Friday, November 19, 2010

Nature's Bounty

I may not be the kind of nature freak who likes to go spelunking, scuba diving, or hiking in the wilderness. But  I do love a good armchair adventure where I can sit comfortably while others work to bring me spine-tingling thrills and goose-bump inducing chills. As far as I'm concerned, climbing every mountain is something best left to Maria von Trapp and all those singing nuns.

Over the years I've become convinced that a fondness for documentaries, travelogues, and nature films has a lot to do with a person's innate sense of voyeurism. There is also, to be sure, the element of sheer laziness (not wanting to make the same effort that the filmmaker has invested in bringing his work to you). Becoming a willing audience can help a person to understand certain phenomena and overcome hidden fears without having to do the dirty work. Consider the following examples:
Each of the films listed above was inspirational, educational and, in its own way, unforgettable. Here's another one that should definitely be added to your list of movies to rent.

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Due to scheduling conflicts, I was unable to catch a screening of Oceans (whose April 22, 2010 release was timed to a celebration of Earth Day). Narrated by Pierce Brosnan, this French documentary by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud -- the same team that filmed 2001's Winged Migration -- is a feast for the eyes. As with their documentary about migrating birds, the filmmakers don't just concentrate on single animals.  They capture a school of spinner dolphins leaping into the air, armies of sea crabs crawling over their cameras, and a pack of humpback whales feeding on krill.

Even after watching the magnificent 2006 BBC documentary series entitled Planet Earth, Oceans delivers some genuinely surprising moments. Viewers will be astonished to watch a diver from the filmmaking team peacefully swimming alongside a great white shark. The scene in which a female walrus cuddles her calf in her flippers captures a jaw-dropping moment in mammalian intimacy.

Whether watching schools of jellyfish and yellowfin tuna, or a lone dugong, whale shark, or octopus, this film is a constant source of wonder enhanced by a mesmerizing score composed by Bruno Coulais. Be sure to watch the special features on the DVD that show how the filmmakers were able to get some of their strangest and most daring shots (one of these reveals some fascinating insights into the dominant pecking order among sharks). Here's the trailer:

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I first saw Cavalia in 2004, when it was being performed at Berkeley's Golden Gate Fields. Six years later, Normand Latourelle's magnificent horse spectacle has returned to San Francisco in a much larger production.

While most reviewers are quick to cite the statistics of Cavalia's White Big Top, it's what's inside that counts. The show employs a 200-foot-wide screen upon which Erick Villeneuve's beautiful projections transport the audience from one season to another, through forests and glens to ancient archways reminiscent of the gladiator era.

Photo by: Frédéric Chéhu

With a cast of 35 singers, dancers, acrobats, and equestrians from Canada, the United States, France, Morocco, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Australia, Cavalia follows in the tradition of Cirque du Soleil (which was co-founded by Latourelle). With a score composed by Michel Cusson, Cavalia's musicians follow the Cirque du Soleil format with vocals by Mary Pier Guilbault and a small band of musicians led by Sylvain Gagnon. Unlike Cirque's usual shows, however, Cavalia begins with two horses and a cellist (Olivier Caron).

Instead of Cirque's round performing areas, Cavalia employs a stage that is 160 feet wide (the length of a football field) with the audience no more than 50 feet from the stage. Marc Labelle's set design gives the horses three main areas in which to strut their stuff. The costume designs by Manon Desmarais and Mireille Vachon invoke many images of fairy tale princes, medieval horsemen, and rodeo stunts from Wild West shows.

Photo by: Frédéric Chéhu

And what of the horses?  The show boasts 50 horses representing 10 breeds  (10 pure Spanish breeds, 15 quarter horses, 12 Arabians, four Lusitanos, two paint horses, two Percherons, two Mustangs, one handsomely braided Comtois, one Criollo, and one Warmblood). The show's horses annually consume 17,500 bales of hay, 36,500 pounds of grain, and 1,750 pounds of carrots.

Photo by: Frédéric Chéhu

While the statistics related to Cavalia can be fascinating, the real source of wonder is the show's artistic vision and dramatic integrity. Horses never come under the sting of a whip. In one act, they perform wonders simply by responding to visual and oral prompts from Sylvia Zerbini (click here to watch a slide show of her at work). With the aerialists that have been added to Cavalia, the show has become a class act from start to finish. Here's a lovely news segment done about the show when Cavalia was on the East Coast:

Few shows can match Cavalia's charm, spectacle, or sheer animal magnetism. You can order tickets here.

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