Creating the World of 'Cavalia' Onstage

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All the Pretty Horses: Normand Latourelle Talks About Staging 'Cavalia'

Cavalia features complex feats of dressage, accomplished according to a humane and mutually supportive training ethos. Pictured: Tatiana Davidaud & Elise Verdoncq in "Mirror.". Photo © 2006-2011 Cavalia, Courtesy of Cavalia. Photo credit: Lynne Glazer.

“It was the strangest thing,” says Normand Latourelle. The famed showman, co-creator of Cirque du Soleil, and creator of Cavalia, describes a small moment about fifteen years ago, involving a stage full of Cirque performers who were performing superbly, along with a single extra horse. Yet the audience’s attention was completely focused on the horse, every time, every performance.

Latourelle was intrigued. “The director said that we had to get rid of the horse because he was pulling focus,” comments Latourelle in excellent English, marked with a slight French-Canadian accent which grows more pronounced when he is especially enthused or excited. “But I saw something different. If the horse was pulling focus, that horse was a star.”

It was a defining moment for the producer, and from that moment on, the idea of a show about horses simply wouldn’t leave him alone. The idea for Cavalia was born.

“I wasn’t a horse person,” he comments. “But I truly became one. And I knew there was a show in the idea.” As one of the original creative talents behind Cirque du Soleil from 1985 to 1990, Latourelle doesn't shy away from production challenges, and is a worldwide expert at the staging and creation of live spectacle.

So when he thought of the way that horse had drawn the audience’s attention in the Cirque show, he knew he was onto something special, an idea that posed as many creative possibilities as it did seemingly insurmountable challenges: Horses. Lots of horses. Onstage.

It was an irresistible idea. Just not necessarily an easy or profitable production to create. But that had never stopped him before -- why should it now?

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Sixty Horses, One Massive Production Challenge

Cavalia includes many moments that simply allow the horses to play and express themselves. Pictured: Sylvia Zerbini. Photo © 2006-2011 Cavalia, Courtesy of Cavalia. Photo credit: Pascal Ratthé

The concept just wouldn’t let him go. So Latourelle, eventually teaming up with Artistic CoDirector and Choreographer Alain Gauthier, Equestrian Choreographers Frédéric Pignon and Magali Delgado, as well as Director and Visual Designer Erick Villeneuve, set about to bring their vision into reality. This vision, the concept of a free-form show about horses – resulted in a production that would humanely showcase the best and most natural traits of equines of all kinds in live performance. The show became Cavalia, a spectacle celebrating the simple grandeur and poetry of the horse.

As the show’s Artistic Director, Latourelle is a showman at heart, and Cavalia, staged under the “Big White Top” (the world’s largest touring big top) with dozens of beautiful equines, represented an irresistible challenge. Launched seven years ago, and headquartered in Montreal, Quebec, Cavalia has since been seen in 36 U.S. cities alone, and by more than 2.5 million attendees worldwide, from Canada to Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

Cavalia offers a massive production challenge on the grandest scale. The show is not just a tribute to horses, with over 60 traveling with the production (alongside approximately forty riders, acrobats, dancers, singers, and aerialists, as well as dozens of backstage personnel), it’s also a celebration of the close relationship between horses and humans over millennia.

Training for the horses in Cavalia can take anywhere from six months to ten years depending on the discipline practiced. For Trick Riding, for instance, if the horse is comfortable at the start, the training can be done in a few months. For a horse in Haute École dressage or dressage at liberty, the work may take several years.

In creating a show in which more than sixty horses are either performing or training at all times, Cavalia takes significant steps to protect the well-being of its horses. Many of the show’s routines emphasize the natural tendencies of the horses, enabling them to find pleasure in play and performance. In addition to the dozens of performers and stagehands, most of whom become palpably attached to the horses with whom they work, Cavalia also employs a team of twenty people simply to ensure the constant care of the animals, from a stable manager, two veterinary technicians, a blacksmith and several grooms, to other personnel who help with everything from maintaining the health of the animals’ hooves, coats and manes, to such enjoyable activities as play, exercise, and training, as well as pampering when the day is done through showers, grooming, massages, treats, and more.

