Cavalia is an equestrian show advertised as an acrobatic-ballet hybrid, and as such should have been both elegant and exciting. It has had more publicity and hype than anything I’ve seen come to Edmonton, and a month of sold out shows is proving just how effective that can be. But on opening night, despite a lively crowd, circus atmosphere and pleasant after-party, it failed to impress.
It began with a cello and then vocalist performing in a melismatic, medieval style that suited the flowing taupe costumes. Simple drum rhythms added to an effect that might have been depicting the early days of humanity, and the first relationship between man and horse. It was probably intended to be an ethereal opening, creating a zen state that would build into the stunts of later scenes. Instead it was mind-numbing for anyone not enamored with animal behaviour.
Eventually the show did build, into dressage, a few stunts, and finally true acrobatics. The music continued to reflect the scenes: the high-powered acrobatic sections had a cowboy spin with boots, chaps and a country twang from the live band. Dressage scenes were accompanied by folk tunes with acoustic guitar or a return to the original cello. At times the dressage took on a whimsical narrative. The horses would come out slowly, their riders wearing trailing garments and holding their arms out for the full billowing effect, gazing into each other’s eyes, stopping frequently, a smoke machine working over time. Meanwhile, the band would take on a Muzak style of easy listening beat, inevitably slowing the heart rate of the audience and lulling us into a sense of security. The whole scene was catering to those who find power in a tableau and beauty in the control of man over beast. Once again I found myself not exhilarated but rather a bit sleepy.
The acrobatic portions were very exciting. There is no denying that the stunts were impressive, accompanied by thrilling riffs on electric guitar. Even some of the dressage, which is highly technical but not as showy, had moments of intensity: for instance when eight horses marched flank to flank sideways across the stage.
It was also at times a humourous production. A particularly frisky stallion began stamping to the beat during a dressage sequence, in such a demanding way that everyone began clapping along. One of the acrobats had some skits in which he pretended to be sleepy before pulling off outrageous stunts, such as riding two horses at once, leaping over a pole as the horses ran under, then landing with one foot on either horse on the other side. They managed feats that looked impossible, had seemingly endless energy, and maintained incredible control over the horses.
However, the pace of the whole show was too slow. There were too many energy lapses without enough time given to the acrobats. The music was almost droopy for everything but the cowboy scenes, giving the impression of an endless twanging march to the finish line. For a horse-lover it might have been perfect, but for your average layman there was not enough bang for your buck.
Cavalia is playing “Under the Big White Top” at Edmonton City Centre Airport until October 14th.