A Lusitano stallion named Omerio and Elise Verdoncq splash through the… (Cavalia )
At a Simi Valley ranch where he is boarding 67 horses, Normand Latourelle admires how closely the skies resemble the 3-D projections for the new "Cavalia" show he's bringing to Burbank.
"We have that!" he says pointing to the powder-blue swirls.
As if on cue, a herd of scrubbed gray stallions in a nearby paddock shake their streaming manes and set off on a sweeping group canter.
"Cavalia" creator Latourelle conceived "Odysseo," the follow-up to his touring equine performance show, as a man-and-horse fantasy. It cost $30 million to design and takes place in a tent 10 stories high covering 42,000 square feet. Oversized video screens will show images that evoke both real (Monument Valley) and imagined (Middle-earth) landscapes.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Odysseo": In the Feb. 27 Calendar section, an article about the "Odysseo" horse show misspelled the first name of the show's creator, Normand Latourelle, as Norman. Additionally, the information box that accompanied the story said that the last performance will be March 10. The show is currently selling tickets through March 24. —
PHOTOS: Cavalia's 'Odysseo'
Yet what will probably imprint on audiences is a level of equine training and choreography that makes it possible for 32 rider-less horses — both geldings and fight-prone stallions — to pose, walk and canter together onstage without bridle or line.
The horses mostly follow paths and assume positions determined by tiny gestures and verbal cues given by a small clutch of men and women that walk or run nearby. But there is also built-in room for the horses to improvise with sudden back rolls or pauses to splash at water.
The term "horse ballet" has been claimed for centuries by the equestrian dressage world, where a vocabulary of stylized steps, comportment, and patterns — from lateral and high-kneed trots to twisting shoulder placements to cantering pirouettes — clearly suggest ballet's difficult formal lexicon.
Thus the name for what "Cavalia" has accomplished — these flowing washes of naturalistic horse movement — is billed in the program simply as "equine choreography."
The choreographer is Benjamin Aillaud, 37, equestrian director for both "Cavalia" shows since 2009.
Raised on a farm in Gascony, France, without formal training, Aillaud not only makes the "Cavalia" horses dance — he is an ambitious dressage trainer and competitor, twice winning second place in the world championships for four-horse carriage driving and currently in training for the 2014 World Championships in Normandy.
His unusual philosophy when training the "Cavalia" horses is to strengthen the rider-horse bond and ability by training the animals in a variety of disciplines, as opposed to compartmentalizing them as jumpers, or trick ponies, or dressage.
PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times
"If you want to do better, your horse needs to be more complete in his way of moving," he says by telephone from France, in a low, accented voice.
A typical "Cavalia" horse performs in a trio of disciplines, and casting changes regularly to offer variety to horse and rider both.
"If you have a horse who understands exactly what he needs to do for you he will do it 200% a day," says Aillaud. "You will be the one preserving him, not to be too generous, not to hurt himself."
During training periods, horses and riders work together 12-14 hours a day, stretching like dancers before each workout, experimenting with weight and gravity.
When learning a new discipline — using only soft bridle bits, and never spurs — sometimes it's the horse that leads, and sometimes the rider. "They take each other along," Aillaud says. "And then, when the horse starts playing with his rider like they are two acrobats, it becomes something beautiful."
Jumping, "Roman riding" ( during which the rider balances on two moving horses) and trick riding are all featured in "Odysseo." Aillaud incorporates some rare High Ecole dressage moves as well, citing Omerio, a Lusitano stallion who began as one of the most unmanageable and now canters backward and performs the twistiest of pirouettes, with or without a bridle.
"He is doing things in dressage that maybe 100 horses in the world can do," Aillaud says.
Walking through the Simi Valley stables, Latourelle describes great results from this multi-disciplinary strategy. "The horses are happy," he says. "And if they want a break, we never need to push. There are always plenty more."
PHOTOS: Cavalia's 'Odysseo'
He now owns more than 180 horses, including 60 that have retired to his farm in Canada. The average stint for a horse with "Cavalia" is five to six years, with most horses retiring by age 19. Only one horse remains from the original touring production: Pom Pom, a Canadian gelding who was just a foal back then. "Cavalia's" original poster boy, a white-maned Spanish Purebred stallion named Templado, died several years ago.