I spoke with Normand Latourelle about his achievements in Cavalia recently, so that he could share his insights about the creation, production and challenges that go with staging one of the most unique and complex touring productions in the world today, and he did so vividly and with great enthusiasm, using both French and English to find just the right words.

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From the Horse’s Mouth

As one of the original creators behind Cirque du Soleil, Normand Latourelle is an expert at staging unique new spectacles. After seeing a single horse divert an audience during a Cirque show, he began to plan Cavalia, a wholly unique show about horses. Photo © 2006-2011 Cavalia, Courtesy of Cavalia. Photo credit: Robert Zucherman

Angela Mitchell: Hello Normand, thank you for taking the time to speak with me about Cavalia. Have you always loved horses?

Normand Latourelle: No, not at all. Before I started Cavalia, I knew nothing. I barely knew the difference between a cow and a horse! I didn’t know anything about horses before I started Cavalia.

Then I did that show about 15 years ago more or less, where I needed one horse as an extra, and this was where I got attracted by the horse, because, night after night, when I did that show, the horse was stealing focus from the performers! Simply by being there. And I wondered why, and it went on for several years. So year after year, I kept wondering and thinking about horses, more and more and more, and how I might incorporate that into a show. And because of my experience as one of the guys who started Cirque du Soleil, I began to mix what I knew about acrobatics and technology and other show types, and I just fell in love with horses as performers, and began to see what I might create.

Angela Mitchell: It’s such a unique show. How would you describe Cavalia in your own words?

Normand Latourelle: I would say that this is not a traditional horse show, it's a show about horses. I’m not a horse person, yet through Cavalia I became a horse person, more and more. I’m still not your typical horse person. I still don't ride, and I don't have that appeal or desire to ride horses, actually. I’ve done a lot with Cirque du Soleil, but I’m not a performer. And when it comes to the horses, now -- I look at them like I look at my human artists and performers. They are the stars of the show, I consider them as much I consider the human artists in the show. When you see Cavalia you’ll understand.

Angela Mitchell: This might be a slightly dumb question, but do you feel that they understand they are creating art – the horses?

Normand Latourelle: They understand that they are performing. They definitely understand music, and they understand beat, but for them art... it’s nothing. We have -- half of the horses we have are stallions, and for them, the stallions especially, they think about playing all the time. It’s more about play, constantly, and they become such great performers because of that point of view. For them, it’s about enjoying what performance brings. The stallions, they want to enjoy themselves. That’s the way they consider the stage -- as their playground. It has to be fun for them. The horses just perform out of joy, it's like bringing a kid to a sandbox with the best or funniest toys. That’s what the horses do when they come to the stage, they just play.

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Ancient Aesthetics, and Turning Play Into Performance

Cavalia depicts an elegant and dreamlike world in which humans and animals live in the possibility of perfect harmony. Photo © 2006-2011 Cavalia, Courtesy of Cavalia. Photo credit: Frédéric Chéhu

Angela Mitchell: What fascinates you most as you’ve come to know horses, and how did that translate to the staging of Cavalia?

Normand Latourelle: What attracted me first was the aesthetic. If you look at my background, everything I do in the performing arts is about aesthetic. So I was first attracted by the horse because of its look. l just realized that they were the most beautiful animals on earth. And when you bring a horse to a stage, you don't need to do anything to them, makeup or costumes -- they are just themselves, great performers.

Angelal Mitchell: What moves you most about that bond between humans and horses in general?

Normand Latourelle: Well, then I started to learn more about how they behave in nature, they're very social animals. They live in herds and have interesting relationships between each other, actual, how do you say in English – hierarchies -- with leaders as well as the rest of the herd. But again, coming back to the stallions or males, they just play. And this is where you give them the right trainers, and you work with the trainers so that the horses express themselves, then the performances can happen.

Angela Mitchell: The show’s ethos for training and performance is extremely unique – tell me about it.

