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Horse Plié 

The splendor of Le Carrousel du Roi, an exacting re-enactment of a 17th-century equestrian ballet, and the squalor of the crowd

Wednesday, Jun 12 2002
"I've been waiting two years for this!" squawks a woman in a straw sun hat. Then, assuming a tone of near-imperial entitlement, she levels a stern eye at the helpless young usher squirming before her and asks, "Haven't you anything remotely helpful to say?" Scarcely two minutes later, a large shuttle bus pulls up in front of Zellerbach Hall (a replacement for the earlier coach, inert because of a dead battery), and the usher takes a deep trembling breath. As we board she tears our tickets and smiles weakly as if to say: Such are the hazards of my station. With only 15 minutes lost, the fresh shuttle whisks us out of Berkeley, down Highway 24, and toward Walnut Creek, where the pageantry of Le Carrousel du Roi awaits.

Le Carrousel is the central performance of the 2002 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, a biennial celebration of early music that includes competitions, concerts, lectures, and fetes for such explicit enthusiasts as the American Recorder Society, the Western Early Keyboard Association, and the Viola da Gamba Society. Le Carrousel du Roi is a precise re-creation of a 17th-century musical-equestrian spectacle, originally choreographed by Antoine de Pluvinel for the marriage of Louis XIII to Anne of Austria, princess of Spain. Its first performance in Paris drew 200,000 people and included lions, elephants, and erupting volcanoes, but the central point of interest for the court was the dressage "ballet," an equine performance using a style of horse riding and training that was born in the cavalry and adopted by the nobility for its precision, elegance, and grace.

The Berkeley Festival and Exhibition clearly had not planned for royal wedding-size crowds during the 2000 presentation of Le Carrousel, seriously underestimating public interest and leaving a great number of early-music fans ticketless and frothing at the mouth.

"You have no idea how difficult it was to get tickets last time," sniffs our straw-hat damoiselle as the other patrons fall into excited conversations about their love of horses, Paris, music, and warm weather.

The suburban enclave at Heather Farms Park, completely lacking in shade trees, carriages, and brightly colored pavilions with full tea service, seems an infertile setting for equestrian pomp and ceremony, but the assembled crowd of Panama hats and khaki shorts settles happily on aluminum bleachers, grateful for a sweet breeze from the west. The Orchestra of the Renaissance -- bagpipes, shawm, recorder, sackbut, trumpet, cornet, and percussion -- opens, under the direction of Richard Cheetham, with the music composed by Robert Ballard in 1612. Six "knights" enter the arena, resplendent in gold embroidery and great plumed hats, circling the field in pairs, each astride a velvety horse whose every step precisely matches that of its companions. The knights divide into two factions: the Company of the Happy Lover, denoted by a standard of a heart ringed by suns, and the Company of the Unhappy Lover, denoted by a similar heart ringed with bees.

Two opposing knights charge at each other, swinging wooden staffs. They miss and turn, taking another high-speed pass. They turn again, this time approaching slowly, until the horses are eye to eye, with their forelocks firmly pressed together in a sort of equine stare-down. The crowd roars. The six horses glide in serpentine loops and figure-eights across the arena, finally forming a tight line that rotates 360 degrees from a nearly stationary center, a move that is pleasing enough when the Rockettes perform it, but utterly thrilling when the dancers are horses.

Next are the damoiselles, four lovely ladies in flowing gowns and ribboned hats astride Haflinger ponies. They perform canter pirouettes, a rhythmic three-beat movement in which a pony crouches on its haunches and, while galloping almost on the spot, turns in a full circle; half passes, a lateral movement in which the pony crosses his legs in a trot and travels sideways; and more intricate tricks of hoof that, as a horse neophyte, I have difficulty detecting among the pony movement. But the same steps performed by the Arabians -- shimmering, noble, fine-boned beasts -- are impossible to overlook.

During the third dance, "Foray of the Turks," I begin to fathom the intricacy and power of the unseen commands from rider to horse, and I start to acclimate to the refined beauty of dressage -- the extended trot, a lengthened stride that gives the illusion of flight; flying changes, jubilant midair switches of leg position that are the equivalent of horse-skipping; the piaffe, a cadenced trot that makes the horse seem to dance in place; and the passage, an elevated trot with prolonged suspension that makes hooves appear to be floating on cushions of air.

After a teeth-clenching performance by the Tumblers of the Stables, five young girls from D.G. Bar Ranch who perform courageous gymnastic feats (and falls) on the back of a trotting draft horse, the second act opens with three beautiful songs sung in French by the Trojan Venus amidst an enormous azure skirt covered in silver stars and held in a circle by six golden jesters. Then the four Knights of Lily enter the arena with their squires, also on horseback, with golden helmets and fluttering standards. The squires' pale mounts snake between the knights, who sit on darker steeds; the horses skip and prance and dance in time with the historical music, performing intricate quadrilles, moving in circles and diagonal sweeps, appearing to glide across the ground, their great legs rippling with supple elasticity. In the end, the orchestra receives a standing ovation, and the horses receive carrot bouquets for their artistry, harmony, and dignified submission.

As the shorts and sun hats swarm down the stairs, clamoring to be first seated on the first bus (handicapped loading be damned), I can't help but feel the loss of courtly splendor. Choreographers, musicians, and costume designers strive to immerse us in the nuances of art history, while we -- at least, too many of us -- behave as if we're on the way to a beer bust.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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