Horsing Around at the Cirque

cirque horses

Human beings are the most amazing creatures, but horses come a close second. Put together, horses and humans interact in a way that evokes a history shared through the ages. Add into the mix Norman Latourelle, a pioneer of Cirque du Soleil, and what you have is a visually stunning and emotionally evocative experience. What you have, in short, is Cavalia.

In an abstract way, Cavalia traces human’s history with horses. In the first act, the horses run free. While this is a “simple” thing, the effect is startling. One rarely gets to see a horse run, much less a herd of matching Arabians inside an auditorium. Gradually, the acts involve riders, and those acts tend toward greater control, but moments of horses moving freely are interspersed frequently to great delight. This is perhaps Cavalia’s greatest asset – the straightforward way it wows the crowd.

Take, for example, the act named “Boule.” In it, one man enters and performs acrobatics on a four-foot high orange ball. It’s a man, it’s a ball, and it’s impressive. A curtain opens and a white horse runs in and heads toward the man. This is planned. But the horse improvises a drop to its forelegs that leads to it rubbing its back in the dirt on the stage like a large playful dog. Balanced on the ball, the man laughs. The horse gets up, shakes off, and goes to eat the apple the man offers. At the end, a curtain opens, the horse runs off, and the audience bursts into applause.

While watching, viewers realize this is simple stuff, but they’re enthralled. And this is before “Voltige en Rond” where acrobats jump over a draft horse being used as a pommel horse while running tight circles in the ring, before the two women on wire dance from the hands of two men on horseback in “La Vida,” and before the matched equestrians in “Le Miroir” perform a reflective routine complete with a waterfall curtain falling between. The visual effects are stunning and deceptively simple – water and projectors, live music and good lighting.

The horses work hard, but Cavalia showcases their talents in a way that seems to respect their “horseness.” After the demanding dressage acts “Pieds Percussion” and “Carrousel,” “Grande Liberte” lets seven horses loose to mingle in the ring until a woman walks in and uses only her voice to get them weaving complex patterns. After the rigorous “Haute Ecole” act, the rider dismounts, removes the horse’s saddle and bridle, and allows it to run off stage. In this way, the show works a nice balance between strict choreography and forms of freedom.

Yet one never forgets that Cavalia is, at heart, a circus. The human performers’ skills as riders and acrobats never rest. After the quiet of “Grand Liberte,” the final two acts build in intensity. During “Voltige en Ligne,” seemingly countless quarter horses run across the stage in an act loosely based on a man returning a woman’s dropped handkerchief. The quarter horses race straight in from right and left, and the performers’ joy in hanging off the side of a running horse, vaulting over its racing back, and surfing from its saddle is apparent in their whoops of delight. At the same time, over and above the rush of horses, four women alternate between bungee cords and swinging trapezes while several men perform on the floor.

The quarter horses rush off, and the spectacle increases even more in the finale “Bungees Cavaliers” until viewers are unsure where all this will go. The music builds to a crescendo; the trapezes and bungees, the horses and riders, the acrobats and the woman on a wire peak in their act. Suddenly, the projections and lights pull back to a pinpoint, the music rushes to a tight close, and – blink — it’s over. Even with all they’ve seen, the audience is left wanting more. And this is perhaps the most wondrous aspect of all.

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