It was an amazing mix: Portuguese horsemanship, Opera, Modern and Traditional Thai Dance, in the perfect setting of the gardens of Horseshoe Point in Thailand. Sit back and enjoy…
Let’s face it, when it comes to circus and spectacles, I’m hooked. I love horses as entertainment, all the way from the grand spectacles of Versailles to the little troupes of five or six artistes with their couple of horses that travel the backblocks of Europe (or for that matter, Australia) – as long as the work is honest, I’ll be having a wonderful time. And I’ve seen a fair proportion of the world’s best in action: Knie, Vienna, Bartabas, the Royal Schools of Jerez and Lisbon, Alexis Grüss…
But nothing – absolutely nothing – prepared me for the wonders of Passionata – Thai style, at the Horseshoe Resort, south of Bangkok. I knew that there was a Thai family who had studied the Portuguese Art of Riding, and that they put on a display of Baroque riding in their School which is attached to a resort based around the theme of the Lusitano Horse. I was looking forward to seeing them in action, but what I got, was to sit in on a World Premiere of one of the World’s great equestrian shows: Passionata, Thai style.
For this very special occasion the performance was put together by Ana Luisa Valença (better known as ‘Bi’) and her bullfighter husband, Mario Miguel da Silva, two Portuguese riders fresh from starring at the 2007 World Cup Final in Las Vegas. The Valença family, headed by Luis Valença have supplied acts for the European touring equestrian spectacular, Apassionata, since it started in 2002. For this very special show in Thailand, they added to their Portuguese skills, Asian elements, with the added bonus of having the use of ten horses owned by the Indonesian, General Prabowo Subianto. His horses are temporarily based at Horseshoe Point while on their way to their eventual home in Indonesia which is yet to be completed. For the show, they were joined by Bi’s sister, Sophie, and five students from their family’s equestrian centre, the Centro Equestre da Leziria Grande in Portugal.
The association between the Valença family and the Thai resort goes back 25 years, to the days when the twin founders of Horseshoe Point, Chaikiri and Chainarin Srifuengfung were riding with the man the Portuguese call The Master – Mehtre Nuno Oliveira. Luis Valença had studied with Nuno, and at the time his eleven-year-old daughter was the lead rider in Oliveira’s school. The brothers got to know the Valença family, and when Nuno died, they turned to them for help in buying and training horses.
In November 2000, Luis Valença was appointed technical director at the newly opened Horseshoe Point, and since then his daughter and son-in-law have been regular visitors. Indeed some of the horses the Valenças have sold to Chaikiri and Chainarin first appeared with the family in Europe in the Apassionata shows.
The first thing Bi and her troupe did when they set about making Passionata – Thai style – was to take the show out of the very wonderful riding hall, and set it in the Three Kingdoms Park, just a couple of hundred metres away.
Here was a physical setting like no other in the world. Here was a space to work some serious magic, and the lighting and sound crew that put together the show, are simply geniuses.
The great shows in Europe are the product of months of work, preparing the horses, perfecting the routines – what I saw was a dress rehearsal put on by a group of riders and backstage staff, that had less than a week to get their act together!
The dress rehearsal was a very special occasion, staged just five days after the 80th birthday of Thailand’s revered and loved Monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The performance not only honoured the King, but it was a birthday celebration for the guest of honour, Thailand’s Royal Princess Bajrakittiyabha. It didn’t help first night nerves when the Princess was delayed a couple of hours and the riders and crew had to bide their time, chew their nails and nervously quaff their Singha beers.
When the show started it was spectacular, but conventional enough. Chaikiri and Chainarin Srifuengfung, the twin founders of Horseshoe Point, are fit looking riders in their middle years – beautifully turned out in Baroque costume, they performed a stately pas des deux on a pair of ever so sweetly rideable grey Lusitanos, bred on the property. I don’t know about the riders, but the stallions were certainly a bit nervous to be out of their customary riding hall, but they were brave and kind. The brothers Srifuengfung, in a voice over, welcomed us all, paid tribute to the guest of honour, and celebrated the reign and life of the King – then everything started to explode into a riot of colour, of sound, of amazing choreography and sensational horsework.
