The draw of Normand Latourelle’s epic Cavalia must be stated outright, in case you didn’t catch it during its tour through DC four years ago. It’s full of horses. Scores of them. Arabians, Belgians, Criollos, and more, selected from around America, Canada, and Europe and trained to jump, gallop, nuzzle, high-step, take a bow, and drink in applause from massive crowds. Cavalia is a grand-scale tribute to the deep, loving, and complicated relationship between humans and horses. Its arrival to Pentagon City is pulling spectators from far and wide. “I drove six hours to see this!” a woman panted to everyone and no one in the concessions line. “Six hours!”
Is it the biggest entertainment event of the season? Possibly. Cavalia boasts impressive numbers: thanks to the hefty press packet, I can assert that each year, 120 permanent touring staff members feed 60 horses 36,500 pounds of grain. They perform on a stage the size of a regulation NFL football field. Their white big top is 110 feet tall, is always erected in the center of a “village” of eight tents and is, I suspect, visible from outer space.
Is the show heartfelt? Yes, admirably so. Thrilling? At certain moments. Is it beautiful? Often.
Is it art? Well, arguably, yes, although its value arises less from particularly smart design choices than from the delicate power and innate elegance of its star animals.
And is it worth it? Well… it’s full of horses. If you can’t get enough of them, this two-and-a-half-hour ode to equine beauty is a can’t-miss. If Latourelle’s years as a pioneer of Cirque du Soleil are what caught your eye, however, you may find that Cavalia’s adoration of the four-legged ensemble puts a damper on the fun. Acrobats and aerialists pour forth and recede from scene to scene, but their routines are far fewer than in traditional Cirque shows.
Here, attention is paid primarily to the trainer/horse dynamic, and many laconic passages float by in which doe-eyed humans in flowing outfits bound playfully next to a young stallion or gelding, stroking a long mane and whispering quiet, smiling words into big upright ears. Cavalia doesn’t tell a story so much as riff on this visual motif – together, eternal – and though it gets repetitive, even the skeptical may begin to ponder what it is about horses that comforts and soothes the human spirit, despite how little their worlds overlap with ours these days.
One of Cavalia’s largest assets is the live band led by Hugo St-Laurent, which plays guitar, keyboard, cello, and myriad drums behind the fervent vocals of Anne Sophie Hoffman, who belts out soulful scales and wispy melodies like Whitney Houston covering Enya. Although the rhythms settle at times into what my friend referred to as “tribal spa music,” during the rowdier numbers the band hits its stride, echoing the rumbling torrent of hoofbeats in the Roman riding scene and, later, during some thrilling rodeo trick riding sequences at full gallop.
From other design perspectives, it’s all over the place. Everyone wears everything, from flowing robes to colorful spandex to cowboy hats to costumes borrowed, I assume, from the book cover for “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” Probing for meaning here is like drinking from a firehose. And yet, somehow, it’s not a drawback. Cavalia seeks to evoke a reverberating, timeless world of horse-love, and it’s hard to criticize such a daunting task for its lack of specificity. For the most part, it’s visually interesting, and a certain amount of disorientation is probably healthy when facing such an energetic, multi-ring spectacle.
Projections flow constantly from 200 feet in the air. Absorbing wilderness backdrops morph into collages of cave paintings, sculptures, and ancient carvings. These, in turn, melt away into starry skies, bubbling psychedelic rainbow panoramas, as well as a few unfortunately chosen specimens of modern horse art that look retrieved from Middle-American flea markets. A few video projections – like an aurora borealis in the shape of a horse – bear an uncomfortable resemble to Native American spirit visions from 80’s movies.
Tacky, for sure. Which prompts the question: So what? As they say, fifty million Elvis fans can’t be wrong. And in a crowd of 2,000 cheering people every night, where debonair chaps in suits sit drinking chilled wine next to three-year-olds in overalls eating cotton candy, I see that I’m only one small slice of a great big American pie. Cavalia has already stampeded Amsterdam, Berlin, Madrid, and over a dozen cities in America. And even though it’s more than a circus, this show does share that tradition’s exciting air of the tour, that tingling sense of arrival to a town near you. The box office tent retains the thick smell of popcorn. A long counter sells plush animals, track jackets, and glossy programs. A big TV shows the laborious construction of the white big top, with the film played in gleeful fast-motion. Cavalia has arrived. Come one, come all.
Like many Cirque du Soleil shows, tickets are on the pricey side – somewhere between fifty dollars and, for premium seats, two hundred – so gauge your party’s lust for horse choreography before purchasing. But Cavalia is a truly unique, ambitious, and fascinating thing. Sure, it has a weird lack of momentum from time to time – explosive acrobatic numbers often have to slam on the brakes to transition to the more traditional sequences of dressage – but in the best scenes, Normand Latourelle, director Érick Villeneuve, and the creative team have achieved a magical integration of aerial dance, live music, enthusiastic stunts, and tirelessly good-natured horse training (led by Frédéric Pignon and Magali Delgado).
Cavalia is one of those big-budget shows that revels in its own size — that displays, rather than hides, all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making it all come off perfectly. It’s part of a conscious effort to engender a global community of fans, to allow crowds who live oceans apart to love the same 60 horses. A critic could argue that, given the lack of storyline and the wandering design aesthetics, Cavalia’s not a particularly notable accomplishment. But, to my mind, 36,500 pounds of grain say otherwise.
Directed by Érick Villeneuve
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
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- Nelson Pressley . The Post