Cavalia is a unique theatrical experience. The phrase that's sometimes used to describe it — "Cirque du Soleil with horses" — is accurate but inadequate.
In its elegance, its often austere tone and its consistently astounding athleticism, Cavalia certainly demonstrates a common ancestry with Cirque du Soleil.
But it's not just the almost constant presence of gorgeous and fascinating horses that sets Cavalia apart.
The horses are fascinating to watch, and seeing them in such an unusual setting invites the audience to look at the animals with a fresh eye.
But even after the audience has started to become inured to the beauty and power of the horses — which sometimes appear on stage alone, but most often with human riders and trainers — the startling beauty, magic and imagination of the show's stagecraft keep impressing.
The show takes place entirely under a big top, the largest in the world, according to the show's publicity people. The glistening-white, multipeaked tent is impressive on its own, so even as you're driving into the Florida State Fairgrounds, you feel that something special awaits.
As the show opens, horses gallop across an expansive stage. The stage is covered with sand, so the horses run silently, which lends a mystical quality to the entire production.
Over the next two hours, dozens of performers and dozens of horses take the stage, performing equestrian feats that seem impossible to conceive, let alone execute flawlessly. In one scene, riders stand on two horses — with one foot on the back of each horse — and race around the stage and jump over a barrier. At first the horses jump; then the barrier is raised and the horses pass under, with the riders jumping over and landing on the backs of two horses, still at a full run.
Other scenes have riderless horses moving in synchronized choreography with one another, with only the slightest hint of direction from their human co-stars.
Through it all, the stage continuously and seamlessly changes in both appearance and mood, with constant and wondrous displays of theater magic from director and visual "conceptor" Erick Villeneuve. Pools of water — actual water — appear on stage and then instantly disappear before your eyes. A narrow band of fine rain falls from the ceiling, and images of a horse are projected onto the water from behind, imparting a stunningly ethereal effect.
If you're inclined to look for faults, you could say that Michel Cusson's ubiquitous music, performed by a sometimes-visible band, grows wearisome in its unchanging oh-so-serious tone, and that some of the nonequine sequences (a scene with lasso tricks, for example) are too familiar to be in such a distinctive show.
But even if those aspects annoy you during the show, the effect doesn't last. What stays with you is a new, or at least renewed, appreciation for the mind, body and spirit of the horse, and a glorious feeling of awe imparted by Villeneuve's visuals.