A galloping good time at Cavalia

Extended through Jan. 2, 2011!
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One of many gorgeous horse-and-man images in the captivating show Cavalia in the big white tent behind AT&T Park in San Francisco. Below: The aerialist/rider routine known as “La Vida.” Photos by Frédéric Chéhu

A few years ago, if you’d asked me what I thought about horses as theater, I’d have probably said something like, “Call me when Mr. Ed performs as Hamlet.”

But then I saw Cavalia, an inspired Cirque du Soleil-like spectacular built around the beauty and strength of horses. That was in February of 2004, and I’ve never quite looked at horses the same way since.

I joked at the time that the show was “Cirque du Horse,” but that shorthand quip doesn’t fully express the originality and power of this gorgeous creation. Sure, Artistic Director Normand Latourelle is one of the founding members of Cirque, and he brings that sensibility with him in the form of an immersive tent experience that combines high-tech theatrical wizardry wrapped around live music and acrobatics.

But the way he features the horses is really what it’s all about. You can have dudes doing backflips and ladies swinging on trapezes ‘til the cows come home. When the horses take the stage, Cavalia is part circus, part rodeo, part competitive dressage and entirely breathtaking.

Latourelle and director Érick Villeneuve (who also conceived the show’s striking visual design) wisely involve the horses in almost every act of this 2 ½-hour show. For instance, when Faiçal Moulid is balancing on a giant ball, it’s your typical circus act – well done but ordinary. Then a gorgeous horse trots out onto the giant, 160-foot-wide stage and starts playing with him. Suddenly the act is completely original.

The 30 humans on stage (with the six musicians above the stage and behind the giant screen that stretches all along the back of the stage) interact with dozens of horses ranging from quarter horses to Arabians to Lusitanos to Percherons. I don’t know my Mustang from my Comtois, but I know I couldn’t take my eyes off the animals.

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My two favorite acts are the same as they were six years ago. In Act 1, aerialists Andréanne Nadeau and Marianella Michaud fly around the center ring, where riders Thomas Aubron and Julien Beaugnon keep their animals running at a brisk pace. The combination of speed and flight, of galloping horse and airborne human is completely entrancing.

And in Act 2, Sylvia Zerbini spends a good long time cavorting with a crowd of nine equines. She seemingly controls them with soft commands, tossed sand and – I’m guessing here – her mind. The horses frolic like dogs at the beach, sometimes toeing the line, sometimes not.

We also get Roman stampedes, impressive jumps, saddle-bouncing high jinks, a snowstorm and minimal clowning that seemed to make the kids happy.

I admire how essentially restrained the show is in terms of razzle-dazzle. The costumes by Manon Desmarais and Mireille Vachon are tasteful and tend to look like medieval paintings. There are no Electric Cowboy atrocities, no Vegas schmaltz. Horses are dignified creatures, and Latourelle and his creative team are celebrating that fact.

Tickets for Cavalia are pricey, no question. But you see the money on the stage, especially when those beautiful beasts are in motion. Horsing around has never been so captivating.


Cavalia continues an extended run through Jan. 2, 2011 in the white big top adjacent to AT&T Park, Fourth Street and China Basin Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $64.50 to $139.50. A special “rendez-vous” package includes a visit to the stables, a pre-show buffet in a private pavilion, beverages (wine, beer, soft drinks) and a souvenir. Those tickets start at $229.50. Call 866 999-8111 or visit www.cavalia.net.

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