Geneva Anderson digs into art

Precious Cargo—Cavalia Horses arrive in San Francisco for 4 weeks of magic: November 16 – December 12, 2010

Cavalia which opens November 16 in San Francisco features 54 horses representing 12 different breeds many of whom perform without bridles to hand gestures. Photo: Geneva Anderson

I love my work!  Thursday afternoon’s arrival of the Cavalia horses at their new San Francisco base at the White Big Top adjacent to AT&T Park was magical.  As a caravan of a half dozen or so huge KC Horse Transport semi-trailers pulled up to site–which is most definitely “under construction”— we got to see the unloading of these magnificent horses, one by one, and to meet Cavalia’s human team.  The horses, of course, stole the show—54 magnificent horses representing 10 different breeds— Pure Spanish Breed (P.R.E.), Quarter Horse, Arabian, Lusitano, Paint Horse, Percheron, Mustangs, Comtois, Criollo and Warmblood–that come from France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Canada, and the U.S.  They range in age from the 7-month-old rescue colts Rocky and Roucao to a regal Lusitano stallion named Edros, who at 18 years is the eldest of Cavalia’s performing horses.  The horses’ long journey to San Francisco began in Denver, Colorado, where they performed in September and October, and included a stop-over in Salt Lake City and a two week vacation in Elk Grove where they rested up before their San Francisco run which begins Tuesday. 

As the doors of the luxury trailers opened, we got to see just how this precious cargo travels and it’s first class all the way.  From the padded shock- absorbing floors of the temperature controlled trailer to the full complement of hay, along with a name plate and travel passport for each horse, I was impressed.  Donned in protective leg-wraps, tail guards and fabric main braids, more than 50 horses, a mix of roughly half stallions and half geldings, stepped out to meet the press and their new home without incident. 

After a vacation in Elk Grove, the Cavalia horses arrived Thursday in San Francisco where they will perform though December 12. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Most impressive was the people-to-horse ratio which works out conservatively at about 2 to 1.  Cavalia doesn’t seem to cut corners —the tour employs 120 people on a permanent basis and hired 200 extras for San Francisco.  As each horse disembarked, he was handled off to his own personal assistant who led him back to an exercise area, thoroughly checked him, and later escorted him to a large comfy stall where he was groomed and fed.   Most cool though was the loving vibe that permeated the Cavalia village–Cavalia people love horses and you can sense it in their every move and so can the horses who follow them around like puppies.

There’s nothing like a baby to get people oohing and awing.  When rescue colts Rocky and Roucao— newbies to trailering and to the Cavalia lifestyle—skittishly disembarked, they looked a little shell-shocked but quickly warmed to solid land and the adoring press corp.  The giant Percheron stallions–Edros and Emilio–stole my heart with their commanding physical presence, ham-bone personalities and extreme gentleness.   While the breed’s exact origin is unknown,  the Percheron was originally bred as a war horse, and turned up in France’s Perche Valley in the 17th  Century and was brought to the US in the 1930’s where it was used almost exclusively as a draft and range horse.  The breed has recently experienced a renaissance here in the States and it’s not uncommon to see these one ton plus beauties perform in horse shows.   

Cavalia’s founder Canadian Normand Latourelle, who also co-founded Cirque du Soleil, was on hand supervising the activities.  In addition to Thursday’s arrival of the Cavalia horses, the Cavalia village was going up—nine tents including the White Big Top tent which is 110 feet high–the equivalent of a ten story building– with a 160-foot-wide stage that is large enough to allow horses to reach a full gallop as they race past the audience.  This is

7 month old rescue colt Roucao bounds out of the trailer, happy to be on solid ground. Photo: Geneva Anderson

where the magic occurs. And thanks to new technology that allows for stunning multimedia effects, that magic has evolved since Cavalia was last here seven years ago explained Latourelle.   The horses will frolic with acrobats, aerialists, dancers and entertainers in front of a constantly changing background, projected on a 200 ft wide screen, transporting the spectators into amazing dream-like virtual settings.  The audience is just a few feet-away, seated theatre-style facing this enormous stage, taking it all in.

