astley began showcasing his talents as a trick rider as a way of promoting a business teaching riders. He experimented with the right size ring to create maximum centrifugal force for vaulting (42 feet; “Cheval’s,” designed for a lot of different acts, is 46 feet).

“He’s really the first one who staged a show with horses in a circle rather than a [rectangular] arena,” Ste-Croix notes.

The circular format spread, shaping the modern circus. Today’s equestrian productions in Europe increasingly overlap the traditional domain of ballet and performing arts. Theatre Zingaro, a noted French equestrian company, is regularly featured at France’s Avignon Festival and will be coming to Orange County in October with a production that has toured Europe and Russia.

Ste-Croix was familiar with the shows and the equestrian performers from his years scouting for Cirque. “Cheval” began rehearsals in February 2001 and had its Montreal premiere in May. It opened in August in Denver, then went to San Diego and Las Vegas. The troupe plans to visit 19 cities in all during a three year tour.

“Ticket-holders may have to get their own Chardonnay,” wrote a reviewer in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, “but the horses do just about everything else.”

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Ste-Croix continues to add to the show. He has just brought in a new act, Hungarian jugglers riding bareback, for the Orange County show.

“Gilles is very fast,” says “Cheval” equestrian choreographer Bernard Quental, who worked for a number of years with Theatre Zingaro. “If he wants to try something, it’s always ‘tonight.’ We try to test it right now, today, and we know if that works or not.”

Williams smiles. “You see it happening. You can see [Ste-Croix] in a creative mood and you’re like, ‘Uh-oh.’ He just has this very special imagination, and he sees things, little tiny details, that other producers and director don’t. I’ve never experienced it before.”

Now, Ste-Croix is developing a school for equestrian performers, horses and riders, scheduled to open this fall in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec, southeast of Montreal. “The idea is really to create behind-the-scenes new artists, new approaches to shows with horses,” he explains. Along with training in equestrian arts and horse care, acting, dancing, and performing skills will be covered.

Meanwhile, “Cheval” will next travel to San Jose following its Costa Mesa run. Ste-Croix hopes to include Los Angeles on the tour, but no dates have been set yet.

“The spirit of the horse drives this thing, not me,” Ste-Croix says, hoping that “Cheval” will have the kind of popularity the Cirque has achieved. “Horses have always been in our fantasy as well as in real stories. I think horses can be brought mainstream again.”

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“CHEVAL,” Orange County Fair and Exposition Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Dates: Opens Wednesday. Wednesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1:30 and 5 p.m. Through April 7. Prices: $30-$58. Phone: (877) 528-0777.

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Elizabeth Kaye McCall writes about horses, entertainment and travel.


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