Cavalia, a big top extravaganza out of Québec that has been described as Cirque du Soleil with horses, opens unexpectedly with a multiple choice quiz. Before the horseplay gets going, the audience learns, via a projection on the closed curtain, that the show maintains a stable of 46 talented horses, the oldest of which is 20 years old and the youngest of which is 9 months old. There are 18 stallions in the company, and guess how many mares? Zero. The rest of the horses are … former stallions. Ouch.
Equine sexism aside, Cavalia offers a four-legged thrill ride that manages neither to anthropomorphize nor exploit its non-human performers. There’s nary an ostrich plumed headdress nor a show pony’s bejeweled bridle to be seen on the horses, who frequently romp around the stage seemingly unsupervised.
Though roughly a third of the performers are hoofed beasts and the show is housed under a massive white tent erected smack in the middle of Redmond’s Marymoor Park, the staging by Set Designer Marc Labelle is surprisingly traditional: a proscenium stage with a raked floor that slopes gently upstage. True, the stage’s surface is covered with sand, but other than a projection scrim and intensely colored lighting by designer Alain Lortie, there are few theatrical tricks in the show. The action is concentrated and intimate, with the focus locked on the horses and their humans at all times.
Cavalia has a narrative arc of a sort, charting the progression of the relationship between humans and horses — from mutually fascinated yet fearful species co-existing in a primitive landscape to true companions. As the interactions evolve, so does the sophistication of the show’s routines.
Though the opening sequence is utterly simple, featuring a female dancer who splashes in a shallow pool while tentatively working her way closer and closer to a horse that wanders the stage freely, the “trick” that she performs is quite astonishing. She literally leads the horse to water and gets it to drink. The exhilarating first ride on the back of a horse follows, then increasingly complex interactions, all the way to an intricate horse ballet inspired by the dressage of Spain.
There’s even a nod to the golden age of the American West, as lassos are deployed and a comical cowboy navigates a cactus-strewn landscape. It’s delightful without being cloying; the perfect alternative for horse-lovers who’ve been turned off by the depressing imagery in the War Horse trailer.
Regardless of the putative era or location of each scene, Costume Designers Manon Desmarais and Mireille Vachon deck the acrobats and horse handlers out in apparel that gives more than a nod to Lord of the Rings “cosplay” gear. Long-haired elven types with thick leather bicep cuffs leap onto the backs of galloping stallions, while dreamy princesses in trailing white gowns glide astride milky chargers. While the horses are firmly rooted in the natural and organic, the humans are drawn from a misty, mythic past that never really was. There’s an undeniable stylishness to their look, nonetheless; a Pre-Raphaelite romanticism that defies criticism, no matter how over-the-top it becomes.
Created by Cirque du Soleil founder Normand Latourelle, Cavalia is a refreshing antidote to the canned whimsy of the original animal-free circus. After debuting in Québec in 2003, Cavalia made a stop in Seattle a year later. This year’s tour unexpectedly moved its opening night up a week, only to have it postponed twice due to snow. When it finally opened on Jan. 20, the unbridled enthusiasm of the audience led to the sort of rhythmic stomping and cheering normally reserved for a high school pep rally.
As in Cirque, there are more than a few standard-issue “stunner acts,” usually involving a trapeze or tumbling routine. People balance on each others’ shoulders, balance beams are deployed, and there are oodles of back flips. However, the nature of the theater space brings the audience in for a much closer look than most of Cirque’s stadium/casino shows can provide.
Without significant aesthetic distance available, the handstands and balancing acts regain their ability to astonish, as the performers’ minute adjustments to prevent a cataclysmic fall become the focal point of the show. You’ll hold your breath until they’re done. And the fact that the human entertainers are working with intrinsically unpredictable animals adds an element of anticipation to each moment of the show, both for the audience and the performers.
There were times on opening night when a horse decided it had enough of galloping around en masse and broke away from the herd to drift upstage. Rather than detracting from the overall polish of the show, this evidence of animal capriciousness only served to make the full-speed trick riding all the more remarkable.
More impressive than any of the stunts though, is the fearlessness with which Cavalia’s Equestrian Director and Choreographer, Benjamin Aillaud, allows the horses to just be horses. He trusts in the human tendency to be hypnotized by the steady gait of a powerful stallion cantering around and around in a large circle, or the charm of a horse wandering center stage to roll luxuriously on the ground, and the audience does not let him down.
By the way, can I have a pony?
If you go: Barring further schedule changes, Cavalia will run through Feb. 19 in Redmond’s Marymoor Park. $17.50-$199.50. For more information, visit www.cavalia.net.