Cavalia Hoofs It

As you might remember, Fascination! covered the rise and untimely fall of “Cheval Theatre,” Gilles Ste-Croix’s attempt to mix horsemanship with Cirque-quality showmanship. Rising from the ashes, and with some of the equipment, of that failed partly-Cirque-financed production comes a new show (produced by another Cirque veteran) that attempts the same thing, Cavalia – “A Magical Encounter Between Man and Horse” ( It recently passed through Seattle, and my lovely wife and I had a chance to check it out.

Created and produced by Normand Latourelle, one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil (and with them up to 1990), it is a show described by Mr. Latourelle himself as, “Cirque du Soleil with horses.” Publicity materials say that he had a long-standing dream of doing a show involving horses, which came to pass after being introduced to renowned French trainers (and equestrian co-directors of Cavalia) husband and wife team Frédéric Pignon and Magali Delgado. After first touring in Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Cavalia chose the Seattle area as the fifth stop on its tour – possibly because of the success of prior Cirque productions here. Interestingly, the tour itinerary is a little erratic, as the next stop after this is back in the Bay Area – Oakland starting August 5th (dates beyond that are unknown)! Their initial strategy is to announce only one week of dates and announce date extensions as tickets are sold. Kind of like Cirque in that way, but while Cirque might initially announce 3 weeks of dates Cavalia initially announced only one.

They plopped their tent into the same huge parking lot Cirque used for their last two appearances, in the suburb of Renton. Needing to house some 30 horses on-site, the site footprint is larger than that of a Cirque site. And not only that – the all-white four-spire tent is North America’s largest, a 26,624 square foot behemoth standing more than 100 feet high, taller and wider in diameter than a typical Cirque tent.

Ticket prices also took a bit of a leap. Whereas Cirque’s price topped out in the $65.00 range, Cavalia is charging $73.00, no doubt because of all the hay the horses need. And if you are in the mood to give them even more of your money, they also have a VIP Experience similar to Cirque’s Tapis Rouge, which includes a visit to the stables. Prices for souvenirs are also inflated, but more on that later.

I won’t go into too much background of the show here – one merely has to type in “Cavalia” (or or “Normand Latourelle” in a search engine to find plenty of articles, features, and photographs from other stops on the tour. What follows are my and my wife’s (and also her father’s) impressions and comments.

We pulled into the parking lot (charging $8.00, less than the $12.00 Cirque charged) with plenty of time to take in the concession tents and site. Turns out we needed the time, but for a different reason. Cavalia uses one large tent as its combination concessions/souvenir tent, through which all patrons must pass before having their tickets taken. This was a massive bottleneck as the line extended 4 people thick through the tent and half way into the parking lot! The line moved quickly, however it was certainly not as smooth as Cirque’s two-entrance approach.

The concession tent had plenty of places to sit, though few were partaking of the average food and beverage choices offered there. The souvenir area was busier. This is one place where Cavalia has tried some things differently. The program, for example. Instead of a standard “book-type” souvenir program that Cirque would sell for $12.00 USD, your $20.00 USD gets you a “portfolio” arrangement, housing 22 – 10″ x 16″ one-sided “posters”. Only one page is double-sided, with an introductory poem by Latourelle and the shows credits. Another page lists the acts; the rest are a combination of black and white and color pictures of the cast with their horses. Several are of star trainers Pignon and Delgado, but most all the acts are represented here. An interesting approach, as this allows young girls (a *big* audience for this show) to pin up their favorite pages as posters.

While one could suggest the $8.00 premium for poster-sized pictures is worth it, I can’t say the same for the soundtrack. For what Cirque charges $18.00, Cavalia wants $25.00. And I can’t say that the CD is very good, as it is more downbeat and contemplative in nature than I found while watching the show. I was hoping for more of the exciting pieces of music, but they aren’t here.

Other than those basic souvenir items, Cavalia also had the typical selection of shirts and caps. The prices for these seemed on par with Cirque, but their presentation was lacking. In a more typical “touring-show/concert” type of presentation, all of the merchandise was behind the tables in the area, where only the employees could fetch them. In addition, there were no prices to be found anywhere in view! “How much is X?” rang out so much it almost formed a chorus! This is bad show – if you aren’t going to put the merchandise where people can touch and compare them (encouraging additional sales), at least put big placards of how much things cost where they can be seen and read easily. I don’t know, but perhaps someone was embarrassed at the high prices charged.

