Cavalia is Cirque du Soleil with horses—and without the clowns and pseudo-narrative that some of us (that would include me) find extraneous and sometimes annoying. Cavalia has the same sort of beautiful mise-en-scène under the same sort of big top—gorgeous projected scenery and lighting; similar generic music, played and sung live—except that it employs straight-on seating and a proscenium stage rather than the semi-circular Cirque design. Cavalia involves spectacular acrobats (18 of them), whose work is not always quite as breathtaking as Cirque acrobatics but is always aesthetically splendid. And of course there are the horses, 49 of them, and their ten often astonishing riders.
The overall effect of the Cavalia experience is enthralling. It has the wow-inducing excitement of humans and animals together doing extraordinarily difficult things while making them look almost routine. And in the presence of those magnificent horses the effect is sometimes profoundly spiritual. The run of Cavalia has already been extended by two weeks due to brisk ticket sales. Vancouver audiences are going to have a love affair with this show.
Cavalia’s acrobats are impressive when they leap and tumble and swing through the air by themselves on stage but more memorable are the exquisite ensembles they create with the horses—the gorgeous male bodies flipping across the stage in Voltige en Rond as the horses whip around in tight circles; the beautiful female acrobats flying above the horses on wires in Bungees Cavaliers, appearing to dance lightly on the heads of their riders.
The athleticism of the riders is no less impressive as the pace changes to frantic galloping around and across the stage in Poste Hongroise, riders standing on the backs of two horses at once, or in Voltige en Ligne, riders risking life and limb by casually riding backwards, upside down, leaping on and off careening, high speed stallions. This is in some ways conventional “trick riding” but still truly amazing stuff.
The pace changes again in Le Miroir, where two female riders in white gowns quietly walk white horses around the stage in mirror images of each other, set against a magnificent projected backdrop of the Elgin marbles with its Greek horses and warriors. In Haute École, another exquisite scenario, a single female rider and her white horse carry out a precise dressage routine against a dappled forest right out of The Lord of the Rings.
But two images remain most vividly in my mind’s eye. The first is that of the eight horses without saddles or bridles in Grand Liberté, circling around a single trainer, Sylvia Zerbini, a horse whisperer. With nothing but body language, soft vocal commands and gestures of a single finger, she has them do remarkable things together, individually and in groups. These are less conventional “tricks” than simple illustrations of equine beauty and intelligence, the power of the herd instinct and of the human-horse bond.
The other most powerful image is that which begins and ends the show: riderless, tackless horses wandering onstage with no humans visible; horses appearing to just be themselves, improvising within the theatrical frame. There is beauty and wonder here, a sense of freedom and, paradoxically, the sense also of the extraordinary hold human training has on these magical, majestic animals.