Normand Latourelle dreams about horses. Such dreams are appropriate because Latourelle is the creator of the touring shows Cavalia and Odysseo, which, for lack of a better description, have been called "Cirque du Soleil with horses." As one of the original co-founders of Cirque, Latourelle doesn't much mind the comparison.
His dreams are fairly elaborate. One involves Pegasus, the mythological horse with wings — although in this dream it isn't the horse that flies but the spirit of the rider. The spirit is a girl in a diaphanous gown, hovering over the horse and rider like an angel.
Another dream features a jumping competition: horses versus humans, leaping over a bar, Olympics-style.
In yet another, Latourelle walks in a dark forest. He looks up and sees musicians in the trees: The forest is singing.
All these elements now appear in Latourelle's shows, which combine acrobatics and multimedia special effects with the equine arts. The flying girl became one act in Odysseo. The forest became the opening scene, with musicians in the trees standing on hidden platforms.
"I don't know where it comes from. It just pops into my head," Latourelle says. "I wake up in the morning and say, 'Let's try jumping. What can we do with jumping?' And then I work. I find a way to do it."
A few weeks before opening night in Burbank, Latourelle is walking through the stables at a private ranch in Simi Valley, where his horses are relaxing before the show.
Latourelle first became aware of the animals in the mid-1990s, shortly after leaving Cirque du Soleil. He had put together his own show in Canada, Legendes Fantastiques, in which he cast a horse as an extra.
Night after night, each time that horse took the stage, it stole focus from the human performer. "I say, 'Hmm. That's interesting,'" he remembers. " 'Who are they? What can they do?' I didn't know anything about horses."
He started to go to horse competitions, read horse books and watch horse videos. He bought six more horses for the show. He brought in acrobats, and a movie stuntman who'd specialized in horses, and designed a horse-specific act.
By then, he'd come to believe that horses are not only the most beautiful animals on earth but also the most spectacular. He knew he needed to do a show about horses. A spectacle. A show that was not merely a competition or rote demonstration of horse ability but an equine ballet.
Latourelle has been sourcing ideas from dreams since he was young enough to form memories, age 6 maybe, or earlier. He remembers dreaming of his neighbor's wood swing: not of sitting in it but of flying through and over it. It was a vaguely circuslike dream, prescient in retrospect, "that came back, that came back, that came back," he says. "It sounds crazy, a little bit, no?"
He is 57 now. These days, ideas arrive in the early morning, making themselves known in the hazy half-sleep before waking. Latourelle purposely does not write them down. If he remembers an idea the day after, it's a good one. If he forgets, it wasn't strong enough. Or it was too crazy.
"When you dream, it's not always realistic," he says. "But if the dream comes one, two, three, it means it's realistic."
He's always been a tinkerer. As a kid, whenever a toaster or radio broke, his father would hand it to him and say, "See what you can do." He'd take it apart, fix it up. "Though I was not the one who plugged it in. I would ask my brother. Ha!"
Initially, Latourelle wanted to be a doctor. "But at 11, first time I entered a hospital, I passed away. So, I changed my mind," he says, and laughs "ha-ha-ha" in his hearty baritone, each syllable distinct. He next wanted to be a politician but got thrown out of school — too rebellious.
Latourelle started putting together little shows. He learned sound and light design, and stage production and talent management, and became a jack-of-all-trades. And the shows got bigger.
"The way I conceive a show is like a big puzzle," he says. "A piece of this, a piece of that. And I don't really know what is the final picture. But when I put it all together, I discover the show."
While he begins, invariably, with "small ideas," Latourelle's small ideas are not like other people's small ideas. For example: "We gonna have four girls flying, and four riders are going to pull them. How do you do that? I don't know the finalité, but I think it's interesting."
People, unsurprisingly, are perpetually telling him that something is impossible — which is when Latourelle knows he's onto something. "Because no one's ever done it," he says. "Best ideas come from mistakes and when people are telling you something is impossible, impossible."
Take the pond. It first appeared in Cavalia. Latourelle lives on a farm in Sutton, Quebec, with gentle, rolling hills. When it rains, a delightful small pond forms. He wanted to reproduce the experience in his show. He imagined horses frolicking in the shallow water, along with acrobats and dancers and stilt walkers. But he didn't know if it could be done.
"It's very complicated. You need a surface of sand strong enough to support the horses. Flat enough to support the acrobats so they don't break their ankle. Deep enough so the stilters can do flips, but not too deep, and it has to let water in and out."
It took a year and a half of trucking in different kinds of sand and walking acrobats and horses over it to figure out a formula that worked. "And everybody was saying, you don't need it. The show is good enough. You don't need that little pond." But Latourelle persisted.
The pond is now a recurring feature in the show. They either truck the sand in with them or use local sand.
Of course, having created a small pond, Latourelle decided he really should have a big one. In fact, why not fill the whole stage? In Odysseo, the pond is now an 80,000-gallon lake. It floods the stage, and then it disappears, and its disappearance seems even more magical than its initial appearance.
Why go small when you can go big? Why go big when you can go mammoth? Latourelle loves "to push." At one point in Cavalia, nine horses free-run around onstage. No ropes, no bridles, no saddles.
"Nine is an achievement," Latourelle decided, "but how about having more?" He had 67 horses hanging around backstage in Odysseo. Why not send half of them up onstage?
The Odysseo act called "Liberty" begins with four, then eight, then six, then 16, then 32 Arabian horses — a whole herd — galloping in choreographed loops around the stage. It's transfixing.
"I don't make concessions to life," Latourelle says. "I don't compromise. I have to go to the end of my ideas, and whatever it costs, I do it."
Has he reached the end of his ideas yet? "I don't think so," he says. "Have I reached the end of my wallet? Yes."
Another big laugh.
Odysseo cost $30 million to produce. Just getting everyone and everything to Burbank cost $8 million. The entire show would seem to be a logistical impossibility. It is the biggest touring show in the world, with the biggest tent in the world, and the most sophisticated technical grid in the world, supporting 80 tons of equipment, including lights, speakers, three IMAX screens and a full-size merry-go-round that drops from the ceiling onto a stage as big as a football field.
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Latourelle taps on his cellphone and pulls up a video of the horses being loaded onto a Boeing 747. Odysseo's horses fly FedEx.
"In the past, I couldn't afford to do all my ideas," Latourelle says. "After doing Cavalia, all the money I earned, even my personal money, I put it back." He makes a shoving motion, as if to push a pile of poker chips into the middle of the table — he is "all in." He started poor. He doesn't care if he loses everything.
Ideas are always bubbling up from that unknowable place inside him. "I dream them all the time," he says. "The thing that is killing my ideas is my clock. When it is saying, 'OK, it's time to wake up'? Shit. I had more ideas, please shut up."