Do you like horses? Do you think they are noble, majestic creatures? Did you beg your parents for riding lessons and have a vast collection of My Little Ponies when you were a kid? Did you fantasize about riding Starlite through a magical forest wearing a princess gown and a sparkly tiara? If so, by all means, GO SEE CAVALIA.
Yes, we’re talking about the horse show that premiered last night in San Jose. Cavalia is kind of like Cirque du Soleil but with horses (its founder, Normand Latourelle, also helped create Cirque du Soleil, and both companies are based in Montreal). There’s lots of (human) acrobatics and trapeze work, plus horses — galloping, prancing, and performing various gaits. The show — deemed “The greatest show I have ever seen!” by Jay Leno, according to Cavalia press materials — is marketed as a “spectacular and moving tribute to the relationship between men and horses throughout history, a dream of freedom, cooperation and harmony.” A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but you get the idea.
“Freedom” (i.e., the horses’ freedom) is a notion heavily emphasized in the show, and, indeed, the first thing you see when the show starts is three horses galloping onto the large dirt-floor stage, completely untethered and unaccompanied. Seeing as there’s little between the audience and the horses than a small, low barrier (that the horses could easy jump, so in other words, practically no barrier at all), this can be (for those who have seen video of circus elephants stampeding audiences) pretty frightening, especially if you’re sitting toward the front. I recommend getting a glass of wine beforehand.
Meanwhile, projections onto the stage — of ancient art and poignant quotes — reinforce humans’ long relationship with horses (and, hence, their domestication), which could help ease your anxiety if watching horses gallop at top speed mere feet away from small children in a confined space gives you heart palpitations (not saying me, but just hypothetically).
As the show progresses, humans become increasingly intertwined with their equine performers — riding them, doing acrobatic moves on top of them, getting them to kneel and bow and walk in unison. That’s when the show becomes more like circus-like, which makes you wonder what the animal-rights activists think of Cavalia (I didn’t see any protesters) or how necessary it is for a performer to attempt to do a backflip while standing atop a galloping horse, especially when the performer falls off (luckily, no one was hurt).
So while Cavalia tries to emphasize the harmonious human-horse relationship, that relationship did not always come off so harmoniously, which is to be expected when dealing with animals in a live setting. One horse took a little tumble during one stunt, throwing off its rider, which resulted in a momentary pause while reassuring pets were given to the shaken horse (which then went on to finish the stunt). Horses occasionally nipped at each other while performing in groups. One got a little stage fright and decided it was a good time to relieve himself (only stallions and geldings are used in the show). All in all, though, they behaved fairly miraculously and eventually any feelings that the riders/trainers were not in control of the animals dissipated.
Part of that uncertainty/anxiety is what makes Cavalia sort of fascinating, especially if you are not necessarily a “horse person.” But that would definitely put you in the minority, because pretty much everyone at Cavalia appeared to be a horse person, such as the lady sitting next to me who watched the entire show with her hands clasped up to her face, as she was simultaneously in awe of the horses and nervous that something disastrous was going to happen at any/all moments. She remarked more than a few times about the horses (their beauty, their sweetness, their, well, majesty) and their trainers, one of who controlled them just by subtle hand gestures and vocal promptings.
Indeed, Cavalia does a damn good job of tapping into a young (or any aged) girl’s ultimate fantasy about horses: There was one particularly long scene with two pretty young women with long flowing hair wearing long white flowing dresses atop white horses amidst a mystical, magical forest-like setting. It was like Ren Faire meets Lord of the Rings with a sprinkling of pixie dust. (There’s also a definite Burning Man aesthetic: dreadlocks, jagged-hemmed clothing, etc.)
In addition to little/big girls with dreams of riding horses, all sorts of people seemed attracted to the show: young and old, male and female, tech geeks and cowboys and girls, and everyone else who could afford the $40-$240 ticket price. The acrobatics were pretty impressive, the choreography well done (even if some of the horse stunts didn’t seem all that stunt-like), and the horses were, well, pretty to look at. If you weren’t a horse person going into Cavalia, it’s certain that you’ll emerge thinking about them a lot more — even if it’s to thank your lucky stars that you weren’t stampeded.