Gilles Ste-Croix is not a household name, but in many ways he’s to le cirque what Andrew Lloyd Webber was to the Broadway musical in the 1980s — he’s always got a few shows going somewhere. As artistic director, and then director of creation, for Cirque du Soleil, Ste-Croix was the creative force behind the Canadian troupe’s high-art circus spectacles “Alegria,” “Quidam” and the gorgeous, Las Vegas-based “O.” All of these works combined amazing acrobatics with a sense of the otherworldly, and thus paid tribute to human potential in both the physical and imaginative realms. Ste-Croix has now devoted his energy to an equestrian circus, “Cheval,” that feels like a first step toward something potentially grander; its elements haven’t quite fused together into the transporting experience of, say, “O.” Since the performance certainly provides plenty to marvel at, it would be wrong to look this gift horse in the mouth.
Experience begins before entering the bigtop. The tent is designed on the outside to resemble a medieval castle, setting the stage, if you will, for the Eastern European music and costumes that define the atmosphere of the circus. Prior to getting to the tent, one walks through the stables, and the horses have signposts that give their name, breed, and discipline. There are 30 horses in all, ranging in size from the American miniature, a pretty adorable creature named Chabo, to horses of truly imposing bulk, all of them stunning.
Once the show proper begins, the equine antics of “Cheval” don’t exactly explode with excitement. Show suffers a bit from an odd fault — the performers sometimes make their feats look too easy, and one of the challenges Ste-Croix et al face is performing for an audience mainly uneducated in the equestrian arts. Standing on a horse’s back while it trots around the ring, for example, is probably impressive in and of itself, but all we have to compare it to are movie scenes that make the stunt seem minimal. About a half-hour in, though, that changes. The pace of the horses picks up, and the more elaborate exploits begin. The first act ends with a troupe of five Russian performers executing “Cossack vaulting,” climaxing when Stanislav Lazarov climbs underneath a horse galloping at a nice clip. And on opening night, the start of the second act saw a female performer fall off a horse during high-speed vaulting and hit her head on the side of the ring — she was OK, but after that nobody could question the degree of derring-do.
The level of entertainment is far more consistent in the second, ending with the energetic acrobatics of the Zamperla Zoppe Brothers, who perform flips from one horse to another. The second half is more successfully varied as well, interrupting its dramatic acrobatic acts with successful amusements like the comic horse Bohemio, working in tandem with clown Christian Ferland.
And then there’s a stunning “freestyle dressage,” in which American Caroline Williams, in an elaborate black dress from a different era, stands center ring and commands six Andalusian horses in the equine equivalent of a ballroom dance number. Of all the acts, this is the one that’s the most transfixing — focus is not just on the human or the horses, but on the relationship between them, and “Cheval” could use significantly more of that. As with the daredeviltry at the start, Ste-Croix hasn’t quite figured out how to express this element to its fullest throughout this fitfully thrilling show.