Performance Art

Editorial Review

'Cavalia' Returns, With Plenty of Horsepower

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Cavalia" has high-stepped back into Pentagon City, once more offering its deluxe vision of horse heaven. The big-top show is a pastoral extravaganza, a calculated image of timeless, idyllic nature attractively packaged as high-tech entertainment.

It is the brainchild of Normand Latourelle, whose history as a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil should give you an idea of the style and scale of the event. It's big: The dirt stage is wide enough for stallions to race across at full speed, with acrobatic riders striking daring trick poses. ("Cavalia" is, at times, like an aristocratic rodeo; it even features two women doing some fancy lasso twirlin'.)

It's also beautiful in that New Age-y Cirque way, with videos of pristine nature and classical art projected across a massive screen at the back of the stage. (The screen generally conceals a live band playing composer Michel Cusson's ethereal, thumping lite rock.) Digital imagery is even beamed against a fine curtain of rain, and it's still mesmerizing to watch puddles appear and quickly drain away through the soft sandy stage.

This, then, is the swanky environment for Latourelle's leisurely horse show, which peddles a kind of mystical communion between man and beast. It's a good hook: The sight of horses sauntering freely into view, unattended and unscripted, lends this controlled atmosphere the free spirit Latourelle champions. The horses are trained, of course, and their shtick is surely well-rehearsed, but the trainers don't whip and compel so much as whisper and coax.

As before, the negotiations don't always go well. At Tuesday's opening, a horse was reluctant to pose with its front hooves on the low railing separating the performers from the audience. Once there, he didn't want to leave, and after an awkward retreat, he pouted upstage for a moment, then returned for a dainty ballerina-like bow. Some audiences will find passages like this slow, balky and maybe a bore; others, like the people who sat behind me, will gush, "It's like poetry!"

At its best, "Cavalia" is indeed a wonder, reaching a peak when eight horses take the stage unsupervised until Sylvia Zerbini enters and quietly talks them into gorgeous, disciplined dressage patterns. Some of the horses toss their heads and kick -- spirited bad boys -- which makes it more impressive when they circle neatly or arrange themselves so fetchingly that the crowd erupts with delight.

The performance has changed since its 2005 appearance here, but not radically, and not in ways that will be readily apparent to non-horse experts. Roman riding -- one person standing atop a pair of galloping steeds -- is still a centerpiece thrill, with four nimble riders and eight lively horses in what feels like an awfully brave race. Human acrobatics and aerial ballet, skillful and lovely, seem to be a bit more prominent, and the finish is less anticlimactic, but the overall form and thrust will be familiar to viewers who caught the show last time.

The visual effects are by director Erick Villeneuve, with equestrian choreography by Frederic Pignon and Magali Delgado, and together they achieve their goal of awe and charm. "Cavalia" is an impressive, highly refined affair, yet one that encourages you to giggle at the four-legged stars whenever they roll heavily onto the ground for a blissful, natural back scratch in the dirt.

Cavalia, created by Normand Latourelle. Directed by Erick Villeneuve. Choreography, Alain Gauthier; scenery, Marc Labelle; lighting design, Alain Lortie; sound, Michel Therrien; costumes, Mireille Vachon. About 2 hours 40 minutes.