Early in “Cavalia,” a proverb is projected onscreen: “The Horse is God’s Gift to Man.” This sweeping statement proves fully justified by an exciting program that features such breeds as Lusitanos, Belgians, Percherons, quarter horses and an Arabian, interacting exquisitely with their human soulmates. Anyone with an ounce of horse sense is likely to respond to amazing physical feats demonstrated by the performers, and by the sight of 33 equines with offbeat names like Hollywood, Hades, Popeye and Zazabelou streaking across the stage.
The physical dimensions of the enterprise are impressive: 19 acrobats and riders, 75 costumes, 200-foot-wide screen, 800 tons of sand and a big top almost 100 feet high that utilizes 12,720 feet of canvas.
But those figures are statistics, to be admired as theatrical icing. “Cavalia” transcends its trappings, providing a surprisingly intimate production despite its size, establishing how vital horses have been from cultural and historical standpoints.
Created by Normand Latourelle, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, the show spotlights contributions by world-class “horse whisperer” Frederic Pignon and Pignon’s wife, Magali Delgado.
Pignon rides horses at death-defying speed and also shows his deep respect for their value and dignity, subtly guiding them through meticulous moves. Delgado and her sister, Estelle, daughters of Lusitanian horse breeders in southern France, display astonishing facility as trainers and riders.
An opening image of wooden toy horses, stuffed horses and rocking horses conveys childlike wonder, underlining the impact horses have throughout the lives of people who love them. These models then yield to a ballet between woman and horse, imaginatively choreographed by Alan Gauthier and Brad Denys as a gracefully subdued calm before the storm.
Tension rises when an acrobat holding a torch jumps on a huge ball, does cartwheels and holds his ground against a scrim of Lascaux cave paintings, visuals that represent cave dwellers who painted horses and primitively expressed their admiration.
The feats become increasingly difficult and challenging. We see three people Roman riding, straddling the horses as they race from stage left to right. Another rider is upside down, still a third leaps from side to side. Few film Westerns have portrayed horse or rider capacity so breathtakingly as stunts shown here that include flips, somersaults, riding backward and doing handsprings. All riders are remarkable, and one, Karen Turvey, possesses a wild, daredevil exuberance that draws particular attention to her preternatural prowess.
Interspersed with equestrian activity are acrobats attached to wires or bungee cords. They hang from and wind themselves around ropes, and one particularly heart-stopping sight is a man whirling like a dervish, as if propelled by an inner motor pushing speed to new levels.
For all its self-confident exhibition of tricks, “Cavalia” also communicates with quiet, gentle humor. Pignon coaxes three of his animals to kneel and lie down. Two of them roll on their backs and kick up their heels.
Director Erick Villeneuve, who designed the show’s visual effects, supplies stimulating, nonstop video imagery: flames and fire, ancient masks and statues from different countries, a golden forest where horses run. Mireille Vachon’s costumes — cottons, silks, velvets and satins with a Renaissance feeling — are strikingly sensual and tailored to give performers room to maneuver. Michael Cusson’s original score thunders passionately, although his percussive background music is occasionally overwhelming. The cues that work best are single-guitar or solo oboe and cello.
Alan Lortie’s lighting is one of the evening’s prime achievements, enabling us to perceive everything but keeping much of the action soft and mellow, just the right use of color tones that turn “Cavalia” from literal horse show into a magical, mythic experience.