Behind the Scenes of Apassionata

June 1, 2012

How the horse extravaganza Apassionata is traveling across North America.

by Karen Braschayko

Have you ever gone to a major production involving horses and wondered how they do it? How do the horses go from city to city? Where do they stay, and how do they provide them with care to keep them healthy? How does the crew aid them in performing at their best while keeping them happy during many months of travel?

Speaking with those behind the scenes at “Apassionata: The Beginning,” I learned that it’s a massive undertaking with intricate logistics and a lot of concern for the stars of the show — the horses.

horse stands on piano while performing in Apassionata

Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

Already Europe’s most popular live arena show for over ten years, selling over five million tickets, Apassionata has crossed the Atlantic. Apassionata began its North American journey in Louisville, Kentucky, and will be making its way across the U.S. and Canada on an 18-month, 66-city tour.

Exotic horse breeds, legendary performers and Broadway expertise combine to create an exhibition of pageantry and musical entertainment, as well as showcasing excellent horsemanship and celebrating the bond between horse and rider. Apassionata is not just for horse lovers. It's a theatrical event that attracts a wide audience.

Five equipes, or riding teams, perform in the 90-minute, high-energy show. From the stunts of the Daredevils to Quadrille, Garrocha and liberty dressage, Apassionata unites fine riding with thrilling family entertainment. A peek at the video trailer reveals brilliant lighting, talented athleticism, spectacular costumes, endearing humor, horses jumping over fire and Icelandics with sparklers.

horses jump over fire while performing in Apassionata

Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

So how did this amazing production cross the ocean, and how will 45 horses, 100 cast and crew, nine trailers of equipment and an 80-foot projection screen travel across many states and provinces? Years of planning, said Tanya Grubich, producer of the show in North America. Nadja Tschersig, production coordinator in Berlin and in North America, added details about the care the show provides for horses.

A New Kind of Equestrian Entertainment

Peter Massine created Apassionata in 2001. He had an extensive background in theater and bringing Broadway musicals to Europe. He envisioned a new kind of equine performance that would wed horsemanship with exhilarating entertainment, and he began seeking out the top equestrian performers in Europe. Massine wanted to showcase the wide range of the relationship between horses and humans. He had grown up in Northern Germany, where people still relied on the help of horses, and he wanted to celebrate the connection he saw there.

Grubich has more than 25 years experience in Broadway and live entertainment, and she explained that Apassionata has a production caliber unprecedented for an equestrian show in North America.

“I would say we have not seen anything like this before,” Grubich said. “This has been working for 10 years in Europe. They do a new show every year, which is what’s great, because you can come back every year. It’s the number one show in Europe, which for a family show is pretty amazing, that they sell over 500,000 tickets a year.”

horses performing in Apassionata

Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

Massine and Grubich had worked together on touring Broadway shows such as “Crazy for You” and remained friends for many years. Five years ago, he began texting Grubich photos of Apassionata and sending DVDs. It was his dream to bring the show to America, and he wanted her help. Grubich was running a live entertainment company in Los Angeles, and she decided to try something new. She left her company to become a business partner with Massine and bring Apassionata to the U.S.

“The way that the U.S. market sees shows is different from the traditional in Germany, and in Europe,” said Grubich. “It’s a different sensibility. So that’s where my team came in. All of us on the team are very experienced in what we do, 20 years plus in all areas. It’s just been a great team. We work together really well. It’s been a pleasure, actually.”

Grubich and Massine needed to modify the show in order to succeed on a different continent with a different audience. This process took three years.

“It’s a very complicated thing to do with horses,” Grubich explained. “You have 45 horses and they’re coming from all over Europe, and six different languages, and many different acts that they hire. There are 13 different breeds. We have five teams, and those teams do different things. It’s really quite an amazing feat that we could figure out how to get across America with 45 horses. Part of that was looking at a new system completely. Their team came over and spent time with us, and we went to Berlin. We all got to know what they do, what do we do, the differences, and what do we have to do to make this work here.”

