Now picture this: The dancer weighs 1,200 pounds -- not much less than a very small car -- and has hooves.
More specifically, the dancer is a horse -- a Lipizzan.
The Lipizzan is a living history lesson. He descends from the Andalusian -- an ancient breed used by Hannibal to defeat the Romans and ridden by William the Conqueror at Hastings -- that was guarded for centuries by the Spanish Moors, who crossed the prized animals with Arab and Oriental stock in an effort to maintain fleetness and agility.
Once Moorish rule of Spain ended, export of the strong, intelligent "Spanish horses" began. Stud farms sprang up around Europe, most notably one founded by the Austrian Hapsburgs around 1560 in the breed's namesake town of Lipizza, in what is now Slovenia. In addition to making judicious infusions of outside blood into the breed, the Austrians trained the stallions in high leaps and kicks designed to intimidate opponents and shield the horses' riders in battle.
Around the same time, what came to be known as the Spanish Riding School was founded in Vienna to preserve the art of equitation, or classical riding, and Lipizzan stallions took up residence there. Over the centuries, the breed has survived war and unrest -- the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars I and II (U.S. and Nazi officers actually worked together to save the breed from the advancing Russians, a feat dramatized in the Disney film Miracle of the White Stallions), the breakup of the Eastern bloc, the Bosnian civil war -- and has begun to flourish around the world. And for 30 years, producer Gary Lashinsky has been bringing the history lesson to American audiences.
Lashinsky -- who has also produced circuses, ice shows, Broadway plays and concerts by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and the Who -- says his interest was piqued when he attended a 1964 Spanish Riding School performance: "It seemed to me there was a big need for this type of performance, given the number of coliseums and arenas being built at the time. I went to Austria and bought horses and brought trainers back and put a show together, never expecting that it would keep going 30 years later." Though the Spanish Riding School staff was initially suspicious of the American promoter's intentions, he says, he won their trust by demonstrating devotion to the traditional ideals of the school: "At first they weren't keen on the idea, but they don't tour here (in the U.S.). They eventually realized we were doing a good job of bringing the history and the horses here, and now we have a reasonably good relationship with them."
The producer says his band of Lipizzans and Andalusians now numbers 27 (there are just 2,500 Lipizzans in the world, nearly all descended from just six foundation sires; the Andalusian is making a strong comeback after near-extinction). Fourteen of the horses, stallions, go on tour; the rest reside at Lashinsky's breeding operation in Florida. Lipizzaners, as they are known in Europe, are born black or bay (brown with black mane, tail and legs) but gradually turn their characteristic white-gray by age 10 (a few remain dark; in keeping with tradition, one such horse is always in residence at the Spanish Riding School).
It takes even longer for the horses to be trained in the maneuvers that have made them famous. The compact, long-lived animals -- many survive to be 30-35 years old -- don't start their training until age 4 (most American horses get started around age 2). Lashinsky says it takes six to eight years to train a Lipizzaner in the basics of classical dressage (this French word meaning "training" describes a regimen that supples and develops the horse's natural gaits and is embodied in nearly imperceptible communication between horse and rider through the use of rein and leg cues) and another six years to get a horse to the point of performing the breed's signature moves, the "airs above the ground."
The "airs" comprise four dramatic maneuvers that may be performed with a rider on the stallion's back or with the horse "in hand" -- that is, with a trainer standing next to and prompting the horse: In the levade, the horse rears up at a 45-degree angle to the ground, then holds the position in a test of balance and endurance. A horse performing the courbette rises on his hind legs and then jumps, landing again on his hind legs. And in the capriole, the horse pushes off from the ground with all fours and kicks powerfully with his hind legs (in a similar jump, the croupade, the horse tucks all four legs under his body while in the air). "Some of the horses show ability for the airs. There's always that special horse that's going to be a solo performer, that has presence," Lashinsky notes.
The riders also blend rigorous training with natural talent. "We audition young riders who have had 12-14 years' experience," Lashinsky says. "The average age is late 20s, early 30s -- a lot of "seat time.'" Even before joining Lashinsky's troupe, the producer says, these men and women are riding international-level dressage.
Lashinsky's Lipizzans and Andalusians perform other classical maneuvers as well. Among them are the piaffe, in which the horse (with or without rider) demonstrates an airy floating trot while remaining in place; the pirouette, in which the horse rears up on his hind legs, then pivots in a circle; and the quadrille, in which a group of horses and riders carries out a choreographed drill to music.
Lashinsky believes he has done justice to the Spanish Riding School with his production -- "We are showing proper dressage and emulating the school," he says -- and is justifiably proud of his graceful performers. "They're four-footed ballet dancers," he says. "You don't have to be a horse lover. It's a beautiful show."
The World Famous Lipizzaner Stallions World Tour stops at the Family Arena in St. Charles on Friday, Feb. 25. Call 534-1111 for tickets.