Normand Latourelle: It’s a feel-good show, for the horses themselves as well as for the audiences. You won't ever see whips or anything harsh in our show. That’s important to us. So the horses are not suffering, they're just having fun, they’re just playing, and this is where the real bonds are, because the horses are confident with the trainers. You’ll never see anything bad or harsh with Cavalia, they just like to be there, to enjoy themselves.

For instance, there’s a lady, Sylvia [Zerbini], she’s there onstage with eight horses at one point, no saddle, no nothing, and she just plays with them, just like with a bunch of kids.

For us when we look as spectators, we think the horses are dancing, but actually what’s wonderful is they are doing what they would do in the wild. And because we are so much urbanized, now, we don't get to see horses often in their natural states, as in herds, anymore, and we don't get to see horses playing together. So when you bring that onstage, it’s a revelation for our urbanite eyes, we just enjoy what nature is doing and that’s what we produce onstage.

Angela Mitchell: I’ve seen clips of those moments, as well as those with Frédéric Pignon, whose connection to the horses seems almost otherworldly, and they are realy extraordinary. There seems to be a deep bond between the trainers and horses.

Normand Latourelle: Humans give them comfort, and this is where you start to see a real and deep bond that is visible onstage.

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Ancient Images and Echoes

This moment from Cavalia is a mixture of dance, acrobatics, and animal performance, and envisions the first friendly meeting of human and horse. Pictured: Carey Hackett. Photo © 2006-2011 Cavalia, Courtesy of Cavalia. Photo credit: Crila

Angela Mitchell: What was the visual inspiration for the look of the show?

Normand Latourelle: Very subtly, we are telling the history of the relationship between humans and horses, that evolution, from the first signs of that relationship that we have from cave drawings that started five thousand years ago. The set is just images, projected and powerful images, on a large screen that is 210 feet wide, and with the images, we travel through time, through those drawings of that changing relationship between people and horses.

So the first image on the screen is the cave image of the horse, then we travel like that throughout different periods, it's very subtle and very artistic. It’s like telling the history of humanity and horses in a poem for the eyes.

That’s the signature for the show. It’s not an educational process, but more of an artistic process. So we use a lot of human drawings to tell where we've been and how we've been in relation to the horses through modern times. And when we arrive there in modern times, I’ve started to utilize these images of nature to tell us, to bring the horses into the story in a new way, back to where they started before the world of humans, in nature.

Angela Mitchell: The images are really beautiful and work well without distracting the eye from the horses.

Normand Latourelle: They have to work together. And we go throughout the seasons -- as Canadians, the seasons are very important to us. So it’s very poetic that way, and powerful.

Angela Mitchell: What surprises people most about the show, do you think?

Normand Latourelle:The overall feeling of this show… It’s like entering into a dream, a dream of color, a dream of beautiful music, a dream of great relationships between humans and animals, and if you let yourself go, at the end of the show, you don't want to wake up.

Angela Mitchell: Well, I’ve seen many clips and images of the show, and they are really extraordinary, so I'd agree. The scenes themselves, simply from a staging and design standpoint, are dreamlike and very expressive.

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Staging Challenges and Accomplishments

At 110 feet in height, Cavalia's distinctive "White Big Top" is the largest big top in North America, and was conceived in Canada by set designer Marc Labelle, director Érick Villeneuve and show creator Normand Latourelle. Photo © 2006-2011 Cavalia, Courtesy of Cavalia. Photo credit: Guy Deschênes

Angela Mitchell: What were some of the logistical or practical challenges to bringing Cavalia to life, with sixty magnificent horses of a dozen different breeds as performers?

Normand Latourelle: I didn't figure out that it would be such a challenge at first! But it is a challenge we are constantly meeting. First, we want to give the horses the best life as possible, and we design everything surrounding the horses, so when we come to our setup, it's a huge space, it’s 200,000 feet – four times a football field, it’s huge. And when you go to the stables, you'll see they have huge boxes and also a huge paddock, a warm-up area and arena. It’s all under tents, and all the tents are connected together, for the largest touring tent in the world, our big white top.

Angela Mitchell: My favorite thing about the big white top is how elegant it is. From a production standpoint it is completely different from any other traditional circus tent people might be expecting.

