Monthly Archives: January 2006

Of Horses and Humans: Cavalia Casts a Magical Many-legged Spell.

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Frederic Pignon and Aetes
Photo by Frederic Chehu

It’s no doubt that horses are the “it” creatures of the four-legged kingdom. With their flowing manes, sleek bodies, and ability to rival the most agile of athletes, horses have captivated our collective imagination for centuries. Normand Latourelle’s unique tribute to the horse, Cavalia, capitalizes on our romantic yearnings to be in communion with these magnificent animals. But, the two-legged performers are no slouches either. In fact, the entire show is both game and contest between horse and human. Gorgeous horses run freely while aerialists spin the airspace. Cavalia poses a partnership that negotiates a fragile edge between domination and cooperation.

Latourelle, one of the founders of Cirque de Soleil, seeks to create yet another hybrid form of entertainment. Sure, there’s a strong Cirque vibe in the music, sets and premise. However, these glorious horses serve to ground Cavalia in the natural world.

The lights dim on a sand pit that is strewn with toy horses. A band of medieval gypsies slowly parade across the stage punctuating their journey with eye-popping acrobatics. Finally, the horses enter, sans humans, and run freely around a bit showing off their exquisite beauty. Their movements, unadorned by choreography, are lovely enough. How wonderful that we get to see this before all the theatrics begin.

Frederic Pignon and Magali Delgado make up the equestrian brains behind the operation and perform in the show as well. Delgado’s duet with her look-a-like sister, Estelle Delgado, lends new meaning to the balletic notions of traditional Dressage. Dressed in Lord of the Rings goddess garb, the Delgado sisters command their statuesque white Lusitano stallions in the most intricate of dances, mirroring each other exactly.

Cavalia has its share of wild, off-the-cuff, riding as well. A cavalcade of daredevils charges across the stage, risking life and limb, riding sideways, backwards, and in some cases, being dragged behind. It’s a thrill-a-second experience for all. Alain Gauthier, the Artistic Co-Director and Choreographer, keeps the air candy moving with one amazing stunt after another. The aerial dancing gracefully accentuates the ground-based action. Marc Labelle’s richly textured visuals complement the human/horse duets without overwhelming.

The most moving moments were devoid of any visible heroics. Pignon simply plays with his horses and the audience gets to watch. He smiles, they seem to smile back. There’s some chasing and even a mid-show snooze. At one point Pignon appears to signal his horse to exit. Instead, the handsome white stallion decides to stay and enjoy the limelight. Although I was unable to break the code of how Pignon was signaling his cloven friends, I knew for certain that the method was based in a profound bond held together by mutual kindness and respect. A give and take quality makes me feel as if Pignon is having a conversation. Sometimes they don’t agree. It’s sweet and beautiful and provided a rare glimpse into Pignon’s supremely humane way of working with animals. We witness an invisible communication between horse and human. This intimate exchange alone is worth the price of admission.

Cavalia continues until February 26 2006. Call 1-866-999-8111 or visit


Horsedreaming: Cavalia Comes to Town

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Photo by Frederic Chehu

Note: On occasion it’s nice to hear from another voice on Dancehunter. San Francisco dance writer and critic Michael Wade Simpson is truly an original voice. I had the great pleasure of working alongside Simpson this summer at the Institute for Dance Criticism. Do enjoy his thoughts reprinted from

Cavalia, directed by Normand Latourelle, formerly of Cirque de Soleil, is like a dream: beautiful white horses, music, Lord of the Rings-style costumes, and people flying all over the place. A hybrid circus that travels around in its own multi-peaked tent, Cavalia is more about images than animal tricks and acrobatics. It’s even further away than the hugely popular Cirque de Soleil from the traditional circus medium, a leap into entertainment that embodies a deeply satisfying instinct, the love of man for horse. Here, the horses run free, they play and perform, they have an eye-to-eye relationship with their trainers. And if the show is magical, it is also deeply moving.

Spending two hours in the presence of these magnificent creatures (32 of them), watching them running at full gallop, chasing each other, nuzzling a human or lying on their backs, wriggling–all in a theatrical environment, a huge, sand-filled expanse lit and designed like an opera set– feels profoundly satisfying. If only all dreams could be this wonderful.

