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JACKI LYDEN, host:

`Far, far back in our dark soul, the horse prances. The horse, the horse, the symbol of surging potency and power of movement of action and man.' D.H. Lawrence wrote that in his novel "Apocalypse" in 1931. And who could disagree?

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: The horse's magnetic presence is at the center of a new show called "Cavalia," an equine-human ballet performed by 47 horses and 32 acrobats and aerialists. The idea in this show is not so much to dazzle with feats of endurance atop frenzied animals the way rodeos do, but to harmonize with the animal and with nature. So rain falls on stage, leaves fall and snow falls. There is one good, old-fashioned, rodeo-inspired piece, though, which is incredible. Acrobats hang by their heels from galloping horses, or do 360-degree turns in the saddle at spine-tingling speeds. In another piece, fairies descend on guide wires and flit about.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: "Cavalia" is performing now in a fantastically lofty white tent on the banks of the Potomac. And if all this reminds you of the famed Quebec circus Cirque du Soleil, there is a link. Quebecois Norman Latourelle was one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil. After he left it, he was wondering what to do next.

Mr. NORMAL LATOURELLE ("Cavalia"): One day about 10 years ago, I created a show in Canada, and in that show require a horse. The horse was crossing the stage. It happened that the horse stole focus from the performers night after night. It was at that time 122 performers on stage, and one night the director came to me, and he say, `We have to get rid of that horse. He's stealing focus.' And that started to attract me more. So the year after, instead of one horses, I had six horses in the show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: We caught up with Latourelle at the stable, where the horses were getting the full beauty treatment before the night's performance.

(Soundbite of horse whinnying)

LYDEN: Latourelle is not a horse fan himself, and the Cirque du Soleil, which he helped found, doesn't use animals. He admits he might never have used them had he not met a French horse trainer cavorting with Portuguese Lusitano stallions, a gorgeous breed possessing the high, round neck and flowing mane of fairy tales. Latourelle was entranced.

Mr. LATOURELLE: I was expecting--because at that time I was doing a lot of auditions, I was expecting a guy bringing horses to a ring with a whip and start to do tricks. But instead this guy brought three stallions, white stallions with long mane to the field, and he started to run and to play with them in the field. And I almost cry. I say, `How can this be so beautiful? How can'--I mean, the bond between him and his horse was so real. When I saw that, I said, `This is the end of my show. This is the last number of the show if I do a show with animal.' And with them, I understood it was really possible to do a show with animal with not abusing them, with not taking advantage of them.

LYDEN: The man he met with Frederic Pignon, a tall man of about 35 who possesses a long, flowing mane himself. Together with his wife, Margali, and her sister, Estelle, Pignon is the key to "Cavalia." He uses neither whips nor chains. He seems especially gifted at training stallions, who typically seek dominance over other horses. "Cavalia" has 22 graceful, cooperative, playful stallions. Pignon is, therefore, called, of course, the horse whisperer. He grew up near Avignon playing with horses, running with them and calling them to come.

Mr. FREDERIC PIGNON (Horse Trainer, "Cavalia"): I was very close with the animals. And I was like a wild guy, you know, individual and running on the mountain with my horses and the dogs. And then when I arrived in the equestrian world at this time, I was speaking a lot of my horses, but at this time the people was looking at me like strange people because I was talking like it was a friend, you know.

LYDEN: Two of the most prominent riders in "Cavalia" are Pignon's wife, Margali Delgado, and her sister, Estelle Delgado. They, too, come from a farm in southern France.

Ms. MARGALI DELGADO ("Cavalia"): My father, I remember since we were very small girl, you know, little girl, he said always, `So take time with your horse. Take care of your horse. Get to brush him, you know, try to understand your horse, try to respect him,' you know. And this is some world we always have in the mind, you know, always; respect, understanding and love.

LYDEN: In one pas de deux, the two sisters wear white dresses and ride white horses and mirror each other; a curtain of rain separates them. Next, Estelle and two men race around the column set in a routine called Roman riding. Estelle, who sports a glittering diamond in one tooth, stands astride two galloping horses and thunders around the stage. Sounds like fun, eh? She loves it.

Ms. ESTELLE DELGADO ("Cavalia"): It's--I don't know. I'm like a little girl. Maybe I don't--I can't see the danger, or I don't know. But I hope everything is good every show. And--but you have to have a lot of complicity with your horse, and I told them before and after--I said, `Thank you very much.'

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: The last act of the show is called "Liberty," and the horses are free to run. For Norman Latourelle, this is the most beautiful part.

Mr. LATOURELLE: And that's--it's kind of--somehow that's part of the dream for freedom, always dream to be free. But what is the definition of freedom? And the most simple way I found to that definition is your freedom--or my freedoms, stop where yours begin. And it's a question of respect, and that's what it's all about, that relationship. And that's what it's all about, "Cavalia," this question of respect. And you see--when you get to see the show, you see there's no tricks. It's just that respect that establish a real bond between both of us, the horses and the human. And in the show, because of all these images, you almost see that horses going completely free.

LYDEN: Margali Delgado agrees.

Ms. M. DELGADO: I want the audience leaving with a lot of dream in their head, a lot of color and a measure of peace between humans and animals. And I think this is working well because a lot of people are crying when they leave the show, and I think I'm so happy just to be part of their hearts.

LYDEN: "Cavalia" embraces the mystery connecting human and horse. It's running for a few weeks more in the Washington, DC, area. To see pictures from "Cavalia," come to our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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