Grubich assembled a veteran creative team, bringing in Tony Award-winning experts from Broadway for lighting, costumes and choreography. She asked Scott Faris of “Chicago” and “Siegfried & Roy” to direct.



Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

So far, it looks like the Apassionata team has done a great job adapting the show to American tastes.

“The audience in Louisville has given us standing ovations every night,” said Grubich. “Like yelling, screaming, standing ovations. It’s pretty cool. You never know how people are going to react to it, but it was everything we’d sought and more.”

Broadway, but with Horses

For Grubich, producing a show starring horses has been a learning experience. She explained that a production involving equines is much different than one with only human performers.

“It’s wildly different. Wildly,” said Grubich. “When you have live animals, it changes everything. It’s all about that. It’s just really fascinating. The horses are very fun, and it’s an enormous thing to figure it out and to watch it happen. I would never have thought you can only take horses so far, and they can only do so many performances, which is why we do weekends.”

Grubich found it interesting that the horses can tell when they can get away with misbehaving a little.

“When we’re rehearsing, they know they’re not going to be corrected by the rider because the music is on. So they think it’s a show and they can sort of fool around,” she said.

horses perform in Apassionata

Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

During setup, human performers can wait for 10 hours, but with horses, long delays aren’t possible and careful planning is the key. Any new equipment, lights or alterations in the set require a session to acclimatize.

“For the first day in Louisville, we just brought the horses in and got them used to what was there,” said Grubich. “Then we showed the lights to them, just so they knew there were lights and what the colors were. That was it. So then the next day they knew what they were doing, and they worked with their trainers. It’s a slow process because if you change something in the arena, they notice it, like the colors, or the lights, or anything. You have to get them used to it. If they come out into the arena and see something that’s unusual, they get weirded out. It’s really funny. Even something like changing the color of linens on the VIP tables. Everything needs to be comfortable for them.””

Grubich has enjoyed seeing how much horses relish their performing jobs.

“They like to be with their owners,” she said. “They like to do tricks. They love the response from the audience, and they love performing. It’s really quite amazing. They perk up when people are clapping and yelling, and they love it.”

Caring for the Equine Stars

Apassionata is dedicated to both showcasing horses and taking excellent care of them.

Apassionata is unique in the variety of breeds involved in the performance. The show will bring 45 horses on the tour, including 13 breeds, some rarely seen in North America. From an Azteca to a Breton draft horse, several types of Arabs, Icelandics, Friesians, a Lusitano, Pura Raza Espanolas, Miniatures and a donkey, the show includes a diversity horse lovers will appreciate.

One team, Gudmar Petursson’s Knights of Iceland,” was added in the U.S., but the other teams traveled from Portugal, France, England and other parts of Europe.

Gudmar Petursson's Knights of Iceland perform in Apassionata

Gudmar Petursson's Knights of Iceland perform. Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

“We flew three different planes with the horses, 747s,” said Grubich. “They gave the owners a key to go down and check on their horses.”

Apassionata is planning to keep the horses in North America for the entire 18-month tour and has planned for their comfort in every way. The horses will be traveling in brand new trailers provided by the same premium equine trucking service throughout the tour.

“We love the American tractor trailers,” said Tschersig. “They are huge, and they are very comfortable for the horses. It’s great to travel with these trucks, which are specially designed for horses for long trips.”

Grubich explained that just like wherever the horses are staying, buddies are kept together during travel.

“They’re always in the same place, in the same stalls on the truck,” she said. “Even with the temporary stalls — they are always in the same stall, and they are always next to the same horse. So they’re comfortable. They know this is their place. They’re the essence, the most important thing in the show. We make sure that the horses are well taken care of and have a good life and enjoy it.”

At the venues, horses reside in portable stalls that travel with the show. Occasionally, a venue will have space for the temporary stable inside or in an exhibition hall next door, but often the show uses their stable tent in a parking lot near the backstage door.

“One of the first things we have to check, before we book a venue, is what can we do with the horses? Where will they be?” said Grubich. “We bring our own stabling, and we set that up. Then the horses come later and go right in.”

