Horse Story 

Plot is really beside the point in Cavalia.

Frédéric Pignon and his wife and codirector Magali Delgado sat down with their cast to design the show Cavalia, now swinging back through the Bay Area after a sold-out five-week San Francisco run in March. "What would you like to do?" they asked. Star and senior cast member Templado shook his head and said without hesitation, "Well, we like to run. Really fast. Back and forth and in circles. Can we do that?" Pignon nodded, making a note in French on his pad. "We don't really care for walking backward, but we like you, so we'll do it," Templado added. "Okay," said Pignon, who then gave the massive white stallion a lump of sugar and a scratch behind the ears.

At least that is how I imagine it went. Because Cavalia is unlike any other circus, rodeo, or show involving horses; it is a great big fuzzy nuzzling of all things equine that puts the 33 horses first.

Producer Normand Latourelle was one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, and there is a whiff of that venerable franchise in Cavalia. The music. The acrobats and aerialists and their costumes. The plush toy horses for sale in the outer tent. But the differences are quirky and refreshing. The biggest one is that Cavalia takes place in horse time. Pignon clearly trains with affection, not the whip, and there's a spontaneity and looseness to the action that would spell disaster in the tightly controlled Soleil atmosphere.

The show starts in a leisurely way. The equine cast's two youngsters play around in the sand while human performers show off some acrobatics and mill around in vaguely medieval costumes. A woman who looks like Eowyn from Lord of the Rings does a dance heavy on kicks, spins, and backbends (alas, the human choreography is not always as interesting as the equine). It takes almost half an hour for anyone to actually climb atop a horse.

Another obvious and gratifying difference is that the horses are not the ones doing the physically uncomfortable tricks. This time it's a man, not a horse, balancing atop a ball -- though a horse does come out, shake down his human costar for sugar lumps, then leave. A human performer bends his body into positions it hurts just to think about, all the while balancing his hands on the hands of another man, who is standing on a moving horse. Or how about a woman riding not one, not two, but four horses at once, and jumping?

Sometimes a narrative seems about to emerge, as when a guy clowns around and retrieves a scarf from the ground while hanging upside down from his horse. But soon there's no narrative whatsoever, just half a dozen riders whooping back and forth at breakneck speeds, mostly on quarterhorses, showing off all the ways to fall off a horse and get back on -- backward, forward, upside down, off the back, off the side, you name it.

So while there's often a loose conceptual framework -- humankind's first encounter with the horse is dramatized, the changing of the seasons is suggested and then discarded -- that's really not the point. The point is that these are well-trained people playing with well-trained horses, while live music and mysterious projections go on around them. While some moments may evoke what my companion described as "the Kama Sutra on horses," this is a family show that threatens to make audiences relive every fantasy of having a spiritual and emotional bond with a beautiful wild creature that goes beyond language and thought into magic.

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