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Cavalia

Anyone who categorically rejects exploiting animals for entertainment will find occasion to bridle.

The half-man, half-horse “Cavalia” circus returns to Southern California after seven years, and anyone who categorically rejects exploiting animals for entertainment will find occasion to bridle. But those who treasure theater as a means of exploring the mystical bonds between our species and God’s other creatures will be entranced. A cadre of proud stallions and geldings, trained within an inch of their lives, shows up even the most talented of their two-legged castmates. The obvious lovefest between humans and horses extends over the footlights; especially for kids, this is an enthralling night under the big top.

The trappings are heavily Cirque du Soleil, an enterprise co-founded by this show’s Ziegfeld, Normand Latourelle. There’s Cirque’s familiar pretentious imagery and heavy-handed clowning, both mercifully kept to a minimum here; and the same tumbling and flying, all played against nonstop selections from what sounds like every New Age album you ever begged your college suitemate not to play. (During the opening night prologue, a lady entered wailing stage right, and the two onstage colts immediately galloped to the opposite side. Everybody’s a critic.)

Where Cirque goes for height, “Cavalia” is defined by width, allotting the equivalent of what looks like a football field to accommodate its cast of characters whether at walk, trot, canter or gallop.

The swinging, soaring, bungee-jumping aerial effects aren’t quite as amazing as those in Soleil’s “O” or “Ka,” but then it’s just as well. The “Cavalia” artists could be performing Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story” choreography in midair, and we’d still look away if a horse so much as ambled in to sniff the ground.

The cast is given much free rein to gambol and wander, gently guided by a corps of female trainers costumed in flowing dresses (think Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel in “The Lord of the Rings”) or like Xena, Warrior Princess. (That may be a concession to those daddies in the audience still fuming at how far they had to park from the Burbank circus tent. A word to the wise: Arrive early.)

When Equus’ skills combine with those of the humans, “Cavalia” prances into high gear. We get jaw-dropping trick riding, and jumps by teams of two; bareback stunts, followed by precision drill-team work apparently inspired by Busby Berkeley and displaying the highest levels of dressage.

Yet it’s equally riveting when one Xena simply enacts the first meeting of human and horse by staring at him in profile. She gestures, and he turns his head to regard us balefully. Freeze. That’s it — and it’s magic.

In the end, keeping the focus on the equine stars isn’t just thematically valid (dramatizing the interconnectedness of man and horse) but a shrewd showbiz choice as well, because as soon as the animals exit, we get antsy for their return.

Through it all, the horse performers seem amused at the ease of what they’re asked to do. Their seemingly effortless labors are a tribute to the trainers, of course, but you can imagine the horses thinking, Hell, if they put taps on my hooves I’d give ’em a “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” they’d never forget. And all they want is a little dressage? Whatever, dude.

Cavalia

The White Big Top, Burbank;2,004 seats; $139 top

Production: A Normand Latourelle presentation of a circus in two acts. Artistic director, Latourelle. Director and visual conceptor, Erick Villeneuve. Equestrian director, Benjamin Aillaud. Equestrian choreography, Aillaud, Magali Delgado, Frederic Pignon. Artistic coordinator and choreographer, Alain Gauthier.

Creative: Sets, Marc Labelle; costumes, Manon Desmarais, Mireille Vachon; lighting, Alain Lortie; composer, Michel Cusson; musical director, Sylvain Gagnon. Opened, reviewed Jan. 19, 2011. Runs through Feb. 13. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

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