Enough about the souvenir tent. After your tickets are taken at the admission choke point, you are directed to one of the eight doors to the tent. The tent is formidable from up close; it just seems to go up and up and up! Its height and width are impressive when you are next to it. While the extreme side doors lead to ground-level seats at the front, most of the other doors lead to vertigo-inducing scaffolding stairs that must be ascending before coming out at the top of the seating area.

This, too, is quite different from a Cirque show. Instead of in the round, Cavalia’s 1800 seats go straight across the front stage area, like bleachers in a high school gym (a Cirque show will typically have around 2200 seats). In fact that’s just what it looks like, except that there are individual plastic seats with backs (but, like Cirque, no armrests) and the bleachers are rather steeply raked. The top rows (about 26 rows back) are high up in the air, but all seats still allow a good view of the shows proceedings. It just may be a hike to get to your seats and back!

Having ascended the metal staircase to the top of the seats, one might get the impression the rest of the shows design would be architecturally stark. Not so, at least from what you can see before the show starts. What is seen at the beginning of the show is a wide dirt track straight across the front of the “stage”. Other than some small props, that’s it! Pre-recorded music plays while people are seating.

When show time approaches, there’s no fussing with “Animation” to get you into the mood. After a short safety announcement, the lights dim and the show begins! And you begin to understand why there are no clowns or characters to entertain you beforehand, as the show subtly begins to wrap you in its extraordinary world. It also may be because, in fact, there are no clowns!

High-quality video projectors shine moving images on curtains on either side of the stage in an impressive display. Soon afterward, a trio of acrobats run and tumble across the dirt stage, followed by the first “Gasp!” moment of the show. Two stallions, one white and one black, run completely at liberty from one entrance and stomp and play on the stage. Not controlled by human handlers, they are free to behave in any way that suits them. It is as though you were watching these magnificent creatures in the wild, playing and running on the plains.

As during Cirque shows, music plays constantly. The music mix quality was so good that for much of the first act I thought the music was pre-recorded. It is only later that the musicians are shown behind screens at the back of the stage, proving that they are indeed playing the music live. I should have thanked the house sound mixer, he did an excellent job. The soundtrack is rather new-agey with subtler dynamics predominant, though it has moments of grand bravado.

And that music accompanies a fascinating fusion of extraordinary horse (and human) behavior. Soon after this opening piece, curtains draw back to reveal the entirety of the “stage” – in reality an oval dirt track for the horses to run on. Now it becomes obvious why the tent must be so large; the stage and seating area is easily a third again as large as a Cirque show. In addition, video projections across the panorama of the back stage wall set the scene of each act – from a Coliseum, to a forest, to a field. These projections make an impressive statement. However, a backlit projection on an occasional center-stage water curtain is less effective, as the projector light is so bright as to blind the eyes.

The horses have developed a powerful bond with their trainer/handlers, responding to subtle finger and hand gestures almost imperceptible to the audience. Circus arts are also brought into the mix. There is a bit of fast track, ball balancing, bungee, and 3-man acrobatics as well as Chinese pole and aerial straps; all done while horses reside somewhere in the tableau. The acrobatics are well done, and pleasing to watch, but sometimes feel out of place, or “added in” to the mix. They are also not quite Cirque caliber.

Several acts stand out. A woman attached to a cable does a pas de deux with a horse and rider that is quite pretty. Near the end of the first act there is a “race” between three pairs of horses that run so close in tandem that the rider can stand atop their bare backs at full gallop, one foot on each horse. There is an astounding segment of trick riding, in which horses and riders zip from one side of the stage to the other, demonstrating tricks in a contest of one-upmanship. And after the show ends, the audience leaves the tent while three brown horses stay onstage, not flinching one bit at the commotion, calmly munching on treats hidden in the dirt.

The real stars of the show are, of course, the horses. Especially touching are the segments between Pignon and his “stars” Templado (a Lusitano white stallion with the longest flowing mane of the bunch, who even has his own hard-cover book for sale), and Aetes. These are tender moments between trainer and horse, and the respect and absolute trust the animals and trainer have for each other is very evident. These are the most powerful parts of the show, illustrating the potential of a symbiotic relationship between man and animal. Though I would have switched the last slower segment between Pignon and Templado with the more energetic trick-riding segment that precedes it, giving the crowd a bang-up finale.

One comes away from the show impressed with its technical aspects, especially the video projections and sound. Also impressive is the interplay between trainers and horses. Less impressive are the “circus arts” acts, but that could be because of our familiarity with Cirque excellence. Is it worth the extra premium they are asking for tickets? For anyone who has ever loved a horse, the answer would of course be yes. And if horses aren’t your thing, there is the grand technical wizardry of the show itself.

Just think twice about the $25.00 soundtrack.