Put Cirque du Soleil mastermind Normand Latourelle in a bare theater, and fuhgedaboudit.
“If you give me a theater and say, ‘Do something,' I don't know what to do,'' says Latourelle.
Don't believe him for a second. Even as he stands under the broiling South Florida sun on the grounds of Bicentennial Park (pre-recent chill, of course) his fertile mind is spinning toward his next grand scheme.
After all, the Montreal native cofounded the hugely popular “Circus of the Sun'' in 1985 and has seen that first show, populated by street performers, grow into about 20 touring and resident companies performing Quidam, Dralion, O and The Beatles’ Love. Latourelle's idea turned into a money-machine brand. Its 4,000 employees help haul in almost a billion dollars in annual revenue.
Latourelle left Cirque in 1990 for other endeavors, such as serving as artistic director of his home town's 350th anniversary celebrations. Now he is back with Cavalia, a Cirque-like multimedia spectacle with a cast of 100, including 12 breeds of horses as featured stars.
“I like to challenge the space first,'' Latourelle says. “The way I see it, I don't conceive anything. It's like a puzzle, all those small pieces I start to have in my mind. At one point I put it together, and a beautiful image appears. The big top is my primary tool.''
And what an instrument it is - all 45,000 pounds of the big top.
Cavalia, which opens Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010 in Bicentennial Park and runs through month's end at least, involves acrobats, aerialists, dancers, riders and a live band surrounded by a 210-foot curved video screen.
So far, so Cirque.
However, to this familiar recipe, Latourelle adds an equine cast of 60 “four-legged artists.'' Yes, the horses get exactly that respectful billing in the program. They include Lusitanos; Percherons; Belgian, Spanish, Arabian and quarter horses, and an Appaloosa colt.
Unlike Cirque, which famously eschews animal acts, Cavalia drew the attention of the
American Humane Association, which governs the use of animals and children in film, television and live productions. The association signed off on Cavalia and says in a statement that the show “underpins the principles of American Humane by beautifully illustrating the emotional connection people share with animals.''
Latourelle folds all of this human-horse interaction into “North Americaés largest touring tent'' - a white, 71,000-square-foot structure rising 110 feet into the Miami skyline.
Cavalia serves as an anniversary of sorts. Twenty years ago, Latourelle introduced Cirque du Soleil to South Florida audiences with a show under a makeshift tent at the Waterways in Aventura. Caught in Vice's grip and with an unappealing downtown area, Miami wasn't ready for such a spectacle, Latourelle says.
“This city here was not proper to show a show like ours, so we went to Aventura,'' Latourelle says. “Now, we found this location by the water, near South Miami Beach, it couldn't be better. There will be paddocks for horses. The horses will be happy to be under the sun and eat a little grass. You won't need to cut the grass for the next couple of months, I promise.''
Cavalia - on the same plot of Bicentennial Park where Cirque operates smash-hit shows every two or three years - is the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts' first outside joint production.
Arsht president M. John Richard says that Cavalia allows the oft-struggling center to brand itself as an arts leader.
“If we behave differently, others will follow,'' Richard says.
Scott Shiller, the center's executive vice president, adds that Cavalia “is in line with Arsht's mission: to bring the best theatrical experience from around the world to downtown Miami.''
Cavalia seems to have the pedigree. Poetic, allegorical, lushly romantic, the show has been seen by 2.5 million people since 2003 and has earned raves from equine publications such as Horse Illustrated, Americaés Horse and Dressage Today for its attempt to trace the common ground of humans and horses through the centuries.
The horses have free rein to interact with a cast of performers drawn from Canada,
France, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Morocco and the United States. The action takes place feet from each show's 2,000 spectators on a stage the width of an NFL football field. If a horse has a diva moment and doesn't feel like performing, off he trots. No worries. No admonishment from the trainers.
“Sometimes a horse doesn't want to perform, and we play with that,'' Latourelle says. “Every time an artist comes to Cavalia, that's the first thing I've been telling them: ‘You're not the star; he's the star - the horses.' [The show] has to be done in a respectful environment.''
Cavalia opens with a tranquil scene. A horse, naturally, enters to find a large puddle of water on the stage. The stallion gracefully walks through the puddle, feigns a drink and eyes his surroundings. Then he leaves, as content as you please.
Suddenly, the puddle is replaced by acrobats who erupt on the stage while horses lie down where the pool of water should be. Eventually, all the performers exit, leaving the stage bone dry.
The scene is the first of many such how'd-they-do-that? moments. Soon, fairies on bungees float above the horses; riders perform acrobatics on horseback as the animals gallop around the stage and execute jumps.
Tour manager Duncan Fisher explains that a small army of artisans and a construction crew must be on hand in every city.
“Normand created the show before we created the tent; the tent design had to accommodate the show,'' he says.
It takes 50 people three days to put up the canvas structure and 85 semi trucks to haul the production from city to city. “It takes eight trucks just for the big top,'' Fisher says.
By comparison, U2's current concert extravaganza requires a paltry 65 to 70 trucks.
Latourelle got the idea for Cavalia 12 years ago when he had a show in Canada that wasn't quite complete.
“A little more was needed, so we put one horse in as an extra,'' he says. Not surprisingly, “Every time the horse was coming on the stage he was stealing the focus from the performers.''
One horse became six horses. Latourelle found a stunt guy who was working with horses in the movies. Cavalia knocked about inside his brain. Horses - domestic animals, not lions or tigers or bears.
“Let's try to explore that world. Part of the puzzle. A step forward from Cirque,'' he remembers musing.
“Horses are fabulous animals and can be very friendly. I've learned that [through] years of working with them. If you make them happy and give them space, they will be the best performer you have ever seen.''
Has Latourelle ever found himself atop one of these majestic animals?
But, of course . . . not.
“I went on a horse once for a picture, and I thought I looked like a potato bag,'' he says, laughing. “I've never been on a trapeze when I worked for Cirque. Why should I be on a horse when I am surrounded by so many good riders?''
Cirque acrobatics meets the equestrian world in this unique show playing at Bicentennial Park. Photo: Tomas Loewy.