Linked by songs and a filmscore-style soundtrack by Michael Cusson, the different scenes in Cavalia also include bareback riding, saddle tricks, dressage (one section is like a horse ballet, with the horses moving in slow side-stepping lines and circles), and plenty of turns for the acrobats to jump in. Compared to these long-maned white horses, mostly Lusitanian stallions, the human performers seem a little insignificant, even as they fly valiantly through the air and tumble in the sand, ride upside down and play catch on galloping horseback. If the circus traditionally is a ringmaster’s battery of acts, Cavalia belongs to the horses, just as intended. The human performers add context, not magic.

French husband and wife team Frederic Pignon and Magali Delgado form the nucleus around which all this is possible. Cavalia is clearly built around their skills and their horses, all of the Lusitanian Stallions and many of the others were raised on their breeding farm in the South of France. The love, mutual respect and deep communication between trainer and horse is at the heart of this show. Magali, a competitive dressage rider, specializes in this form, where the fancy footwork and walking patterns demonstrate a high level of technique.

Pignon, on the other hand, rarely rides, his contribution is on the ground, where he looks into the eyes of each of his towering stallions, and using simple hand gestures, taps, verbal cues and loving encouragement, gives them a chance to make horse dances with him, stand-up on two legs and balance, or kneel, one by one, on the ground. Happily, instead of food rewards, he is just as likely to end a session with play, and the times when Pignon is dashing around, playing tag with his own horses, laughing, are unique in their literally unbridled theatrical beauty and joy.

San Francisco, March 16, 2004 – Michael Wade Simpson

Cavalia continues until February 26. Call 1-866-999-8111 or visit

Culture Clash Moves AmeriCCa

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Ric Salinas, Herbert Sigüenza and Richard Montoyo of Culture Clash
Photo by Tom Berne

Culture Clash in AmeriCCa returns to the Alley with a wildly irreverent look at the people that call America home. Actors Ric Salinas, Richard Montoyo, and Herbert Sigüenza take over the Hubbard Stage until January 29th with a show that is bound to have you laughing and crying, sometimes at the same time. Montoyo brought me up-to-date on all things clashing in AmeriCCa.

First off, great show and welcome back to Houston. Thanks for taking the time to speak with the Houston dance community about your work. You are all beautiful and expressive movers. What kind of movement training is necessary for your work?
RM: As you know, we’re not “dancers” but we are lovers of movement. We have had limited formal training but have worked with knowledgeable directors and choreographers. Much of what we do is instinctive and depends on the demands of each character.

I am curious about your process of collecting material. For example, in the “Mohammad” piece the studied and economic quality of his gestures seemed important. How did that character come about?
RM: We created Mohammed in the first production and watched another actor do the role. I changed the character giving him economical movement; every move has intent and purpose. I visited Mosques in Detroit; I wanted the lighting to be spare, revealing a private moment. Audiences are watching a Muslim man pray for the first time, it should feel private. It’s a hell of a way to start off a show in post 9/11 America, but there is no other way to start this show.

The lighting is harsh at first and so is the reaction to the character most nights. The audience has to come to him, or at the very least meet him halfway. This goes against the “good Arab” approach I think most actors/designers would go for. We work in close concert with designers, in this case the Alley’s Clint Allen, who really feels the dignity we are endeavoring to give each character.

There are many details that make each vignette come alive. The Jewish guy reminded me of my uncle (so what if my uncle is Italian). His posture and the annoying habit of grapping the microphone made him so authentic. How did you develop this character?
RM: I actually picked a piece of blond hair off Herbert last night in the scene. It felt within my character, like an uncle or aunt who is always fixing and prodding the kids out of love. It’s fun too, to be in the character and do stuff like that. I actually heard Greg Boyd laugh out loud.

The Philippino man waving his miniature American Flag fills the theater. Talk about the details that color in the character.
RM: Again, a wonderful sparse choice by Ric Salinas caught in the slow coming down of Clint’s lights. We don’t do a lot of flag waving in the show but when we do we try to make it count.

Did you worry at all about the anti-Bush message in Bush country? You sure didn’t look worried. (I was the one in hysterical convulsions over the FEMA/MENSA joke.)
RM: It’s a great deal of fun; almost everybody is questioning things now.

