Cavalia is a sensory experience and a galloping triumph
I'd been enjoying Cavalia all along, but the moment that won me over completely came during the second act, in a piece called "Carousel." To an exotic beat that sounded rather like Ravel's "Bolero," a group of robed people rode white horses through misty silver light, the white-lit outline of trees behind them. They moved slowly, the horses crossing, turning, circling and, for several breathtaking minutes, side-stepping in perfect unison. Then, as the troupe faced front and moved forward, riders and their white steeds in complete harmony, it felt as if they were coming toward us through the mists of history, from King Arthur's England, perhaps, pacing quietly through centuries of myth and fairy tale and into the grape-soda-scented circus tent where we sat.
After the show ended, I had trouble remembering what the horses and riders had actually done. My notes are full of fragments: huge stone face; the caves at Lascaux; sorrow; two women twirling in the air like djinns; ochre; enter a white horse; horse lies down (trusting); a wave of golden horses (was this one of the many images projected onto the screen at the back, or something that occurred on the sandy stage?); Parthenon; Roman coliseum; Bucephalus — the Black Stallion; Cossacks; log held high; silhouettes; drummer; horses stomping in unison; lots of stone faces now, peering at us; exhilarating; grace and power; oh, magic!; horses make flower shape; leaves like gold-orange coins; hooves raised high; jouncing; horse enters alone, no bridle; second horse enters, then third; horses nipping each other.
Sketchy observations, but not inaccurate: Cavalia is a sensory experience, a mix of still images, video, music, haunting song. There are acrobatics on and off horseback, performers bouncing across the floor and in the air on trapezes and bungee cords, cowboys, a wild swirl of horses galloping across the stage while their daredevil riders slide on and off, take various positions on their backs, or hang from them upside down.
Cavalia is the creation of Normand Latourelle, one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, and it shares with Cirque the knack for evoking the transcendent and magical without telling a specific story. The images are powerful, but they're not as reliably beautiful and intricate as those you see at Cirque productions, and the urgency with which Cavalia insists on its own symbolism sometimes feels a bit heavy-handed — though at other times, as with "Carousel," it works beautifully. And the mythic and poetic stuff can get sort of hazy. Several eloquent quotations about horses are shown at the beginning of the evening — but I don't think Richard III's famous cry "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" quite fits. This isn't an expression of longing for a magnificent steed, but the cry of a bloodthirsty butcher whose horse has been killed beneath him in battle, and who is frantic to return to the slaughter. The beginning is also a little prosaic, particularly when compared with Cheval, which was created by another Cirque founder, Gilles Ste. Croix, and came to Denver some years ago; it was both acrobatically more astonishing and artistically cleaner than the first few acts of Cavalia.
But the slowness of Cavalia's start is at least partly deliberate, because Latourelle wants to do more than just create an amazing show: He wants to celebrate the long-standing bond between horses and humans, to draw our attention to the animals' gentleness and power. That start is a video of a mare giving birth, the foal, bewildered and still bloody, trying to rise to its feet, falling and finally succeeding. Yes, Latourelle seems to be saying, many wondrous things will happen over the course of this evening, but nothing as wondrous as the mere fact of this creature's existence. That's a point he proves with another tour-de-force segment, "Grande Liberte," in which Sylvia Zerbini works with nine horses — unbridled and completely unrestrained — guiding them with her voice, body and presence. You don't need the program's assurance that the Cavalia horses are well treated; you can see it in their trust and general demeanor. And when the show does find its stride, it's a triumph, with beautifully paced and revelatory scenes alternating with moments of pulse-quickening excitement.
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