In the beginning, there's a sawdust ring, surrounded by what seems to be a low concrete wall. A group of people in peasant dress enter, walking beside a horse-drawn cart. To measured music, they release a bundle from the cart. It rises slowly toward the ceiling; you see that it's a net containing a tangle of gold plates and pitchers. This treasure will hang under the lights, shining, through the rest of the evening's performance.
Several women remove what turns out to be a cloth from the apparently solid wall, revealing a lacy pattern with light filtering through it. Later, the sawdust floor will also change under the lights, so that it looks now like a grassy plain, now like the sea.
The precision, the attention to detail, the air of purposeful mystery, the way the performers prepare the set -- these elements characterize the entire evening. Neither hurried nor apologetic, they say, in essence: Watch this; we are making magic in front of your eyes. They're also familiar to us from the Cirque du Soleil; one of its co-founders, Gilles Ste-Croix, is the creator of Cheval Théâtre.
Of course, it's the horse that's central to this enterprise. Cheval Théâtre features thirty magnificent equines, with names like Gadjal, Chabo, Dansk, Hercule and Vizir, and seventeen distinct breeds, including Percheron, Boulonnais draft horse, Haflinger, Andalusian and Akhal Teke. The show brings to mind every horse of myth, history or fairy tale you've ever read or heard about. You think of Black Beauty, Alexander the Great's war horse Bucephalus and the chorus in Shakespeare's Henry V saying, "Think when we speak of horses that you see them, printing their proud hooves in th' receiving earth." In particular, you recall the myth of the Centaur -- the creature that's half man, half horse -- because the performers of Cheval Théâtre seem so remarkably in tune with their charges. But then, you have to be in tune to leap into the air from the rump of a galloping horse, perform a back somersault and land on the back of a second horse coming up behind.
The women ride lightly, hair and skirts flying, bare feet moving rhythmically on the horses' backs. Later, a group of horses circles the ring at such speed that you expect them to churn themselves into butter. One by one, six Cossacks enter. Their horseback moves differ from those of the acrobats who preceded them. They leap and vault over the animals, but they also hang from the horses' sides, their heads inches from the pounding hooves; one scrambles under his racing mount and up the other side. The program describes this as "Cossack vaulting," developed to conceal riders from their enemies, and calls the horses who do this "brave, flexible and generous."
Some segments of the Théâtre resemble regular circus acts, with a ringmaster cracking his or her whip as the horses circle and the acrobats perform their tricks. In others, the focus is on the horses rather than the riders as, singly or in groups, they dance through the complex movements of dressage. (I have the luck to be seated near Lynda Fisher, an Aurora breeder of Arabian horses, and Diana Zetterlemoyer, who owns two of Fisher's horses. They point out the complex and almost imperceptible movements of the trainers' hands, feet and thighs guiding the horses.)
Some of the acts are eerie, almost mystical; many are evocative. An Andalusian, guided by a rider with a pole, and a performer (Claire Leroy) seem to dance together; there are movements of challenge and submission. A white horse lies down by his great-coated rider in a swirl of mist. A woman (Caroline Williams) wearing a black outfit -- high heels, a tall, feathered headdress, an outrageously hooped skirt -- plays with a black horse no bigger than a large dog; he leaves, and she guides six magnificent stallions while they circle, waltz, rear up and create softly flowing patterns around the ring. A man in white tights and with cropped red hair, French acrobat Benjamin Grain, performs a series of smooth, beautiful moves with a white horse as if he and the horse were one being.
Christian Ferland plays a lovesick clown who wants to impress his lady by learning how to ride. A great dark horse walks into the ring and stands in front of him. Ferland tries to mount but cannot. He asks the horse to lie down. Obligingly, the horse does. But just as Ferland is about to swing a leg over his side, the horse rolls over, legs in the air, like a submissive dog. Horse and clown work through a series of moves and miscalculations together. At one point, Ferland straightens one of the horse's powerful legs and examines it thoughtfully. The sequence is funny, but there's also something touching about it. The man seems to be trying to grasp the very essence of horse, and the horse is allowing itself to be known more as an act of kindness, of noblesse oblige, than of submission. It's as if both are interested in somehow dissolving the ancient boundary between species.
You can try making a plot out of what you're seeing -- the net filled with gold objects, the oddly androgynous costumes of some of the players, the soldier who seems to be dying with his horse, the clown's love for a lady. Clearly the creators of Cheval Théâtre have some story in mind. But it's enough just to wonder at the acrobats' daring and skill and the horses' beauty while allowing the strange images to linger in your mind and arouse what associations they will.
As we leave, I asked Zetterlemoyer if she and Fisher often somersault from the backs of their Arabians. "A lot," she says. "Just not intentionally."
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