The Katrina material seemed very fresh, especially for us compassionately fatigued Houstonians. Why did you feel this was an important piece to add for the Houston run?
RM: How could we avoid it? Perhaps its risky, but some of what you saw we have been doing for 22 years, and we have to put new stuff out. We could have done last year’s show but artists must swim in the swollen rivers.

Did Ric Salinas hang out in Salsa clubs to be able to differentiate country of origin by the way one salsas?
RM: Ric is a salsa expert and aficionado from the clubs of the Bay Area. His dance partners at parties in LA have included Salma Hayek and J Lo, but not at the same time since they hate each other. He ripped his hamstring the night before. The fact that he got through the show on opening night took great skill, concentration, and a few meds. It’s a testament to him being a trooper and a pro.

The prison piece didn’t move at all for obvious reasons. How did you come upon such spare staging for that piece?
RM: That was a directed piece. We added the confining light idea with Clint. This should be a private moment from men we don’t hear from everyday. These guys are breaking it down; we must listen and turn off Fox News to get to the core of the Black man.

I understand you are tackling the legend of Zorro next, a larger-than-life, and uber-physical superhero. What kind of research, and/or training, will you be doing for that piece?
RM: Fencing, dance, climbing and more. Our training begins here in Houston. Come see the reading on Monday!

The message you send out is that we are all home, regardless of where we are from. That’s a mighty unified message for some terribly divided times. Any thoughts?
RM: You got it.

Learn more at

Culture Clash in AmeriCCa continues through January 29th on the Hubbard Stage at the Alley Theatre. Visit or call 713/228-8421. A free reading of Zorro in Hell takes place on Monday at the Alley, January 16th at 7pm.


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Jonathan McVay and Kaytha Coker in John DeMers DEEP IN THE HEART

John DeMers, in addition to being my beloved editor (in chief) at ArtsHouston, is also the host of – Delicious Mischief, (FM Newschannel 97.5) He is the author of five produced one-person dramas and 31 published books, including BIG EASY COCKTAILS, which is due out in January. And if that’s not enough, his Houston-set musical, DEEP IN THE HEART, premieres at the Hobby Center Jan. 12, 13 and 14. He brought me up to date on the nitty-gritty process of birthing a musical.

How did this musical come into the world? Did a song just pop into your head and you figured it needed a bunch more, a band, and full cast. How do musicals grow?
JD: For the first 18 or 20 months of my musical’s growth, the No. 1 thing I did was deny to myself it really was a musical. After all, then I might have to do something with it. It started with one song and then, a week or two later, another. Unrelated songs, I thought, and potentially meaningless. But then the two songs kind of met on the sly and figured out a way to tell me one was for a man and the other was for a woman, and that those two people were in love. I mean, a lot – with all the joy and sadness and fear and courage. And that there were other people around that I couldn’t even see yet – and they were looking forward to getting songs of their own.

It sounds like the characters developed a life of their own. Did they write their own songs too?
JD: Not exactly, though that’s how it felt sometime. It seemed they at least participated – after all, it was their lives and emotions that fueled the fire. In a musical like this, it seems characters carry the songs inside them and it’s my job to listen and write it all down. Maybe it’s not the characters but the scene that gives me the inspiration, the moment and the emotional content. Either way, I find I can’t just order myself to write a certain song. I let the scene roll around for a day or a week or forever, and then if I’m lucky I wake up with a melody going through my head. And THAT’S the melody I need!

Tell me about your jump from page to stage. I understand you have a few one man shows under your thespian belt already?
JD: Well, I actually wrote five one-person dramas – including a one-woman show about Henriette DeLille, a “colored nun” in New Orleans in the 1850s – and starred in only two of them. NOT as Henriette, by the way. The plays were pretty simple, as they had to be for me to act in them. The first was called “I, Paul,” about the apostle of that name, and I’m amazed to report playing 135 churches in five states, plus the historic Orpheum Theater in New Orleans, plus national TV. The second was “Mr. Jefferson’s Garden,” an intense and rather sad look at Thomas Jefferson about to die at age 83 – on America’s 50th Independence Day, no less. I did that in theaters until I got scooped up into schools, performing variations for grades 2 through 12. Now, those are some tough audiences! Still, news flash – I’m not really an actor. I’m just a guy who wants his words out there. Happily real actors have taken over all five of my one-person shows.

