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A wild ride under a big top

Horses are the mane characters in dreamy, moving 'Cavalia'
by: courtesy of cavalia Cavalia, seen by three million people worldwide, celebrates the connection between humans and horses. Performances will be held Nov. 16 - Dec. 4 at the “White Big Top” near Centennial Mills in the Pearl District.

What is 'Cavalia,' other than a horse show with a humongous tent? Poetic and moving, a fairy tale and a dream, about the love of people and nature and horses. It's an equestrian ballet with multimedia images and performing arts.

'It's a happy show,' says Normand Latourelle, founder and artistic director of 'Cavalia,' which has set up for performances in the Pearl District, easily recognizable by the 'White Big Top' tent at Northwest 12th Avenue and Quimby Street. 'You have a lot of people being very touched by what's going on.'

The show reminds Latourelle of the experience of watching the movie 'E.T.' for the first time. It's wondrous. And, Latourelle was flattered when filmmaker James Cameron took in his show last year at Burbank, Calif., and told him: 'In the movie world, everything is by computer. The more it goes, the less people believe what they see, because it's not true. But 'Cavalia' is true, it's right before your eyes, everybody gets the magic. … The future is a show like yours.'

Featuring 45 horses from 11 breeds, and scores of acrobats, aerial artists, dancers and musicians, 'Cavalia' opens Nov. 16 and runs for four weeks at 'White Big Top,' which the organizers tab as the biggest touring tent in the world.

With its spires, it is 110 feet high, and the nine conjoining tents span more than 26,000 square feet. The stage is 160 feet wide, with the crowd in auditorium-style seating, and it is backdropped by a 210-foot-wide screen for the multimedia dimension to the show.

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Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Cavalia boasts the world's largest touring Big Top tent, accommodating up to 2,000 spectators and creating the impression of a majestic white castle with four towers extending high into the sky. The stage is the size of a football field, allowing the horses full freedom of movement and expression with the artists.

As many as 12 horses will be on stage at the same time. How big is the stage? An American quarterhorse accelerates to 25 mph with an acrobat upside down on it for one part of the show - on the stage.

'I realized that to have horses use the stage as a playground, we needed so much space bigger than any existing tent,' Latourelle says. 'We created a tent to fit over the stage.'

One drive into Northwest Portland, or over the Broadway Bridge, and you can't miss the tent.

A lot of happy people

'Cavalia' will take place in Portland for the first time. Organized similarly to Cirque du Soleil - the French-Canadian Latourelle co-founded Cirque in the mid-1980s - it has wanted to avoid conflicting with Cirque big-tent shows. Therefore, it has rarely had the opportunity to schedule Portland until this year.

Coincidentally, Cirque's 'Michael Jackson Immortal World Tour' will be playing at the Rose Garden during the same time.

Latourelle left Cirque to spend time with his family and started his own show, which featured a horse. And, the horse stole the audience's fascination, which intrigued Latourelle. He started 'Cavalia' in 2003, and has toured the show since then, growing enamored of the majestic animal.

'Before that, a horse was an animal in the field or barn for me,' says Latourelle, a native of Montreal. 'I fell in love with their personality, I loved their look. I thought it was the most beautiful thing. Very intelligent, powerful, gorgeous.

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Courtesy of Cavalia • The Cavalia extravaganza is a fresh mix of equestrian and performing arts, multimedia and special effects featuring 42 horses of 10 different breeds with their riders, dancers, aerialists acrobats and live musicians.

'Then I studied who they are, and I realized that the history of horse was the history of humanity.'

Different breeds show off different talents in the show - the quarterhorse and its speed, the pure Spanish breed and its high-stepping, the Lusitano and its muscles and physical abilities.

The 41 artists come from Canada, France, the U.S., Morocco, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. 'We do have a lot of acrobats from Quebec,' Latourelle says. 'We try to get good people, wherever they come from.'

Latourelle says not only horse lovers attend the show. He says about 60 percent of attendees are lovers of the arts.

'Cavalia' doesn't extensively tour each year, but it has drawn more than three million fans with more than 1,800 performances in 42 cities in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Which is Latourelle's favorite part of the show?

'When the lights go up and I see all those people happy,' he says, chuckling.

Information for 'Cavalia' can be found at cavalia.net. The Portland show starts Nov. 16 and runs through mid-December, with evening performances at 8 p.m. and weekend matinees at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., at the 'White Big Top' at Northwest 12th Avenue and Quimby Street. Adult tickets range from $34.50 to $189.50, and can be purchased by calling 1-866-999-8111 or visiting the box office at 1350 N.W. Savier St.