Cavalia is short on gimmicks and big on heart. The big-top import touring Sydney and Melbourne has horses as it stars, but after a long canter never breaks into a gallop.
It’s de rigueur to talk about the wow factor. But Cavalia is more about the “why?” factor.
Word of mouth, probably largely on the back of marketing hype, has it that this is a show short on gimmicks and big on heart. Nope. Don’t get me wrong: there are moments which embrace the spectacle of which the LA Times and other journals of record speak so highly and some reasonably creditable clowning. But such moments are overwhelmed by overblown projected backdrops, audiovisual content, special effects, illusions, holographic stallions and other stocking-stuffers. And there are almost as many spills as thrills.
So this “grand scale” extravaganza falls a long way short of being a “milestone in the history of performing arts”, by bringing equestrian performance to a whole new level. There’s more visceral excitement, in spades, watching wild brumes tear around an open plain or in a garden-variety camp draft. And, call me hard-hearted, but if I wanted to see footage of a foal emerging from the womb, I’d stay home and watch David Attenborough. If I want to see sleek geldings ripple across a paddock, I’ll go bush. I don’t need to see noble creatures, spirits broken, in an overheated, air-conditioned bigtop, galloping ’round, senselessly and repeatedly in dizzying circles. That doesn’t suffice as entertainment, even for horse-lovers.
The first half-hour has one wondering, “will it start soon?!”, for little happens. Scene-setting seems interminable and the cirque formula has been only marginally subverted: just add horses. Yet this is a source of puzzlement, since, for much of the show, horses seem almost incidental. There’s as much focus on a live singer, girls doing rope tricks (admittedly impressive), sometimes shaky acrobatics, aerial stunts and other circus arts.
It was all I could do to keep concentration and keep my mind from hankering, instead, to be at home watching National Velvet, or reruns of Mr Ed. Now, if Normand Latourelle, the event’s creator, could’ve found a talking horse, he would’ve had me with “hello”.
In a way, one of the worst indictments of the show was the fact that, when revealed, I found myself watching the outstanding five-piece band, rather than the main event. (Mind you, the sound was terrible.) Apparently, the show’s been seen by 3.9 million people. That may be a crime against humanity. Not to mention our equine friends. Yes, it will be argued that, in training its 47-strong stable, Cavalia has attained an almost supernatural rapport between man and horse but, at root, while relieving them of the ignominy of the racetrack or beastly burdens, it’s an inane subjugation of sensitive, intelligent animals for our entertainment (or lack thereof). And if you thought long-haul flights were bad, even in business or first, spare a thought for our four-legged friends winging it across the ocean in the cargo-hold. And don’t the horses get giddy, running ’round and ’round a ring. I would. Not to mention bored. I observe such not out of political correctness or from any rabid animal liberational stance, but just out of sheer reasonableness. There is plenty of kindly posturing, with horses being acknowledged for applause, with apples and heavy patting, but I didn’t necessarily sense sincerity.
But even putting philosophical issues aside, the truth is the show rarely gets to a canter, let alone a thundering stampede. I found myself fantasising about a horse leaping the nominal barrier and bolting up the aisle and back down the rickety steel stairs to freedom. As it was, like me, one or two horses seemed to lose interest in repetitive routines and sought to do their own thing. This pointed to at least some parts of the show, like those stairs, looking a little creaky and, unfathomably, under-rehearsed.
It is undeniably impressive to see a man, or woman, harness six horses at a time and ride the rearmost two, standing, with a foot on each. And to see said man, or woman, leap over a bamboo pole to land safely in the same position, while the horses charge underneath. Similarly, to see a suite of rodeo feats, as gelding after stallion gallops across the length of the arena, is entertaining. The aerials are at least attractive, too. It’s all more than enough to make the crowd go utterly mild. And no one can doubt the investment of skill, or commitment of the performers. Even if they looked a bit lost or uncertain from time to time. It’s the producers I’m cynical about.
I wasn’t counting, but here’s a show that runs maybe a few hours, that could easily be condensed into a much more enjoyable hour. It’s a classic case of never mind the quality, feel the width. It seems that’s what people want for $250-odd a ticket. As impressive as the costumes are, we could easily forego the vague allusions to historical epochs and cultural milieux and markings of seasons with obligatory snowfalls and the like. Surely we’re past gasping at such things. Those of us over eight, or under 80, anyway.
This isn’t the uplifting meeting of Adam and Equus they’d have us believe. It’s a meeting of marketing and mediocrity. Responding in almost primal, Pavlovian fashion to the call of the wild and insatiable curiosity, millions of us will see it before we say, “hang on, was that really any good?!”.
If this is the best Canadians can do, they should stick to making maple syrup. I haven’t seen it, but Cavalia might be the best ad for Warhorse running. Giddy-up!
The details: Cavalia plays under the big top at Moore Park until June 16. The show moves to Melbourne for a season on August 7-18 — tickets on the show’s website.