Daredevil team performs in Apassionata

Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

Building a safe arena surface at each venue is a top priority for the show, so that the horses and their riders will be safe. Fastidious care goes into choosing the five truckloads of sand and maintaining its integrity throughout the performance.

“Sand is very, very important,” said Tschersig. “We have some teams in the show where the horses run at a very high speed. For the trick riding team, it’s extremely important that they have the right sand under their hooves so that they don’t slide and so that nothing will happen to them. You won’t find the same sand in all the geographical areas, so we pick the sand in advance. We prepare the sand exactly like we need it in each individual city. So it’s a lot of logistics for the sand, and there’s a lot of work behind it. But it’s absolutely worth it because it’s one of the key parts of the equipment of the show.”

Stabling with the Hub System

Apassionata needed an innovative strategy to move the show across the U.S. and Canada. In Europe, distances between cities are much shorter, so the horses can return to the home stable in Germany. Bringing the tour across North America meant creating an entirely new method of logistics.

“I have been traveling with Apassionata in Europe for six years,” said Tschersig. “It is different, definitely, just because the country is much bigger than we tour in Europe. So in the United States, we had to create a whole new system to make these distances able to travel with horses. Traveling with animals is of course totally different than just traveling with equipment, so it was a challenge.”

Tschersig and her team created a hub system to make the long distances doable for the horses. It took a year and half to set up. Tschersig and a colleague traveled around the U.S. for two months, driving from stable to stable finding suitable temporary homes for the horses.

“We traveled through the whole country looking at hundreds of stables to find out where we could place the horses,” she said. “There are a lot of riding centers, but it’s not so easy to find a place where you can stall 45 horses for several weeks. But we found a lot of nice places, and we’re quite happy with that system. In the whole country, we picked eight different stables that serve as hubs for us. These stables give us the possibility to train the horses. All of these stables have indoor arenas, and they have the options that we need. The horses stay there within the week, from Monday to Thursday. On the weekends we play our shows around that hub. Then we travel to the next hub, and carry on with the same system there.”

Trick riding in Apassionata

Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

Providing a home base is key to keeping the horses and their riders in good shape.

“It is very important that you get the horses, and also the riders of course, something like a home for two months or four months, depending on how many markets are around that stable,” Tschersig said. “Just like humans, the horses like to know their neighbors and like to know where they are going.”

“So right now our horses are out running around and being horses and resting and relaxing. There may be a little training out there, but generally it’s their downtime,” said Grubich. “They go home to the farm, and then they go back the next weekend to the next venue.”

Using hub stables also helps Apassionata to provide consistent provisions for the horses.

“We get everything delivered there, the feed and the hay, wood shavings, etc., all the supplies that you need for the horses,” Tschersig said. “The consistency of feed — it has to be kept the same. In the whole country you have different sources of hay and feed and grain everywhere. We don’t want our horses to have too many changes. That’s not so good for their health. So we keep them on the same feed all the time, and that’s delivered to where we are. With the hub system, we can always make sure that they get what they need from the same resource.”

Keeping the Horses and Performers Together

Apassionata is exceptional in allowing the performer to remain in charge of his or her horses. The show hires each act as a team and keeps them together.

“This is something that’s really special about Apassionata — it’s the very close relationship between the rider and horse,” said Tschersig. “We let them travel together, and of course our riders really are connected to their horses. They groom the horses themselves. They are with them every day. They treat them, and it’s really nice to see that.”

Sylvie Willms performs in Apassionata

Sylvie Willms performs. Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

Apassionata supports the owners by providing resources, but allowing them to make decisions about what is best for their horses.

“Nobody can better tell than the rider, who is with the horse every day, what’s right for that horse,” said Tschersig. “As managers, we couldn’t tell what is the best for your horse. That’s the way we work with them, so that everybody decides about his horse and takes care of him. We provide them with shelter, food, hay, whatever they need. The farrier comes out, doctors, we provide that, but it is all determined by the riders. They take care of it themselves, just like they would at their own farm.”