You are a Louisiana boy what do you know about the heart of Texas? What’s the same or different about the heart of Texas?
JD: As my musical is set entirely in Houston, I know quite a lot about this city I love and have fought to stay in, good times and bad. And Houston and New Orleans have more links than anybody can name. This isn’t about cowboys yelling Yee-haw all the time, and it sure doesn’t have any mechanical bulls like in “Urban Cowboy.” It’s about the people many of us meet every day and know oh-so-well: professionals with educations and careers, with pressures of jobs and families, yet with the same rather primal needs we all have – to love and be loved.

What lurks at the heart of DEEP IN THE HEART?
JD: I believe that every human being carries into this world a longing for absolute romance, a profound need for a single great love who teaches us who we are, points us where we need to be, emboldens us enough to get there, and tells us why we’re here. DEEP IN THE HEART is, quite simply, the story of such a love.

However did you get to this point while writing for Artshouston and doing a weekly radio show? Give us your secret. Did you quit sleeping?
JD: Yes, in a very real sense, I did quit sleeping. Specifically, all the songs came to me in the night, haunting me till I got up and played them on my guitar and sometimes even recorded them on cassette so I’d remember them in the morning. No, those tapes are not on the Internet, and I hope they never will be. Whole scenes emerged from my dreams, which increasingly were taken over by the lovers I came to call “David” and “Julie,” plus the other four characters – speaking to each other, singing to each other, making each other laugh or cry, miserable or sublimely happy. I’m hoping this musical will let me sleep again someday, because it sure hasn’t yet.

As an editor you get to be hands-on. Most directors like their authors to remain hands off. How is that production process going?
JD: Yes, every director needs considerable autonomy to get his job done, to make his vision real and to make his authority evident to and for the actors. But most directors, including our Darin Garrett, consider it something of a blessing when directing a new work to have the playwright at their elbow. There’s definitely a chain of command in a rehearsal, and it doesn’t start with me. But you have to know what Darin knows – I’m still the only person who’s ever seen this whole show, even if it IS in my head. I’m a resource to him and the actors, and I hope a valuable one.

Word has it you have an incredible cast. Are they the people you always imagined?
JD: I am so proud of these men and women, because they are so terrific. Darin and I auditioned dozens of talented people in several settings and picked out the 6 we really wanted. To be specific, Darin chose them – and I loved each of his choices. This group has impressive resumes full of Theater Under The Stars, Stages, the Alley, Main Street, Theatre LaB and on and on, but what impressed me about the process was what makes you hire them. They may be doing some audition with nothing in common with DEEP IN THE HEART, and suddenly you look up and say “That’s our Julie!” or “That’s our Trent!” It could be the voice, the look, some momentary passing impression. There’s alchemy in those moments, to be sure, something you can’t quite ever count or measure or describe. Kaytha Coker and Jonathan McVay are our Julie and David, with Sean Greene and Amy Vorpahl as our manipulative Trent and Meredith, and Brooke Wilson and Eric Skiles as not-always-helpful best friends Cindy and Jeremy.

Hey, this is a dance blog, any dancin’ in your show?
JD: Well, my dancer daughters are not happy with me, but right now, no. The show came together as a mixture of spoken and sung word – probably because I know how to speak and I know how to sing. I don’t know how to dance. Maybe once we have a successful world premiere, I’ll turn it over to my daughters to fill in all the dancing that I’m just not seeing there.

What’s the next step? I mean after you stick the dancing in?
JD: For the moment, the Hobby Center is THE step, but I have no interest in stopping there. I’d like to produce a Texas tour of DEEP IN THE HEART, and we already have invites from Galveston and Beaumont. Add on Austin, San Antonio and even Dallas, and there – you’ve got a Texas tour. At some point, though, this “tomorrow ze vorld” personal vision will need new partners. I have more than enough passion, but there’s a lifetime of theater expertise that I don’t have.

Putting on a show like this is like auditioning, like doing a screen test in old Hollywood – you hope something catches someone’s eye and the project passes GO. Who knows, if I’m really lucky, I might even collect $200. I would love more than anything to see this show in New York, on or off Broadway – but it will get there only if it touches enough people’s hearts every time it’s performed. That’s what’s so intriguing about theater— you can’t exactly make it live forever, but you have to make it live right now.

DEEP IN THE HEART premieres on January 12-14 at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center. Call 713-315-2525 or visit