After seeing Cavalia in Redmond, Washington’s Marymoor Park I truly understand what all the fuss is about. After weeks of seeing its advertisements on television commercials and billboards, I had grown very curious about this live show, which features no less than 46 horses and 38 human performers. After taking in the two-hour show (divided by a half-hour intermission), I was awestruck by the artistry on display.
Cavalia combines equestrianism, acrobatics, and dancing — all accompanied by a group of six musicians who provide a dynamic soundtrack to the entire spectacle. Where there was once an ordinary park now stands a 10-story-high big top forming a nearly 2,300-seat arena.
The large performance area is covered with sand. Very little space separates the spectators’ seats from the performers, which contributes to the relatively intimate setting. Large drapes hang from the rafters, upon which images are projected throughout the show. A scrim stretches across the rear of the performance area, allowing for the display of depth-increasing backgrounds. At various times, the live musicians are illuminated behind the scrim. The overall visual design of the show creates an earthy, natural atmosphere. Some surprises in the presentation are better left discovered in person, but it’s worth mentioning that the staging involves rain, snow, and foliage.
While Cavalia has no conventional narrative to speak of, its series of set pieces illustrates the cooperative nature of humankind’s relationship with horses. Not being knowledgeable about horses in general, I was still able to easily recognize the skill of the horses as well as the people riding them. Part of the fun of the Cavalia experience is being aware that the specific show you are witnessing is a unique piece of performance art. The horses, as well-trained as they obviously are, add an element of spontaneity to the proceedings that guarantees each show will be at least slightly different from all the others.
The performers’ enthusiasm is infectious, with each stunt generating boisterous applause from the audience. Some segments of the show focus on an individual performer or small group of horses, but at other times activity occurs in every nook of the performance area. Watching the horses perform what is essentially choreography — such as marching in time to the music — is every bit as impressive in its subtlety as seeing trapeze artists flying high above everything.
During one segment a woman swooped down, hovering directly above audience members just long enough to hand someone a handkerchief before swinging back upward. No attempt is made to observe a “fourth wall;” the performers encourage audience reaction during the performances. Among what appeared to be a capacity crowd, they certainly received it.
The various feats accomplished by the equestrians and acrobats are much better seen than read about. Suffice it to say, the performers continuously up the ante throughout each of the one-hour acts. During one thrilling segment, riders perform stunning tricks while their horses cross the entire length of the performance area at full gallop. Sometimes the riders are literally inverted, somehow hanging to their horses while upside down. At other times, the riders swing their entire bodies from one side of the horse to the other, their feet skimming the ground on either side as the horse continues without slowing. Imagine a gymnast doing a routine on a pummel horse, except with an actual living, breathing horse moving at a very fast clip.
The band, which consists of drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, cello, and a vocalist, deserves special note. A lesser show might’ve opted for prerecorded music. Not Cavalia. These musicians put on quite a satisfying concert in their own right, creating a wide range of ever-shifting moods. While never unnecessarily showy, the musicians’ contributions are by no means mere incidental muzak. They’re every bit as skilled at their craft as the more visible performers. And the sound system is startlingly rich and clear, with the music always at an appropriate volume level.
Cavalia was created by Normand Latourelle, one of the co-founders of Cirque du Soleil. The show has toured the world, including stops in more than 40 North American cities. Behind the scenes, great consideration is given to ensure that the horses are given the best possible care. Cavalia was never intended as a way to exploit horses, but rather as a way to celebrate them.
The show is scheduled at Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington until February 26, before moving on to St. Louis, Missouri for a run beginning March 14. For more information, including purchasing tickets, visit the official Cavalia website.