10/10/2001 11:00PM

Killer form - in the pirouette


ARCADIA, Calif. - Given the chance, most racing fans might enjoy a peek behind the looking glass and into the world of horses beyond the racetrack. To a place where Officer would appear awkward, where Lailani would be just another pretty face.

Cheval Theatre is that place. It was inspired by Gilles Ste-Croix, the man behind Cirque de Soleil, and embraces the most difficult disciplines linking horse and human. The show made its debut in Canada last May and descended upon Southern California last week, setting up shop beneath peaked tents in San Diego's Balboa Park. It was a reasonable ticket and an easy trip, and a very pleasant way to kill a weekday night. What was the alternative - "Rush Hour 2?" Again?

Prepare for sensory overload. The action is practically in your lap. The ring is 42 feet in diameter, with the audience seated all around. An exotically costumed cast of 20 - trainers, riders, acrobats, dancers - is led by a mysterious gypsy (Batraz Tsokolev) and the regal Caroline Williams, and features the four Zamperla Zoppe brothers - Olissio, Matt, Gino, and little Ermes, who gets my all-time vote as a game trooper for performing while suffering the obvious symptoms of a cold. Sniff, sniff, cough, vault!

The horses are individual gems. Their personalities emerge with each set piece. The massive Fanfan, a white Boulogne, seems the size of a Humvee as he circles counterclockwise at a steady lope, with performers hopping on and off his broad back like two-legged fleas. Little Chabo, the black miniature, is no taller than a collie, but he is the biggest thing in the ring as he circles and pirouettes, then strolls about on his hind legs. Romeo is a hunk, a Haflinger pony and star of the blanket vaulting, sporting a champagne mane and an obscene forelock that tickled the tip of his nose.

Everything was going along at a comfortable pace, with shifts in mood, music, costumes, and lighting, until suddenly there appeared four horses and four wild riders vaulting in and out of the saddle in classic Cossack style. The horses, leaning almost sideways at speed, had names like Rijy (an Alezan Quarter Horse), Vizar (a Horse of Don), and Karo (an Akhal Teke).

The riders, all Russian, had no fear.

Then Caroline Williams entered the ring, accompanied by six brawny bay Andalusians who perform as if joined at the hip, with no human contact. Williams issues voice commands by name: Tejador, Ortega, Guapo, Manchego, Valenciano, Chico. They parade nose to tail, spin on cue, pair up, rear as a team, and wave their front feet at the back rows. The discipline is called "liberty." I would call it "impossible."

Nothing, however, prepared me for the horse wearing castinets. Yes, castinets, strapped to the front ankles of the silver Andalusian named Giraldillo, and man did he make those babies rattle. Ridden by Stephane Simon, and adorned with a shimmering mane - "more than one metre long," proclaimed the program - Giraldillo could not stop his delirious prancing even when surrounded by other cast members circling at more languid gaits. Chabo could have fit in the backseat of my car, but it was Giraldillo I wanted to take home.

Among those in the audience was Dr. Joe Cannon, the noted veterinarian who runs the San Luis Rey Equine Clinic in Bonsall, Calif., just northeast of Del Mar. Cannon has been a private trainer, a racetrack practitioner, a farm vet, and a world-class ride-and-tie competitor, so there are few things a horse can do that astound him.

By Cheval Theatre, he was astounded.

"Wasn't that wonderful," he said, two days later. "I just can't imagine people doing those things with horses, and I've been with them all my life."

Compared with the horses of Cheval Theatre, training a Thoroughbred to race is pretty basic stuff.

"Racing is very simplistic," Cannon said. "They're asked to change leads, be controllable to the gate, and guidable during the race. Because this is at maximum effort, you wouldn't expect them to do anything different. But the amount of real training, and the relationship of the Thoroughbred to the trainer is at a pretty minimal level - especially when compared to what that woman did with those six horses, or dressage, which involves real teamwork."

And just like their brothers and sisters in racing, the horses of Cheval Theatre can get hurt. "They would be subject to cumulative stresses," Cannon noted. "That's what amazed me about those big horses, asking them to canter in that tight circle night after night. And those guys were fit and lithe, but some of them weighed 160 or 170 pounds, and to have them riding on their rump muscles, jumping up and down, on and off, that's got to be tough."

Still, the horses of Cheval Theatre appeared to revel in their work. Cannon agreed.

"Horses like a job," he said. "Especially if they're confined. They want to get out and do things, and they put a lot into it."

The proof is at the racetrack every day. Cheval Theatre is an intoxicating variation on the theme. Their San Diego show wraps up this weekend, then it is on to Las Vegas. Of course, they have a web site (chevaltheatre.com). But more importantly, they have a horse wearing castinets.