A veterinarian travels with the show. The show vet can keep track of the substantial paperwork it takes to travel with horses, be available in case any equines need care, and, if needed, guide the owner to specialized local resources.

“We have one tour vet who supervises the horses,” said Tschersig. “He knows the history of every horse and what’s going on with them. Anytime a horse has a problem we go call him, and then we work together with local vets who can connect with our tour vet and react very quickly.”

Apassionata

Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

Tending the Apassionata Crew

Tour veterans know how frustrating it can be if you don’t have days off and get to enjoy the locales you’re passing through. Apassionata has designed their tour to not only be comfortable for the horses but for the cast and crew as well.

Performers live in efficiencies around the hub stables so life can be as normal as possible while they stay near their horses.

“When we are in show cities, they live in hotels just like the crew, but when they come back to the hub they have little apartments so that they have their little kitchen and laundry," said Tschersig. "They can live like at home. They can train their horses in a very relaxed way, so they are in good condition for the next weekend. Besides that they have time to see whatever is around the stable, to go to the next city and do some sightseeing, do some shopping. So they have their home base there, and they can do whatever they want to do with their free time.”

Apassionata

Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

While the performers are with their horses at the hub stables, the production crew travels directly to a hotel in the next city and prepares the arena. But everyone, including the horses, has days off each week so they can rest and relax between shows.

“If you are on tour for that long time, it’s very important,” said Tschersig. “You wouldn’t be able to do a tour like this and with that many shows and over that long period if you don’t have time to relax in between.”

Working with performers speaking different native languages, clear communication is another factor for the Apassionata crew.

“We have about 25 riders, and only two people who are really from the United States,” said Tschersig. “They are mainly European. It’s always a language mix. It’s very funny to see people speaking with each other. There’s always translation in between Portugese and French and German and English, and it’s always a mixture of all languages. After a while they develop something like our own Apassionata language. So we speak a lot with hands. It’s fun.”

riders perform in Apassionata

Photo courtesy of Apassionata.

Members of the German crew came to Louisville to help the show make its North American debut. Key positions like the horse choreographer, the music director and the backstage manager traveled over to support the U.S. production crew and make sure everything started smoothly.

“We are working with people who come from rock and roll tours or Broadway, so their background is theatrical and stage related but not so much for horses,” explained Tschersig. “Some of them have a horse background, but of course when you’re working with a new stage manager you have to show them how it works with the horses. It’s so special to work with horses.”

Tschersig explained that while it may be new to some, their introduction to the horse world is something the U.S production crew is truly enjoying.

“They are all completely excited,” she said. “They love the horses. It’s something that they’ve never done in their lives before, so they’re really excited. Everybody is so much looking forward to getting this tour on the road, and we’re just on the beginning. It’ll be a fun time I think.”


How you can go: Apassionata is launching its trek across North America. Check the website at www.apassionata.com/usa/ to see when the show will be near you and learn more about the horses and performers. New dates are being added.

Karen Braschayko is a freelance writer and horse lover who lives in Michigan.
 

Topics: Apassionata, Arab, Arabian, Arabians, Arabs, Azteca, behind the scenes, Berlin, Breton, Breton draft horse, Broadway, Canada, Daredevils, dinner theater, donkey, donkeys, draft horse, dressage, England, equestrian arts, equestrian performances, equestrian theater, equine performances, equine theater, equipes, Europe, footing, France, Friesians, Garrocha, Germany, Gudmar Petursson, horse extravaganza, horse performances, horse theater, hub stables, Icelandic Horse, Icelandics, Kentucky, Knights of Iceland, liberty dressage, liberty horses, Louisville, Lusitano, Miniature horses, Miniatures, Nadja Tschersig, Northern Germany, P.R.E., performing horses, Peter Massine, Portugal, producers, production, Pura Raza Espanolas, quadrille, quadrilles, stunts, Sylvie Willms, Tanya Grubich, touring performers, trick riders, trick riding, veterinarian

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