In the meantime, the notion of “Cirque du Soleil with horses” can at least convey the originality, beautiful visuals, and acrobatic feats that characterize Cirque – and by the way, Cavalia’s creative director, Normand Latourelle, is also a founder of Cirque du Soleil.
The two-hour show moves energetically from one short act to another, with mood changes primed by amazing multimedia projections on a 210-foot background screen. We see Lascaux primitive horse paintings, medieval castle entrances, the Coliseum in Rome… the settings and special effects are superb. Even the large “stage” of sand undergoes some nifty shape-shifting.
Human acrobats make multiple appearances, as do aerial performers (- the term “bungee artists” just isn’t graceful enough.) But of course Cavalia is about horses: 49 beautiful horses, including Arabians, percherons, and eight other breeds.
So what type of performances do these horses and their imaginative humans create for their audience?
Well, let's start with trick riding: there's plenty of this type of action to enjoy. For example, “Roman riding” (which actually does date back to Roman times) is exciting. Each rider stands atop two horses; one rider had two more pairs of horses coursing in front of her (and they all jumped over a pole, to boot.)
Vaulting: bet you didn’t know this word. Acrobats somersault in the air and perform other gymnastic feats, all on top of a steadily cantering horse.
Fancy riding: no, this is not a technical term. Like many in the audience, I'm not versed in haute ecole, dressage, etc. so along with the rest of the unschooled, I simply watched the beauty. At times it felt like watching tableaux, artistic arrangements of gorgeous horses and beautiful people (wearing clothes that might be found in Rivdendell), in front of exquisite backgrounds.
All this – the acrobatics, the graceful aerial work, the trick riding, the beautiful panoplies – was making for a very fine show, when suddenly the evening became breath-taking. A white Arabian horse ran in, free of any bridle. And then another. And one more. They nudged each other, rolled on the ground, and seemed to be enjoying themselves. eventually there were eight horses and just one petite human: Sylvia Zerbini, horse-whisperer.
For long mesmerizing minutes, she directed these horses – to run, to return to her, to line-up side by side and even to place their heads on their neighbor’s withers—with just hand gestures and a few words in what was like a secret language. Magic.
My equestrienne friend who also saw the show referred to this as “liberty work”. The horses are free, no reins, no bridles… She stressed what a feat this was, for a trainer to do this work with multiple horses. And she noted how wonderful it is to see horses with no fear-based training.
That is a beautiful thing that shines through, in Cavalia: the spirit of the horses and their well-being. Even the smallest detail of their stabling and transport is planned with consideration of their well-being.
But back to that magical “Liberté” part of the show… the woman in the midst of her six beautiful white horses is Sylvia Zerbini, who comes from nine generations of circus performers (her father an eighth-generation animal trainer, her mother a fifth-generation trapeze artist.) For much of her life, Ms. Zerbini was a stellar trapeze artist -- just check this video -- and even has a plaque in the Circus Ring of Fame. (Read more.) But she has also been working with horses all her life.
A nice moment to imagine: the amazing Sylvia Zerbini, trapeze artiste extraordinaire, working with horses from the youngest possible age, attending a Cavalia show in 2004. Now that was a fated meeting. Fortunately for all of us, she's been part of the show for several years. Read more about Sylvia Zerbini and her Grande Liberté act.
The Cavalia company is based in Montreal and has been touring since 2003, in Europe and North America. Unlike Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group, there is only one set of performers, human and equine, so if Cavalia comes to a city near you, run don’t walk to a performance, as the tour may not return to your city for years.
Also, Cavalia is evolving: a new show is being developed, which will take several years. All the more reason to see the present show while it’s still possible.
Cavalia is a wonderful creation, a feat of imagination that celebrates horses, and a performance in which the well-being of the horse is paramount, with no fear-based training. Just as Cirque du Soleil redefined the circus, so Cavalia shows us a whole new type of experience.
Some Practical Tips about Attending Cavalia:
- Though parking information wasn't displayed at the website, we found - in Vancouver- that it was all handled easily right next to the big tents.
- Guests could choose one of several ways to pay extra to visit the stables and add on other experiences. It might be worth a bit of digging to understand all the options available in your city. Don't expect to be able to pet the horses, though; every aspect of the stables is designed for the comfort of the horses, and their time in the stables is their own.