On a Carousel 

Pageantry and precision in a 17th-century French equestrian ballet.

Creeky Rouston looks most at home on a horse. Her back is board-straight. Her sand-colored hair hangs like a horse tail from her head. And despite the fact that she is middle-aged, her expressionless face still stares out above black boots, jeans, and T-shirt with the rugged will of a young girl who got what she wanted -- horses -- and intends never to let go.

Rouston began riding at five when Walnut Creek was still a long run of walnut orchards. Now she is a master and high-ranking judge of dressage as well as coproducer of a freestyle dressage festival called Wild Rides. This weekend she reprises one of the most boundary-breaking dance events of recent years, a reconstructed 17th-century horse ballet called "Le Carrousel du Roi," or "The King's Procession." Her collaborators are singer, songwriter, horsewoman, and Wild Rides partner Teresa Trull, and UC Berkeley musicologist Kate van Orden.

The historic pageant, which lures ranch women with Dolly Parton hair in addition to Francophiles and early-music buffs, was first trotted out by Cal Performances two years ago as part of the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition of early music. It almost never made it into the saddle. "This whole thing started as a comedy of errors," Rouston said by phone last week. Van Orden wanted Rouston to recreate the ballet from notes she discovered while doing academic research in France. But when van Orden phoned, Rouston was unimpressed. "She called me and said, 'Well, we want to do a carousel with the early-music department in Berkeley.' And I said, 'Well, that's nice, and I'll help, but I'm not really interested.' "

Van Orden called again. The two went back and forth, Rouston thinking van Orden wanted to mount a small circus, van Orden perplexed why Rouston was reluctant to undertake a carousel. Finally, around the sixth phone call, Rouston recalls, van Orden blurted: "Well, it's this ride by Antoine de Pluvinel." The fog vanished. " 'Oh! You're talking about dressage! Of course I'm interested. I'll research it and we'll get together.' " Months later, Rouston and Trull, thanks to van Orden's translations, turned the notations into equestrian steps and geometric patterns.

Not all the movements set out by de Pluvinel -- head of France's military academy at the time -- are possible on today's dressage horses; after four hundred years, the animals are bred differently. Nevertheless, the choreography is based on enduring principles of dressage, which evolved to allow swift action in battle, the way certain dance steps made for agile sword fighting. But rather than ballerinas in pairs leaping across the stage in complex patterns, we'll see gorgeous Haflinger ponies, Dutch Warmbloods, and Arabian horses in full regalia with 21 expert women riders, performing an array of equine hops, skips, leaps, and tempo changes in formation.

Last performed in 1612 as part of the engagement celebrations of the ten-year-old Louis XIII to the Spanish Princess, Anne of Austria, le Carrousel allowed France to flaunt its wealth and military finesse. Cal Performances gets to flaunt its inventiveness. The Orchestra of the Renaissance with its sackbuts and shawms, bagpipes and trumpets, will accompany the ballet in Walnut Creek's suburban Heather Farms Park (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 4 p.m.; 510-642-9988). The rest, as they say, is history.


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