Sunday, March 07, 2010

....Local horse trainer traveling as circus performer....

By Fred Hiers
Staff writer

Published: Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 6:30 a.m.

Sylvia Zerbini can't remember a time when she wasn't on the road.

She calls Ocala home, but the ninth-generation circus performer seldom sees her 12-acre farm. The barns go unused, as do most of the home's appliances and furniture.

But the past week was an exception. The 42-year-old horse trainer has been able to sleep under her own roof. The circus she works for, Cavalia, has stopped in Marion County to give its 64 horses a rest between shows.

Zerbini is the product of an Algerian, animal trainer father and a French, world-class trapeze artist mother. The couple met when both worked at Mills Bros. Circus. Zerbini was born in Sarasota, but was in tow with the circus within a few months.

Zerbini began her career when she was 5, helping her father care for his animals, which included horses. At 10, she was performing on the trapeze with her mother.

Three decades later she works for what many describe as the most accomplished equestrian show on Earth: Cavalia.

Created by Cirque de Soleil co-founder Normand Latourelle, Cavalia bills itself as a multimedia equestrian performance, but includes acrobatics and aerialists of the caliber that made Cirque renowned.

It is the pinnacle of Zerbini's career.

The 11 minutes she and her 16 horses perform each show, twice on Saturdays, make the long hours of training and work worthwhile, she said.

For the past week, Cavalia's 64 horses have been resting at Peninsula Farm off U.S. 441 after their sold-out Miami shows. They will again perform in Tampa beginning Friday at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

"I've seen many shows, all kinds of shows, but when I saw Cavalia for the first time in 2004, it was the first show that made me sit back and forget everything else. It took me to a different place," Zerbini said. "From the production, to the horses to the acrobatics and the was just like no other show I had ever seen."

In 2006, Latourelle saw Zerbini's show in New York and asked her to join him on tour.

"This is exactly where I need to be. It's my life. It's all I know," Zerbini said at the Peninsula Farm while taking care of her horses.

Her 13 Arabian and three Spanish horses weigh as much as a ton, but the 120- pound, 5-foot-7 woman persuades her animals to bow, prance, pivot and follow her on stage using only a riding crop.

Zerbini is unique in that she uses mostly verbal commands and body language to guide her horses through their paces.

"The small riding crop is really just an extension of my arm," she said. "Sometimes I throw sand to get their attention...when they're distracted. Their reward is carrots backstage after the show."

When she was 11, her parents left her at home while they toured so she could decide whether she wanted the traveling circus life. Within a few weeks she was pleading to join them.

"I knew from a very young age what I wanted to do and that was to work with horses, but in a different way," she said. "I put all of my attention and love and focus on the horses."

Some of Zerbini's horses were animals former owners no longer wanted, complaining they were too difficult to work with.

The professionalism and creativity of Cavalia's performers pays off. The show has attracted 2.5 million spectators and mostly rave media reviews during its past six years. The show exhibits 12 breeds of horses from the Netherlands, France, Canada, Spain and the United States. Cavalia has performed throughout the United Staes and Europe.

The two-hour Cavalia show blends performances between horse, rider and trainer, but also adds the lavish pageantry of Cirque Du Soleil.

"I had the opportunity to bring Cirque du Soleil for the first time to Florida in 1989," said Latourelle, Cavalia founder and artistic director. "I am extremely proud to introduce a new type of show to Tampa over 20 years later. I hope that the people will embrace Cavalia's magic as much as they did two decades ago with Cirque."

The traveling company had to extend its Miami show nearly three weeks and nearly four weeks in Atlanta because of sold-out performances.

Zerbini is one of 35 artists, acrobats and riders performing under the 110-foot-high "White Big Top," which is one of eight Cavalia tents. The 26,264- square-foot tent seats 2,000 people and includes a 210-foot-wide screen for projections and special effects.

The horses have a crew of 20 people who care for them, including veterinary technicians and blacksmiths.

Zerbini said it takes a few months to a year for her horses to learn their tricks, based on the horse's nature and the difficulty of the maneuver they need to learn.

The show is attracting performers from around the world.

Marcel Dou, 30, was at the Peninsula Farm working on a new act but hasn't been hired on yet by the company.

Originally from Spain, the dancer - who also incorporates horses into his act - came to Ocala from New York.

"There are pluses and pluses and be working with Cavalia," he said. "Being around horses every day and working with them would be a dream and if they pay you to play with the horses, that's the best."

Meanwhile, Zerbini works an average of 11 hours a day with her horses. She enjoys the traveling and the new people she meets, but admits her life is mostly limited to the circus life and moves when it's time to pick up stakes.

"But I think for me that's good," she said, adding she enjoys the quiet time with her animals.

She comes home to Ocala maybe once every few months.

She doesn't know when she will retire or slow down.

She has performed throughout France, Mexico, Monte Carlo, Italy and the United States and with such venues as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"But when I think I have it down pat...the horses teach me something I didn't know," she said.

Regardless of where she works, Zerbini said she wants to keep teaching audiences about horses.

"At least making people aware of the mentality of the horse," she said, "and the different ways of listening to the horse."

..Fred Hiers..