A Considerable Town

How Normand Latourelle Turned His Bizarre Dreams About Horses Into a $30 Million Spectacle

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Thu, Mar 7, 2013 at 6:30 AM
click to enlarge Prancing through the 80,000-gallon lake
  • Prancing through the 80,000-gallon lake

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?"

click to enlarge Odysseo
  • Odysseo

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."

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