4 Stars out of 4
If you are seeking an outdoor performance activity and have a group that might not sit still for a full Midsummer Nights Dream, or you need a matinee for folks with early bed times, slather on the sunscreen, load up the mini van and head to Wadsworth Illinois where, since 1982, The Tempel Lippizans have been putting on a display of athleticism and artistry that rivals a top ballet company. In fac,t at one point in their history, the ballerinas of the New York City Ballet hung out with the gorgeous four legged stars of the Tempel Lippizans, in Horse Country in Saratoga Springs, the one time summer home of the NYCB.
The stately though compact Lippizaner horse is actually a rare breed. Most people don’t think of domestic animals as endangered the way rhinos are, but in fact there are a large number of once popular domestic animals from pig to horse to chicken to sheep that have gone extinct. Such was nearly the fate of these magnificent creatures that were originally bred in the sixteenth century by Hapsburg nobility in present day Slovenia. Importing Andalusian horses, the Emperor and Archduke bred a sturdy long lived military animal that could also excel in the showy horse dancing exhibitions that were ever popular amongst the nobles. But as the world of royals and courts disintegrated in the 20thcentury, the horses were nearly wiped out by the World Wars. In the end, one of the last remaining herds was famously rescued by General Patton as the Soviets advanced towards Vienna at the end of World War II.
Steel Magnate Tempel Smith and his wife visited Vienna after the war and were so impressed with the breed and the Spanish Riding School showmanship, that they bought a herd and shipped them to their estate in northern Illinois in 1958. Tempel Farms now boasts the largest private herd of Lippizaners in the world. They have maintained the Spanish Riding School tradition and the highest standards and they are open each summer for a show that will cause you to fall in love with these animals.
The Spanish Riding School is a form of high level horse dancing that draws on Medieval war maneuvers, but for an audience not into cavalry , it’s basically four legged Ballet meets Equitation. It takes years to train the horses to do the fancy footwork and it is stunning to see. If you watched the Dressage competition in the last Olympics you saw much of the form.
Tempel Farms ushers you into an outdoor arena with stadium seating reminiscent of the horse events at the Olympics. With the rolling hills of the Farm as a back drop, the show begins with grooms leading mares and foals around the ring. Lippizaners are born quite dark and lighten as they age so the contrast of mother and foal is aesthetically appealing. The foals cavort and leap and play to classical music: the music selection to all of the sections of the show is as one would expect: classical, ranging from Vivaldi to Tchaikovsky. The show is divided into sections, each showcasing a different aspect of the talents of these Equine stars. Of special note is the driving section where two matched horses draw a carriage under the watchful eye of retiring drive trainer Jeff LaDue. The horses are perfectly in sync maneuvering the carriage in loops and lines. In 1981, Tempel Farms donated Lippizaners to the Caisson Platoon in the US Army, to serve as a White Horse Team at military funerals. They were also featured in Presidential inaugural parades. As you watch LaDue put the team through its paces, the stately procession is deeply inspiring.
There is a brief introduction of Young Stallions, and then a demonstration of Olympic Dressage where the horse does does a number of gaits and patterns showing off footwork and control, and a merging of the horse and rider. One of the signature moves is a kind of diagonal walk that is hard enough to do with two legs, let alone grapevine with four. National champion Jessica Starck and her regal arched neck, flowing tailed mount moved across the space as though Dressage was the easiest thing in the world, belying the years of training that this performance entailed.
There is an intermission where guests can grab a bite to eat in the tent and then the music begins and we come next to the Pas de Trois which is as mathematical and precise as a Balanchine corps de ballet. Then we are witness to long reining, where there is no rider: the horse leaps cavorts and changes gates and turns with the human walking alongside, directing with long reins. The control and precision is astounding.
Then we arrive at the signature section of the Spanish School ,where the horses literally stand on hind legs in the levade and then the courbette where the horse jumps forward in that position and finally the piece de resistance, the devilish cabriole where the horse leaps in the air and shoot its rear legs out, like a stag leap in ballet. It is a tour de force move that is astonishing.
The finale is a Quadrille, a Ballet of White Stallions, where four horses complete a complex choreography of lines and crosses with absolute precision and harmony. The costumes of the show are vaguely Austrian 1800’s military, giving the show a bygone European air, and the Quadrille is a cross between a military maneuver and a Rockette line dance. It ends far too soon and the only encore is a visit to the stables after the show where you can stroke the nose of one of these dancing phenomes and hear them gently whinny at their trainers. It is an exceptional afternoon witnessing an old art form that has nearly been lost several times, an art form that grew up when ballet and opera and classical music were all in the development stage, and that incorporates aspects of each. Experience it for yourself before too long.