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Charlotte Area News

'Cirque' on horseback debuts in Charlotte

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Trainer Sylvia Zerbini and five horses perform Cavalia's Liberty act.

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The mysterious, pointy-top white tents near Bank of America Stadium have been turning heads for several weeks. Their inhabitants are likely to impress, as well. The show billed as an equestrian spectacle with a dash of Cirque de Soleil opens today in Charlotte. WFAE's Julie Rose reports on Cavalia. A white horse named Piralta is the star of a scene in Cavalia that will appeal to every little girl who ever dreamed of owning a pony. On the gelding's back, rides a princess in a flowing gown of gold and ivory. Her horse high steps and turns with the music. Elyse Verdoncq is the princess. She's from Northern France and speaks little English. Most of the performers in Cavalia are French or Canadian, since the show comes from Montreal. To be a princess on a white horse was Verdoncq's girlhood fantasy, too, she says with a laugh. All of Cavalia plays on fantasy: princesses, warriors and cowboys parade across the sandy stage on meticulously groomed horses. At one point the performers do gymnastic pommel horse moves like you'd see in the Olympics - only they're doing it on actual horses at top speed. They whoop and holler. The horses' hooves fling sand into the front row. There are spritely acrobats balancing on each other's heads, too. The creator of Cavalia also co-founded the famous Cirque de Soleil. His name's Normand Latourelle and, as it happens, he's not a horse person either. Latourelle's never even been on a horse and he knew nothing of them before starting Cavalia. "I've been with Cirque de Soleil for so many years and I've never been on a trapeze, so why should I be on a horse?" says Latourelle. Leave the horseback riding to the experts, he adds. Cavalia has almost forty, if you count the acrobats, live musicians and ladies spinning on cables above the stage. Another 20 people work in the stables feeding and pampering the show's sixty horses. Next to the four-legged stars of Cavalia, all the acrobatics can be a bit distracting. A bright spot in the show didn't involve any trapeze artists. There weren't even riders on the horses. One by one five white and gray stallions and geldings trot on stage. No saddles or reins. They look completely wild, but they circle and intertwine their necks in time to the music. It's equine ballet. "That discipline is called liberty," explains trainer Sylvia Zerbini. "It's natural horsemanship and everything is done by body movement and verbal cues." After a few minutes, Zerbini joins the horses on stage, empty-handed. If the music weren't so loud, you could hear her speaking softly to the horses in French. One rears up on his hind legs and then curtseys to the crowd. Zerbini designs the performance based on what the horses do naturally. "You need to make it fun for them," says Zerbini. For example, she says the horse that rears on its hind legs loves to do that. She developed a cue and incorporated it into the show. He gets a carrot backstage if he performs well. And the horses are not always cooperative. At one point a gray horse in Zerbini's herd starts acting up. She whispers in his ear and gives him a pinch on the flank. The live band improvises a bit until the horse falls in line. The unpredictability of the show's four-legged stars makes it a bit unnerving - particularly when there's so much multi-media glitz and music and acrobatic stuff going on overhead. But the show's creator Normand Latourelle doesn't worry. He says sometimes the shows will vary in length by as much as ten minutes. "The horse, they decide," says Latourelle. "It's not about being tight. We allow them the time to do what they have to do and we follow them." The horses are leading Latourelle and his crew right to the bank. Cavalia has proven a huge crowd pleaser around the world. It opens a three-week run tonight in Charlotte.