Latourelle explained that “Cavalia” is actually a “made up poetic name” that captures the essence of how man connects with horse which is really the driving theme of the show.  Cavalia is the result of a 10 year quest to find a dramatic way to incorporate the power of horses and their mysterious beauty into a captivating multi-media experience that is “absolutely unique” and “unforgettable.”  With special effects like images projected against a sheet of water, the experience is certainly dramatic but most of the people I’ve spoken with about Cavalia remember the horses themselves with their flowing manes and tails and the intimacy of the connection between man and horse which sparks a kind of yearning in them.   How ironic that Latourelle whose vision has molded Cavalia into a wildly successful show, doesn’t ride horses himself and jokes off all attempts to get him to try it.  “I knew nothing about horses before this and obviously now I know a lot more.  I get a thrill every time I see these horses move.  In fact, I fell in love with the aspect of the horse as a performer, but I’ll stick to what I do best which is the business of selling that to the world.” 

The Cavalia horses are all males—stallions and geldings.  When I asked Latourelle about the added difficulty of working with stallions who are more spirited and more difficult to train and work with he said “Actually these guys are pretty calm and not so difficult because they have never been around mares so they don’t know what they are missing.  They are just like boys, if they get it just once, they want it all the time.  We hope they never get any.” 

What followed next was Cavalia star Sylvia Zerbini working over a dozen Arabian horses in an arena on her “Liberty act.”  The horses, all grey, except for a young black stallion, entered the tented arena prancing, playing, and full of energy–like a glorious carousel that came to life—but quickly responded to the petite Zerbini’s every command.  The Liberty act features horses performing while remaining unbridled and free, or “at liberty.”  Zerbini controls them with hand signals and about 10 vocal commands that vary in tone and pitch.  This is where words fail me.  Watching those horses move freely is something that a thousand over-used adjectives can’t begin to touch…you feel it deep in your core .   

Cavalia's Arabian horses practice the "Liberty act," as they respond to trainer Sylvia Zerbini's hand and voice commands. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cavalia’s Arabian horses are between 4 and 13 years in age and have been sold to Cavalia through many channels but their preparation for performing Cavalia-style requires years of training which is done at the farm in Canada.  

“Sometimes when we buy a horse, it has been ridden before but Sylvia doesn’t really ride them except bareback and with no bit or bridle.  She occasionally jumps them” explained Latourelle.  “We have been touring for seven years now and when we introduce new horses, we will do it gradually, carefully in a process we call “illumination” where we keep some of the audience, a few hundred or so, after a show and the horses slowly get to understand what the public is.”

Zerbini has toured with Cavalia for three years now but began as a Cavalia trainer at the farm in Canada for 6 months before joining the tour.  She replaced Cavalia’s former equestrian co-directors, the internationally celebrated husband and wife team Frédéric Pignon and Magali Delgado, who now reside in France’s Loire Valley and no longer work with Cavalia.  “We started in North American and then toured a lot in Europe and they didn’t make that move back with us to North America, which is where we’ve been since 2009,” explained Latourelle, “so we a have new equestrian director and new artists.” 

Sylvia Zerbini works to pose the horses for a group easy task. Photo Geneva Anderson

“She looks relaxed but she is aware of everything in the ring at all times,” explained Latourelle. “Look how they come to her with so much affection…it’s just amazing.” Indeed, Zerbini appears to be in perfect communion, reading the horses and getting back messages that range from “we’re having fun” to “I don’t understand what you want.” 

“They have been on vacation for two weeks,” says Zerbini, “so they are a little excited right now but what you are seeing here is horses playing and socializing just as they would in the wild.  You see how they are hanging out—the stallions on one side and the geldings on the other, that’s nature.”   

As Zerbini holds court, she seems perfectly comfortable with mediating squabbles that come up with her boys, the most common of which is biting their team member in the butt or giving a hefty shove that provokes retaliation.  The new black stallion, who is just 4, was bought a year and half ago.  He is a bit uncomfortable with the others and he stays close to Zerbini, like a child clinging to his mother on the first day of school.  He currently works one show and then has two shows off and is being eased into the performing life.  “This is his future place,” explains Latourelle, he just doesn’t understand it yet, nor does he know he is black.”

Standing just inches away from the path they cut on the edge on the arena, my heart surged as I moved in to take a picture of the galloping horses racing by.  The feeling was primal, pure elation, deep in my gut.  As the group calmed down some, I noticed that the horses frequently came to Zerbini to both give and receive affection.  Witnessing that was both healing and exhilarating.

