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Horses are king at 'Cavalia'

The one-of-a-kind spectacle, which has pitched its tents in Burbank, combines acrobatics, visual effects, music, dance and equestrian feats.

January 20, 2011|By Katherine Tulich, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Trick rider Fairland Ferguson has just finished a preview performance of "Cavalia" and could use a break, but her first job is to take care of her horse, Criollo. "We all say the horses get treated much better than the performers," she jokes.

Backstage in the stables, it's easy to see why. The unique show, which opened Wednesday in Burbank, features a cast of 49 horses, and their backstage life consists of oversized stalls and 20 attentive handlers catering to their every need — feeding, washing and grooming, with daily enrichment exercises and one to two hours of playtime outside each day. Each aspect of the show, from scenery to the sand on the floor to the smallest props, has been approved by the horses; the four-legged performers systematically sniff, scratch and even taste everything to ensure that they feel at ease. When it comes to show time, each horse is required to "work" for only five to seven minutes onstage.

"People wonder why we have so many horses and that's why — none are ever tired or overworked," says Ferguson.

While it uses trained animals, "Cavalia" is really much different than a circus or any other kind of animal show. Created by one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, Normand Latourelle, the grand-scale spectacle is a one-of-a-kind combination of equestrian arts, multimedia, dramatic visual effects, live music, dance and acrobatics. Horses, mostly stallions, from all over the world, including Arabian, Spanish, quarter horse, mustang and Andalusian, interact with 37 performers — riders, aerialists, acrobats, dancers and musicians.

"I wanted to do something artistic with horses," says the gentle-spoken Latourelle. "I didn't want to do something like a circus where you hear the whip cracking and the horses are under control, where it's more about the trainer than the animals. I wanted to do a show that was all about them. It's not about the horse being perfect each time the show is on. I want them to be the way they are."

"Cavalia" debuted in 2003 in Quebec and was last seen in Irvine in 2006. Latourelle says this return engagement offers much more spectacle. "It's now a much bigger show, with more performers and more horses onstage," he says.

The troupe took over a former industrial site in downtown Burbank, and it took 12 days to erect the imposing Cavalia Village of nine white tents, including the big top. Inside that main tent are a 160-foot stage and a 210-foot-wide digital screen that serves as a backdrop for projections and special effects. "Many shows are in the round, but this is a big open space that gives the horses plenty of room to move," says Latourelle. In addition, all 2,000 seats have been spaced so that the stage is always in full view and horses' hooves can be seen.

The 140-minute show follows a loose storyline about the evolution of the horse and its pivotal place in human history. Two frolicking foals (which are rescue horses) set the tone in the opening sequence. The following chapters include a poetic pas de deux of horse and riders, and a thrilling Wild West showcase with horses galloping at full speed across the stage as trick riders catapult off their horses in amazing feats. Ferguson, the only female Roman rider in the team, impresses by straddling two horses and then racing four and then six steeds bareback. "It's like skiing down the slopes while texting and reading a book but without your feet strapped in," says the buoyant Virginia-born rider.

But perhaps the most poignant performance is the "Grande Liberte," where trainer Sylvia Zerbini effortlessly orchestrates nine unbridled Arabian horses in complex routines of trotting, cantering, turns and pivots. She's been dubbed the show's horse whisperer.

"I'm not really the horse whisperer," Zerbini smiles. "I'm more a horse listener. What you are witnessing is how they would naturally communicate with one another. It's like they have accepted me into their family. Everything is done by body movement and verbal cues. When the horse understands, they enjoy it much more."

"The horses are happy and you see that," says Latourelle. "No one leaves Cavalia without being touched."

calendar@latimes.com

"Cavalia"

Where: 777 N. Front St., Burbank

When: Through Feb. 13; 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Price: $49-$139. Special VIP and Horse Lovers packages available that include dinner and a backstage tour of the stables from $159-$219. Special pricing is also available for children ages 2 to 12, juniors ages 13 to 17 and senior citizens.

Info: (866) 999-8111; www.cavalia.net

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