I’ve only ridden a horse once. It was for my friend’s sixth birthday party and I lasted all of seven minutes before the horse bucked its head and gave me a blood nose. Needless to say, I haven’t really liked them much since.
Cavalia, if you haven’t already guessed by the many banners, television ads or chatter from your next-door neighbour who can’t stop raving about it, is a show with horses. Created by one of the co-founders of Cirque du Soleil, it combines horse riding with dance, circus skills and acrobatics. The result is astounding.
The show takes its audience on a journey through history, exploring the unique connection between horse and human. The exceptional training, horsemanship and incredible level of trust between the performer and horse are apparent in every trick. The first scene, where the two discover each other for the first time, is particularly powerful. Some scenes are amusing, others take the audience’s breath away – all are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
The show features 36 humans and 48 horses – the oldest horse is 20 years old while the youngest is just 11 months. All are professionals. When the first horse trots on stage, there are audible squeals of excitement from many audience members. We may be used to the token cat or dog during pantomimes or musicals but being so close to a horse on stage during a live performance feels strangely novel and exciting.
There’s something very primal and almost tribal about the first half, causing the inevitable Game of Thrones reference to fly thick and fast. As my friend remarks, “It’s very Dothraki like, isn’t it?” Yep, if the Dothraki were into performing arts, Cavalia would definitely be their thing.
Impressive set changes and good use of multimedia including projected footage only enhance the solid entertainment Cavalia provides. One highlight is the rain that falls on stage, cleverly made into the shape of a horse. There’s innovative use of the set too, as it smoothly transforms into hills and performance rings, as well as visually transporting us from cave paintings to medieval halls and beyond.
The scenes move along a historical timeline, the Roman era being particularly impressive as we see four horses form a chariot, charging laps around the stage. There’s a good balance between letting the horses shine as well as keeping attention on the performers themselves. There are a few scenes that are horseless altogether – this variety keeping the audience engaged and entertained.
The variety continues in the pace of the performance – some are high energy including one scene involving pole-jumping while others are slower and softer, more focused on the beauty and grace of the animals. With the romantic backdrop of twinkling stars, these scenes really are beautiful to watch. The use of live Spanish and French style music in the faster paced scenes emphasises this contrast.
There’s no pattern in the types of tricks presented, which is refreshing. Not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next keeps the audience on the edge of their seat and scared to look elsewhere lest they should miss something.
There’s audience interaction too, which adds to the theatricality of the performance. Before the curtain even opens there’s an interactive quiz that also cleverly provides facts and information about the show. On another occasion the three stands are pitted against each other to clap and cheer the loudest. The louder our encouragement, the more daredevil the tricks become.
The second act feels a lot longer, and overall not quite as punchy and powerful as the first. I wonder if this is partly because the novelty of the show is starting to wear off. It’s in these instances that Cavalia’s brilliance is also its downfall. With people flying from the rooftops, performing flips on horseback and other impressive tricks, the simpler ones that are probably also incredibly hard to master are much less appreciated. The difference in applause after the “easier” and “harder” tricks is very noticeable. Yet this contrast is also necessary, as it makes the more daring ones all the more breathtaking. The finale packs the best of the show and beats it, dazzling the audience with fearless and seemingly impossible tricks.
The stable tour gives us the chance to properly meet the horsey stars of the show. Unsurprisingly, after working so hard most are more interested in the contents of their feedbags than the groups of excited audience members traipsing through the stables. Close up, I also notice all the different hairstyles the horses are sporting – some wear multiple braids while others work the heavy side fringe. Nice to see they’re keeping up with the trends too!
While it could rely on its novelty alone to carry the show, Cavalia delivers beyond expectation. The show is slick and professional but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Things don’t always go quite to plan (the old saying does warn never to work with kids or animals) but the few mistakes are covered up well or laughed off. Cavalia is diverse, brave, highly entertaining and original, and even leaves someone like me wondering whether it’s time to get off my high horse and back in the saddle.