The horses in "Cheval" are equine supermodels. Unlike their two-legged equivalents, these elaborately groomed animals can do more than stand around looking good. As put together by Gilles Ste-Croix, hitherto an artistic honcho at Cirque du Soleil, the show features successive impressive displays of agility from both horse and human talents.

All horses are pretty, but the ones in one-ring circus “Cheval” are, well, equine supermodels, if you will. Unlike their two-legged equivalents, however, these elaborately groomed animals can do more than stand around looking good. As put together by Gilles Ste-Croix, hitherto an artistic honcho at Cirque du Soleil, the show features successive impressive displays of agility from both horse and human talents, colorfully packaged in the whimsical-rather-than-brassy mode familiar from Ste-Croix’s prior gig. That Cirque association should help this French-Canadian package pull both adult and family viewers on its ongoing tour dates: Bloomington, MN and Nashville runs follow current San Jose dates through the summer.

Staged under Guy St-Amour’s handsome mottled-earthtone big top (another one houses the stables, which auds can tour before and after the performance), the show is technically far less grandiose than Cirque du Soleil’s recent efforts. But that’s all to the good, and “Cheval’s” relative toning-down of twee and humorous elements also keeps the focus firmly on those magnificent beasts and their oft-surprising skills. If segments occasionally grow repetitious or overlong, general pacing is nonetheless strong enough to suit all — the 3-year-old sitting next to this reviewer was held spellbound throughout, way past her normal bedtime.

Accompanied by a six-member band and two vocalists performing Bernard Poirier’s score (more consistent, less world-beat-polyglot than Cirque’s norm), the individual acts take place within a center ring that’s just 46 feet across, surrounded by attractive grille fence. Its tight confines make the horses’ frequent lapping speed and complex formations all the more surprising.

Highlights among those stunts include six riderless animals doing “freestyle dressage,” executing quasi-chorus line moves in perfect synch; an impetuous-looking Arabian stallion displaying both mock fury and imitative abilities toward its trainer; and a miniature horse “dancing” amongst four women. Several of the most spectacular “numbers” involve a combo of human acrobatics and equine diligence. Three riders nimbly jump on and off a mount as it gallops the ring; others somersault backwards from one steed’s hindquarters to another, then do the likewise onto a fellow horseman’s shoulders; then create a human pyramid atop several horses running shoulder-to-shoulder.

There’s no talking here beyond P.A. introductions for each act, and (in Cirque style) the vocalists seem to be singing nonsense syllables rather than actual lyrics. Clowning — often the weak link in Cirque shows — is held to a minimum, with two fussy, bowtied fraidy-cats (Voki Kalfayan, Christian Ferland) appearing on occasion to indifferent effect.

Ferland does get the evening’s one standout (if overextended) comedic segment, in which he bungles in every possible way mounting Hispano-Arabian Bohemio. Latter’s willingness to adopt some highly unnatural positions — including lying on his back, legs in air — startles, though it may rankle viewers who have qualms about the ethics of trained-animal performance in general. (It should be noted that “Cheval” reps not only Ste-Croix’s breakout from Cirque du Soleil, but also a decisive break from their strict no-animal-acts policy. Natch, program notes stress the care lavished on the animals’ well-being, on and off stage.)

Show could maybe use a slightly stronger arc to offset occasional repetitiousness amongst acts. (That climactic pyramid ought to close matters, too; instead, “Cheval” follows it with a less interesting final section.) Yet Ste-Croix exhibits wise good taste in seeing that the horses alone are enough of a theme, sans need for any marginal narrative or other connecting tissue.

Trainers, acrobats and dancers are seldom called upon to act, beyond looking very good in Francois Barbeau’s custom-tooled threads. Like Poirier’s score, costumes amplify a vague gypsy motif. Guy Simard’s lighting hews to the same rich but not gaudy color scheme, emphasizing hues like teal, rust and mustard. All tech aspects are first-rate.

Cheval

Cheval big top; 1,500 seats; $56 top

Production

A Cheval Theater presentation of a circus performance in two acts devised and directed by Gilles Ste-Croix.

Creative

Set, Michel Crete; costumes, Francois Barbeau; music, Bernard Poirier; sound, Guy Desrochers; equestrian choreography, Bernard Quental, Igor Kassaev; lighting, Guy Simard; tent architect, Guy St-Amour. Opened May 1, 2002. Reviewed May 11. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.

Cast

With: Zamperla Zoppe Brothers, Caroline Williams, Voki Kalfayan, Christian Ferland, Sebastien Desenne, Stephane Simon, Stephanie Jeanne Outin, Marion Duterte, Emilie Jumeaux, Ivan Vladimirov, David and Robert Donnert, Anita Fuzy, Caroline Mace.
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