A Horse Is a Horse

Photo by Pierre CrepoIf fresh manure smells like perfume to you and you think an equine whinny is a siren's song, then you've got serious problems. But we still found one production where the smell of horse shit is what packs in the paying customers, and it doesn't even have anything to do with TBN: Cheval Theatre, where the horse is a matter of course, of course. See, cheval is French for horse. And the same strange French-Canadians who brought us Cirque du Soleil now deliver 30—count the 17 distinct breeds!—horses to the Orange County Fairgrounds for an enchanting performance featuring sweeping romance, quirky theatrics and just the barest delightful hint of horse pucky.

Gilles Ste-Croix, the former director of creation (no snickering, please) for Cirque du Soleil, developed Cheval, drawing heavily on earlier influences: both Cirque and Cheval take place under a big tent and feature amazing acrobatics, colorful costumes and live music, but there is big difference. Cirque, which sprang from the tradition of street performers, features no actual animals. Cheval celebrates the grace and intelligence of horses and the bond humans can achieve with these beautiful and sometimes sweaty animals through trust, respect, and lots and lots of sugar lumps.

Thematically, Cheval is about movement and nomadic comings and goings, symbolized by the "gypsies" who appear throughout the show. As with any circus, there's acrobatic daredevilry—in Cheval's case, on top of the large, lumbering draft horses who provide a steady rhythmic pace for leaps and jumps onto and off equine back, as well as a crowd-pleasing human pyramid. Other elements of horsemanship get ample stage time, from the dashing Russian dramatics of Igor Kassaev's Cossacks (who somersault over their horses' backs during 30 mph gallops) to the equestrian ballet of the Spanish garotcha. And Caroline Williams' haute-ecole dressage movements recall medieval times, when courtly mounted warriors in Europe attempted to impress their opponents. Oh, yeah, and they recall Medieval Times in Buena Park, too.

Of course, Cirque's presentational style—just what, if anything, is really being said here?—has always inspired a question mark in many minds, and Ste-Croix continues this perverse tradition. For instance, Francois Barbeau's costume design for Stphane Simon's flamenco-inspired high dressage number is a puzzling piece of work: a red bodice with poofy mutton sleeves and a flowing skirt. And the human performers in the carousel, a complex sequence of figures executed by 10 riders, are also similarly garbed in this gender-bending pseudo-Elizabethan style. Is this a socio-political statement? Or just something French-Canadian that doesn't quite translate?

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Still, cultural obfuscatio aside, it's a dizzying and stimulating night of theater that makes up in flash and awesome acrobatics what it lacks in substance. Shakespeare meets Mr. Ed it ain't, but from this dank corner of the stable, there are few more appropriate ways to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Horse than this highly entertaining coupling—well, maybe that's not quite the right word—between humans and horses.

Cheval at Cheval Theatre, Orange County Fair and Exposition Center, 88 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, (877) 528-0777. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun. 1:30 & 5 p.m. Through April 21. $30-$58.

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