Sylvia Zerbini works to pose the horses for a group easy task. Photo Geneva Anderson

The process of posing the horses for a group press portrait was humorous and very similar to the antics we all go through to obtain a family portrait.  It started with getting them into a line and all facing the same way and then trying to get them to all keep behaving so they looked like a loving family.  The urge to nip is sometimes irresistible and just as Zerbini would coax one horse into posing, another would act out with antics of his own.  Slowly, and with a quiet grace, it came together.  

Next, Cavalia star performer Gregory Molina demonstrated Roman riding—a feat of balance and control that entails standing on the backs of two horses simultaneously as they gallop around the arena.  The sport hails back from Roman times when Roman generals stood on their horses’ backs to survey the battle field.  It was later adapted by Hungarian “post riders”—these were mail delivery workers who discovered they could carry more mail if they stood on their horses and rode as opposed to having one horse carry the mail and one horse carry the rider.  

Sylvia Zerbini works to pose the horses for a group easy task. Photo Geneva Anderson

At Cavalia, specific horses are used for each act and specific riders will work only with those horses that they click best with.  Cavalia uses Quarter horses for Roman riding because they are good at the fast quick bursts of energy the sport requires and they tend to be calm.  

At Latourelle’s urging, Fairland Ferguson jumped in next to do an impromptu demonstration of her Roman riding skills, not wearing any riding boots at all. Ferguson hails from Virginia and came to Cavalia as an experienced trick and Roman rider a year ago and loves performing before a huge crowd.   With masses of red hair, riveting blue-green eyes, and a fearless persona, she acts a lot like the lost twin of Olympic snow-boarder Shaun White.  She admits that she took quickly to these more experimental and dangerous forms of riding.  “I started out riding Western Pleasure and liked it, but it was pretty boring.  When I realized that I could go really fast and have no rules per se, I was all over it.”  During one of her laps around the ring she shouted exuberantly, “It’s just like skiing, except your skis have minds of their own and you’re not hooked in with bindings.” 

The protocol for taking a fall—which happens every now and then— is “styling it off” and continuing the routine, making it seem like it’s no big deal.  Ask any Cavalia performer though, and they will tell you that the majority of mistakes that occur result from human error—not being adequately prepared or anticipating.  “We’ve done a lot of training and preparation and you can’t control everything, but we like to think that we have really tried to minimize the risk and done everything to ensure the smoothest and safest show possible,” said Ferguson.

Cavalia's resident femme daredevil, Fairland Ferguson, demonstrates Roman riding as she straddles two galloping Quarter horses. Photo: Geneva Anderson

We finished our afternoon with a walk through the stables, meeting horses, workers and experiencing horses being groomed and loved.  Each horse has approximately two hours of play time a day and works about an hour a day.  They are groomed and washed down daily and when it’s show time, an elaborate mane-styling can take hours.  

That gorgeous Cavalia poster that is up EVERY WHERE advertising the San Francisco show is actually a drawing based on Cavalia’s beloved Lusitano stallion Templado—he’s the horse that is universally associated with Cavalia and he died in 2008.  Try Googling “Templado” you will come upon hundreds of images of this luminous angel.  

Back to Latourelle with the two final questions:

GA:  “Normand, what’s next for Cavalia?  

NL:  “Actually, I am working on a brand new show which I’m hoping will be ready next August.  You’ll have to come back for that.  We know that our audience really responds to horses running free and we’re going to be emphasizing more of that and trying to get away from bridles and reins in the stunt work.  We’ve been working on this for four years now and it’s very challenging but also very exciting.  

 GA: “Do you think you’ll ever get on a horse? 

NL:  “No!  They put me on one once to take a picture and when I look at that picture, I say that’s really enough.”    

 Performance Details: Cavalia opens Tuesday, November 16, 7 p.m. and runs on most Tuesdays-Thursdays at 8 p.m, on Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m. Closes December 12, 2010. 

Location: All performances at the Cavalia Big Top Tent, 4th Street and China Basin Street, adjacent to AT&T Park, San Francisco.

Tickets: $29.50 to $229.50. “Rendez-vous” package includes pre-show meal, wine, stable tour.   (866) 999-8111 or

November 13, 2010 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments