Friday, March 30, 2012

Horsing around

What: Cavalia
Where: The Big Top on Cerre Street, St. Louis
When: March 21 - April 21, 2012

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Cavalia just might be the Rolls Royce of equestrian shows—a flashy, elegant evening featuring 48 horses, a raft of acrobats and aerialists, and some impressive multi-media effects. The show is not without its longueurs but even so, anyone who loves horses won't want to miss it.

The first thing—and maybe the only thing—you need to know about Cavalia is that it’s a Cirque du Soleil production. That means you can expect top-flight acrobats, riders, and horse trainers as well as high-gloss production values and an impressive level of professionalism throughout. Even the parking and crowd management are handled with panache. Like other Cirque shows, Cavalia is dressed to impress—and it does.

Over the course of two-and-one-half hours (including a 30-minute intermission), Cavalia presents a kind of pageant of the horse in human history, from the era of cave paintings to the Wild West. In true Cirque fashion there is no spoken dialog, just non-stop music (by Michel Cusson) from the solid six-piece band, accented by soaring vocals (in Cirque’s unique made-up language) by Marie-Ève Bédard.

There’s also a seasonal theme running through the evening, with sets and lighting suggesting spring and summer in the first half and fall and winter—complete with falling leaves and snow—in the second. There’s even a curtain of water on which a white “ghost horse” image is projected during the “Le Miroir” segment, in which riders Tatiana Daviaud and Élise Verdoncq guide their corporeal white horses through an intricate mirror dance.

All of this plays out on a massive 160-foot wide set backed by a 210-foot wide cyclorama used for scenic projections (some of which provide a remarkable illusion of depth) and special effects. When you’ve got 48 horses and 31 performers, you need a lot of room.

I won’t attempt to list all of the fine performances, both human and equine, that make up Cavalia. Some that stand out in my mind include: Faiçal Moulid’s dance atop a huge ball; the spectacular “Pieds Percussion” segment that opens up the second act with a combination of trick riding, dancing, roping, and Chinese pole acrobatics; the stunning Trick Riding and “Bungees Cavaliers” routines with their remarkable blend of aerial and equine virtuosity; the “Grande Liberté” routine in which trainer Élise Verdoncq guides her six horses through an intricate set of moves using only her voice and body; and the “Carousel”, in which a sextet of riders in flowing robes reminiscent of the elves in “Lord of the Rings” lead their matching white horses in a stately dance calling to mind the old sarabande of the Spanish court.

Trick rider Fairland Ferguson also stands out with her sheer stage presence and the daring of some of her stunts. At one point she leads a team of six horses around the stage while standing atop the last two, and then leads them in a leap across a pair of poles (cavalettis, if you want to get technical) held by her fellow performers. And she makes it look easy.

There are many other impressive moments as well. Yes, a few of the acts go on a bit longer than necessary and the curtain call is milked far too much, but overall the pacing is fine and the variety of acts and performers is beyond reproach. The bottom line is that Cavalia is a darned entertaining evening and family friendly in the best sense of the term.

Cavalia continues at the big top downtown at 1000 Cerre Street through April 16th. Free parking is available at the site—which is fortunate, given that the best tickets for a family of four will set you back about as much as a single season subscription at the Rep. For more information, you may visit

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