THEATER | “Cavalia”: Equus ultra


I don’t imagine I’ll unseat Larry King as Cavalia‘s billboard-approved blurbmeister (“The greatest show I’ve ever seen!”), but here’s a quote the producers can pull if they see fit: never before have human and horse been so closely united as they are in Cavalia. They don’t need to pull this part: in Cavalia, both human and horse demonstrate the ability to train for years to perform flamboyant stunts for high-paying audiences sitting under tents in suburban parking lots.

Cavalia is not a Cirque du Soleil show, but it profits by the winning formula Cirque adapted from the timeless circus practice: come to town, set up a big tent, and charge people to see exotic visitors performing impressive feats of dexterity. Clearly, it works: local demand for Cavalia has been so high that ticket resale sites have been able to pawn tickets for over twice the already-substantial face value. The big top—situated outside The Shops at West End—was packed like a sardine tin for opening night on Wednesday.

I’ve seen the last few Cirque shows to come through the Twin Cities, and when Cavalia began with a costumed cellist soloing over the new age thunder of a backing band obscured by a scrim displaying projections of wheezy quotations about man’s profound kinship with the horse, I thought, yep, seems pretty par for the course. (The Cavalia music is so generic that if you close your eyes, you won’t know whether you’re sitting at a $100 horse show or waiting between programs on PBS.) Then they unleashed the horses.

There are dozens of horses in Cavalia—I forget exactly how many, but don’t worry, they give you an educational quiz about it before the show starts—and they become more integral to the show as it stretches past intermission to its long second act. At first, the horses appear as simple eye candy (if you’re into that sort of thing), winning oohs and aahs just for sprinting across the proscenium arena. Then, they’re incorporated into stunts that have performers doing the kind of stuff you did in first-grade tumbling class—but on a horse. Later, riders straddle pairs of horses and perform leaps and bounds. Occasionally, acrobats drop in.

As the show progresses, though, the stunts become less about showy human acrobatics and more about subtly superb horseman/womanship. This is where Cavalia will either lose you or rivet you, depending on how much you know and/or care about how difficult it is to steer a horse with small movements of the rider’s knees.

In one sequence, a pair of riders mirror each other across the arena as their mounts perform tricks like walking sideways and kneeling. In another, eight riders perform a tightly synchronized dressage routine. (I imagined the show’s producers having conversations like the Gillette staff discussing razor blade cartridges: “Screw it, let’s go to eight!”) Near the end comes Cavalia‘s most absorbing episode, as a trainer on foot steers several horses in coordinated movements using only a crop, her body, and a sequence of spoken commands. The horses flow around the trainer like living lava—I’ll take that Pulitzer now, thanks—and there’s a wizard-like quality to the trainer’s ability to make the horses do her bidding.

Clearly Cavalia wants to be both for circus (er, Cirque-us) people and horse people, but ultimately this show’s about the ungulates. If you’re looking for clowning and special effects, skip it. If you’re looking for feats of human acrobatics, the show may sate your desire but it won’t blow you away. If, however, you’re looking for dozens of horses demonstrating that they’ve been as well-trained as Miss America contestants, get out that check card and steer your faithful Toyota steed toward the twin-towered tent in the meadowlands of St. Louis Park.