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A Horse Ballet Rears Up

The elegance of a 17th century equestrian pageant--with music, riders and choreography--is being staged at an early-music festival.


WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — It's a hot afternoon in late May, and four dressage riders are rehearsing the first paces of a French equestrian ballet, "Le Ballet a Cheval," which has not been seen since Maria de Medici commissioned it in 1612 for the engagement of her son, King Louis XIII, to Anne of Austria, Princess of Spain.

Entering with a measured gait to tinny, recorded music, the riders approach center field, split off into diagonals and come to rest in the four corners of the outdoor arena. From there two of them trot toward the center again, segueing into a piaffe (horses trotting in place) and stopping alongside each other so that they can bow and exchange a ceremonial handshake.

The ballet, choreographed by Antoine de Pluvinel, who ran France's first state-run military academy and was Louis XIII's riding teacher, is the high point of "Le Carrousel du Roi," an elaborate 17th century pageant and entertainment that will be performed Friday and Saturday at Walnut Creek's Heather Farms Park. It is part of the biennial early-music gathering known as the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition.

On this afternoon, the riders look more dusty than regal. But in less than three weeks these baseball-capped and T-shirted performers will go through their maneuvers, gowned and coiffed in brocades, wigs and plumed helmets imported from Belgium. They'll have taken on the identities of such illustrious Arthurian heroes as Valdante the Faithful, Riveglose the Dangerous and Alberin the Courteous. In June the recorded score will also be replaced by the Renaissance instruments of the Festival of Winds Ensemble (directed by Richard Cheetham) whose musicians play such delectables as shawms, sackbuts, trumpets, percussion and a bagpipe. They'll be joined by a master of ceremonies and a singer--on a pony.

The person responsible for putting plumes on riders and costumes on horses and setting them off in intricate "dances" is Kate van Orden, a UC Berkeley musicologist. She became interested in Pluvinel's work when she was researching French music and its relationships to concepts of military virtue. It was under Pluvinel that preparing for individual combat, which long had been the basis for military horsemanship, gave way to training for groups of horses and riders, favoring the speed and mobility required for what was to become the modern cavalry.

Van Orden's research turned up detailed choreography notes for Pluvinel's horse ballet, along with eyewitness descriptions and the ballet's score--a rare triple in such scholarship.

"Usually, what happens is that you get descriptions of how wonderful the event was and how good everyone looked. About the music, nothing," she explains. "For this ballet we have the exact music; it was written by Robert Ballard, who was a lutenist and also the royal printer of music. That's probably why we have the music, and now can match it to the choreography."

And that's one element that made "Le Carrousel" ripe for revival. However, when Van Orden approached Robert Cole, director of Cal Performances and the founder of the Berkeley Festival, he was skeptical.

"I needed to take a hard look at something that, after all, hadn't been performed since 1612," he recalls. "But the more I learned about it, the more I became convinced that this is the kind of unique event which is in line with what we are trying to do with the festival." So he gave his go-ahead, and Van Orden went after horses and riders.

She encountered them just across the hills from Berkeley in Contra Costa County's horse country: Creeky Routson, a United States Dressage Federation silver and bronze medalist, and singer-songwriter and dressage trainer Teresa Trull. Trull and Routson run Wild Ride, a business that creates choreography for freestyle dressage competitors.

"When I mentioned Pluvinel to Creeky, and she knew who he was, I knew I had found my collaborator," Van Orden recalls delightedly.

Much of Pluvinel's choreography (based on his and other manuscripts)--zigzag half passes, canter pirouettes, triangle and circle formations--Routson recognized from contemporary dressage practice. "For some of [the moves] the language was a little different, so we had to do some translating," she says. The collaborators also eliminated some of the larger leaps Pluvinel called for, because horses are no longer bred to execute them.

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