The relationship between man and animal is romanticized to the hilt in "Cavalia," a lovely, spacey horse show created by Cirque du Soleil co-founder Normand Latourelle. Horse buffs will ooh and aah at the fine-tuned maneuvers pulled off by "Cavalia's" team of gorgeous, proud steeds, especially since the notoriously feisty animals often perform sans saddle, sans bridle, sprinting or rearing according to a trainer's smile or gently lifted finger.
But Latourelle is courting more than just a rarefied audience of equestrians, and so for the rabble he adds a grand palette of Cirque-style trappings. The horses, many of them white Lusitano stallions, share the scene with acrobats, aerialists and arena-scale multimedia effects, all wrapped in a dense, insistently pretty aesthetic.
The big top pitched in a parking lot in Pentagon City has the smooth lines of a cartoon castle; inside, the metal towers supporting the huge grid over the stage are wrapped in sheer fabric and shaped like gigantic flower vases. The vast screen behind the stage -- 200 feet wide and gently curved -- hides a small ensemble performing the mystical tweets and hoots of New Age music. The screen itself is constantly illuminated by projections of the changing seasons, of ancient architecture, of classical art. At times, watching "Cavalia" is like watching exquisite stallions wandering around the Pottery Barn after dark.
Erick Villeneuve is credited with direction and visual design, and he threatens to steal the show. Villeneuve makes it rain, he makes it snow, he projects equine footage on a huge curtain of falling water. He also ratchets up the video action on that meadow-size backdrop whenever he and Latourelle feel like adding a vertigo-inducing swirl of motion as the horses come to a full gallop.
Not that the two- and four-legged artists (as "Cavalia" distinguishes them) can't hold the stage on their own. Trainer Nadia Richer exerts subtle control over a horse as she frolics in a puddle that materializes and then vanishes like magic on the sand-covered stage. Painstakingly drilled steeds step in careful rhythm with syncopated drumming. Acrobats spring off trampolines and over and onto moving horses, while riders stand on their mounts, flipping over obstacles and landing back on their moving targets. Aerialists on bungee cords and trapezes twist and rise in shapely patterns, with two women finishing one routine by being spun through space like Frisbees.
Nothing is more exciting, though, than the sight of powerful horses dashing across the 160-foot stage, often chasing, or being chased by, their human partners (ponytails flying on man and beast). The first act climaxes with a bit of Roman riding that evokes chariot races: Three riders stand astride six galloping horses, two horses per rider, one foot on each horse, greater tricks to follow. And there is comic relief in the second act with some good old-fashioned rodeo-style trick riding -- straight passes across the stage in stunt positions that are inventive and dangerous-looking. Speed thrills.
But "Cavalia" clearly has a creed -- animals are free, man should live in harmony with them -- and horse whisperer Frederic Pignon is its apostle. Pignon, equestrian co-director of the show with Magali Delgado, talks to his animals, and they seem to talk back, nuzzling and even kissing him so sweetly it's a little gross. He waves a finger, his massive stallions stand up; he murmurs, and they bow like ballerinas. This last section of the show is a love-fest, and it's not spoiled much when one of the horses fails to cooperate, opting instead for a satisfying roll in the dirt. Apparently, this is virtually a staple of the act, and it plays like part of the lesson. Pignon grins at the audience and shrugs philosophically. Horses: What can you do with them?
Clearly, a lot. It's an oddball act, and a little at odds with itself. A lot of high-tech effects are marshaled to make a back-to-nature point. You may fight a sense of anticlimax on realizing that the best moments of this busy extravaganza aren't the sensational ones; what lingers are the subtleties, the tranquility, the sensation of letting certain expectations go.
Cavalia, created by Normand Latourelle, directed by Erick Villeneuve. Original score, Michel Cusson; set, Marc Labelle, lighting, Alain Lortie; sound, Michel Therrien; choreography, Alain Gauthier and Brad Denys. Approximately 2 1/2 hours. Through Nov. 15 at the Big Top in Pentagon City. Call 866-999-8111 or visit www.cavalia.net