Showbiz horses gallop across US in 'Cheval Theatre'

It's a kick - circus show spotlights fabulous horse tricks.

Of all domesticated animals, the horse is perhaps the most beautiful and mysterious. Its size and grace, its power and sensitivity, make it the stuff of legends, storybooks, paintings, and sculpture. Horses are often portrayed as noble, intelligent, and affectionate.

But funny?

Well, remember the movie "Cat Ballou?" Lee Marvin's horse was a kick, imitating Marvin's silliest antics. We won't even discuss TV's "Mr. Ed." But in a brand new show from the creator of Cirque du Soleil, "Cheval Theatre" (Horse Theater, at the Denver Pepsi Center through Sept. 9), one horse is a comedian par excellence. He rolls over on his back for a tummy tickle, lies on his side with his head flat on the ground like a dog, and sits down (when he's supposed to move), stubborn as a mule. He even steals carrots from his (human) partner's back pockets, and does exactly the opposite of what his "partner" commands.

The new show celebrates all that horses are capable of. Its first stop on a 19-city, three-year American tour is Denver, and Denver is definitely still horse country. So crowds went wild. Young women who practice dressage came to see some of the greatest dressage athletes in the world. Whole families stood to applaud the daring tumbles of the performers, fabulous horse tricks, and amazing feats of horsemanship.

Nothing is more exciting than the Cossacks, splendid horseman who do headstands, leaps, and tumbles on horseback at full gallop. When one of the athletes climbs down off his saddle, moves under the galloping steed's stomach, and up the other side, the crowd holds its collective breath in amazement, cheering wildly as he pulls himself into the saddle. This is the stuff movies and dreams are made of.

Creator Giles Ste-Croix said in a recent interview that he wanted to include elements that would remind audiences of the horse's history. Slides are projected on the tent walls, while the Cossacks and a battle scene remind us of the horse's role in military history.

"If we had not gained the horse's confidence 3,000 years ago, history would be very different," Mr. Ste-Croix says.

All the horses are marvelously trained, from the largest Clydesdale to the smallest miniature. Like other Cirque du Soleil shows, this one offers fabulous and imaginative costumes, a live band, a singer who croons cheery and haunting tunes, and a loose narrative - in this case, about a goofy nerd who wants to learn to ride a horse so he can pursue a lovely horsewoman.

There are story elements about gypsies and soldiers, too (these are all the best routines, actually).

While "Cheval" is a rare celebration of the horse, it does not hang together entirely as a theatrical experience. A few adjustments with the narrative could fix that, making the experience more emotionally and intellectually fulfilling.

But even as it is, it is still a treat. There is so much to learn from these great animals, who are clearly well cared for and loved.

"I am very fond of horses, and have always been," says Ste-Croix on the phone from Montreal. "I wanted to emphasize the relationship between the horses and the humans. They are beautiful creatures, who, if you care for them, can attain high achievements."

He says that the secret of training is to respect the animals, to make friends with them. He talks about going into his own stables and greeting his horses every morning - if he neglects one, she'll let him know about it in no uncertain terms.

"Every day you work with a horse, he wants to share with you," Ste-Croix says.

Like people, horses have different talents. And the real trick of training is to figure out what each horse's special gifts are. Horses are independent and partly wild like cats, but loyal and friendly like dogs.

Not every horse is a born performer, he says. "You have to discover every horse's capabilities and go with them."

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