James 'Jimmy' Buchanan Returns to D.C. With the World by the Reins in 'Cavalia'

Virginia native James "Jimmy" Buchanan has traveled the world pursuing his childhood hobby of horseback riding.
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The professional life of James "Jimmy" Buchanan began on the feathery backside of an ostrich as it scrambled across the stage of Dolly Parton's dinner-theater spectacle "Dixie Stampede" in Myrtle Beach, S.C. For someone who was raised on horses since age 2 -- trotting around his grandparents' farm in Dickerson, leaping fences at a stable in Lorton, snapping his collarbone after being tossed off a saddle -- the ostrich still proved to be a harsh mistress. There was no steering involved. He just held on.

Two years of yee-hawing and ostrich-racing led to a stint as a backstage groom for the Montreal-based equestrian arts show, "Cavalia," which can only be described as Cirque du Soleil with a heaping helping of horse. Buchanan washed stallions and mucked out stables for a year. He left the show to work on trick riding for two years, and now he's returned as one of the stars of "Cavalia," which opened Friday for a two-week run at an eight-tent complex in Pentagon City.

The job involves eyeliner. And flowing robes. And a contractually obligated mane of hair that must be straightened with an iron.

"I came to ride horses and I spend 20 minutes putting on makeup," Buchanan says. He laughs. He's 23 now, and not quite sure how he got here. He slides a Q-tip across his eyelid, smearing a small streak of white makeup at his dressing station in a white tent in the middle of Arlington.

Where once the mighty horse plowed fields along the Potomac, he now has his mane braided and clipped with blue barrettes. Where once there were wide-open hills, there is now a temporary kingdom of towering tents on a dirt lot beside a humming stretch of I-395. And up the highway from where Buchanan took his first riding lesson 15 years ago, he's now dressed as some kind of mythical swain, standing atop two galloping horses, arm sweeping out to the audience in a gesture of gallantry.

It's a good job. It's taken him all around Europe for the past two years. He's performed for enraptured crowds in Belgium, Portugal and Germany. This is a step up from the ostrich. He's back home in the D.C. area for a two-week stay, 10 miles from where he went to high school in Alexandria, riding through the United States in one of the world's biggest touring shows.

"Dominique, are you ready?" Buchanan calls across the artists' tent. He's finished padding away his freckles with MAC foundation.

"I'll be right wiz you, Jeemee," a hair stylist responds in a slinky Quebecois accent.

"Trente minutes!" a stage manager yells. Half an hour until rehearsal.

Moroccan acrobats are mid-yoga-pose on a wrestling mat. Hair extensions are splayed around like scraggly animal hides. Forty-some company members strap on boots and shimmy into earth-toned robes. Eventually they will all look like extras from a "Lord of the Rings" movie.

The tent complex -- erected in a grove of office parks and condo buildings near the Pentagon -- is their 200,000-square-foot traveling city, population 150. There are horse people and acrobats, a blacksmith, a veterinarian, a chiropractor, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, 64 horses of various breeds and a former Club Med chef who cooks 350-plus meals a day out of a trailer. It costs $1 million just to move "Cavalia" from one city to another, which may explain special-access ticket prices for as much as $200.50 a head.

Buchanan heads to the stable tent and wraps splint guards above the hooves of Kinder and Orion, the Andalusian and the quarter horse he will use for Roman riding. He will race around the stage, standing, one foot on the backs of each of the horses, who happen to be of different heights and temperaments.

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