There’s some great action on the screen of Lusitano horses before we cut to one of the stars, the Singaporean musician, Samuel Wong Shengmiao playing the Pipa, a sort of a Chinese lute but much more complicated, he is joined by another local, Sirilak Songklib – she has danced all over the world and is currently the Director and Choreographer at Thailand’s New Dance Theatre. She spins, she leaps and spins and spins and spins and spins, she is joined by three grey Lusitanos, they run free, tentatively join her, and run wild again – the music is sensational.
The stage is black, a pair of horses, lit from nose to tail by a strip of lights, their feet are lighted too: all else is black. I’ve seen Joao Oliveira (with Bi) do this act at the 2005 World Cup Final in Vegas – but this is just as good, this is horse work of the highest order. One times changes, pirouettes, piaffe and passage.
A dancer – Imma Martinez – enters and lights a fire, two riders enter with long torches, the torches are ablaze, the riders joined in a fiery pas des deux. I’ve never seen horses working with fire like this. The horses leave and are replaced by two local fire dancers, twirling sticks lighted at each end, they end the act – literally – breathing fire.
The next act they call: The Memoir of Childhood. A young woman sits in the middle of a set of streamers, dreaming of riding a horse, her horse. She is joined by six riders, three male, three female. Four of them take the four long ribbons, circling the girl, pirouetting through their streamers. Enter one rider who made her dream come true, silver medallist at the Kuala Lumpur Asian Games, Khun Chanya Srifuengfung – daughter of Chaikiri – riding her grey Lusitano, Hexagono, side-saddle. She truly is the Princess of the Carousel. And she has been joined by the Portuguese opera singer, Filipa Lopes.
The voice is so startlingly perfect that at first I think she must be miming, but no, it’s real, achingly real. She sings with the Portuguese National Opera. The Aria is from La Wally. The grey performs a magnificent levade right on the high note… this is not finding equestrian art in the circus, but finding the circus in equestrian art!
Enter Bi, the theme is Pegasus, she is riding with no hands, the horse work elegantly subtle, Filipa is on stilts now, that voice still achingly beautiful, the great aria, Regnava nel silenzio from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammemour… in the end, Ana Luisa halts, and closes her giant wings over the horse’s head. He stands like a rock.
Now for some of the most sensational work of the show: the bullfight scene. The ‘bull’ is Thai contemporary choreographer and dancer, Puttillak Songklib, and a very athletic and fearsome Torro he is, but it doesn’t worry Mario Miguel’s brave bay, Margaço. It’s a great way of showing off the skills of the bullfighter, without offending the delicate sensibilities of the audience.
Time for some more wonderful opera, Una voice poco fa from Rossini’s Barber of Seville – the voice is still perfect, and the horse work, super. This time we add the courbette to some super piaffe, Spanish walk, and levade.The local pair return, the Pipa player Samuel Wong Shengmiao and the contemporary dancer, Sirilak Songklib who is really making things tough for herself – dancing on STILTS. Suddenly the water in front of the Pagoda lights up, and the Alter Real, Laçarote is working his way up and down the strip of water, the dancer throwing herself into the water, a swirling wraith, the Pipa is frantic, the dancer swings up behind the rider, and they dash off. The dancer had never even touched a horse when she arrived a few days ago!
A carousel, another elegant and artistic quadrille. Four lady riders, so beautifully attired, the horse work perfectly matching the music, once again we marvel at the grace and the extraordinary temperament of these Iberic horses…
And really no show from the Iberian Peninsula would be complete without its Carmen and this Carmen – played by Imma Martinez – is wickedly seductive, or is that seductively wicked? Certainly poor old Don José – alias Mario Miguel – is thoroughly hooked and he keeps pirouetting on Luxo, under the dancer’s long Spanish scarf. This Bi and Mario tell me later, was one of the toughest things to get right, at first the stallion was just freaked out by the scarf. So they fed him in it, groomed him with it, and finally it all comes right on the night – and he handled his next act, which looks much much scarier, with relative ease, up a ramp and onto a somewhat grander than usual, Grand Piano. Piaffing, Carmen singing, kicking her long skirt around her in that distinctive way of the Flamenco dancer, clapping, wild syncopated Spanish clapping, horse and woman dancing – Mario drops the reins, and steps into the arms of Imma. The horse stands, wondering what the fuss is about as the audience roars its approval.
The night ends with a tribute to the King of Thailand, but it has been more than that. A tribute to the Lusitano breed, a tribute to the Valença family, and a tribute to the passion, the dream of the brothers, Chaikiri and Chainarin Srifuengfung. We salute you all and thank you for sharing your dream with us…