Normand Latourelle: I first designed the stage, I wanted a place where the horse will have enough room to play, to run, in order to give a playground to the horse. So it is a stage that is 150 feet wide, the biggest touring stage, and it's 80 feet deep, which also is very big. If you look at other traditional shows, or even opera stages, meanwhile, they might be 80 feet wide and 60 feet deep. But we wanted to go bigger, and I needed people in the tent itself, so half is the stage and half is the seating at 2,000 seats.

Angela Mitchell: And then you had the logistics in terms of the performance space, and accommodating these huge yet delicate animals, the horses.

Normand Latourelle: Right. And all of that became the biggest traveling show in the world. We’re traveling with hundreds of people, and when it comes to the horse travel, we charter a Boeing 747 just for the horses, so they don’t spend 30 hours on the road and just spend 3 or 4 hours in the air instead. And it all works very smoothly.

My idea behind this was that I just wanted the best of the best in every field, from the moment the public enters, to the horses, to the entrance stands, to the seating and throughout the show. And I do think we have the best touring show in the world. But it’s big!

Angela Mitchell: Creatively, how does Cavalia differ from your past Cirque du Soleil productions and experiences?

Normand Latourelle: It is very different. But it’s interesting, as well, because it was very difficult to explain Cirque du Soleil was when we got started, back in the 1980s, so I’d be saying things like, ‘it’s circus but not circus,’ ‘it’s theater but not theater,’ I had to describe it in extremes.

So really, it’s the same thing with Cavalia in a brand new way, because it’s difficult to describe what Cavalia is. As a shortcut, I’ve usd the description that it’s ‘Cirque du Soleil with horses,’ but that's pretty false. It’s a show about horses but it's not a horse show. It is truly a different animal entirely.

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A Unique Training Ethology

This moment, 'Fly,' in which a flying acrobat embodies the spirit of the horse itself, is one of creator Normand Latourelle's favorites in the show. Photo © 2006-2011 Cavalia, Courtesy of Cavalia. Photo credit: Lynn Glazer

Angela Mitchell: I know the show has described its training style as a kind of ethology in which the horses are encouraged with gentleness and positive reinforcement. What is unique about the training process for the horses?

Normand Latourelle: That’s right. The horses are trained with sounds, voices and gestures, in a way that emphasizes the bond between the horses and trainers, who will often make the learning process into a game. It is more time-consuming than other methods, but better for the horses and provides better results.

Angela Mitchell: What is your favorite moment in the show, on a personal level?

Normand Latourelle:We’re very free to adapt the show to the horses, and for when new horses join the performance, as every horse has its personality, and is unique. However, there is one part of the show I never touch, from the beginning. It’s called, 'to fly,' or in French, la vol, that sequence. It's in the first part of the show, and involves two girls flying over riders, two beautiful white horses. It’s hard to explain, but I think it's just a pure moment of the integration of acrobatics and riding. In that moment you feel part of another world, you feel you're flying with the girls and it's just marvelous. The idea behind this, I started this concept when I talked of the Pegasus, but I didn't want the horse to fly, I wanted to just have his spirit to fly, so the girls represent the spirits of the horses. It’s beautiful.

Angela Mitchell: I saw the extended video of this sequence and it’s really stunning, not least because the horses are so calm, and so unbothered by the acrobats. What’s up next for you creatively?

Normand Latourelle: I’m building a second show with horses, Cavalia 2, for August 2011, so I'm working on it now.

Angela Mitchell: Thanks so much for this opportunity to discuss the evolution of Cavalia, Normand. It's much appreciated.

Normand Latourelle: You're welcome, it was great. Thank you very much for talking to me!

Cavalia opened in downtown Burbank, California, on January 9, and plays through Sunday, March 6, 2011. The show then moves to Vancouver, British Columbia, where it will play in Olympic Village, opening on March 22, 2011. The show will then move on to Quebec, Canada, in July 2011, with Cavalia 2, a separate new show, opening in Laval, in August 2011. For more information on the show, scheduling, and tickets, visit the show's main website, at