Somewhere between 8:35 and 8:40 p.m., I stole a glance at my watch on press night at Cavalia, the show from Montreal that does for horses what Cirque du Soleil did for circuses. I wasn't checking the time because I was bored. No, I wanted to give you an idea of how deeply we get into the show before we see a horse with either a bridle or a rider. Until then, they roam freely across wide stage -- about half the size of a football field -- untouched and, for long stretches, unaccompanied by humans.
We had gotten a taste of this free-range motif in a 45-minute press preview when, one after another, five horses pranced into a gorgeously sylvan scene, devised by visual conceptor Érick Villeneuve and projected on 70-yard widescreen that embraces the stage. They continued roaming and frolicking together, in a segment called "La Liberté," to the appropriately primeval music composed by Michel Cusson, before their beautiful trainer, Sylvia Zerbini, joined them from the wings and coaxed them into their more coordinated paces.
As it turned out, the segments we saw were the three that climax the action prior to intermission and the final three of Act 2. The free-range action of "Liberté" was seemingly pigeonholed between the customary interaction between horses, riders, and acrobats. So it was not only surprising to see how much more central the freely roaming steeds and stallions are to the thin overall story line, it also gave me a chance to notice how much more ideally matched the action of Cavalia is to the New Age musical idiom than the animation-inspired harlequinade of Cirque du Soleil.
What could be more graphically New Age than "La Découverte," where the diaphanous Marianella Michaud -- an enchanting vision for man or beast -- frolics in a little pool that magically materializes in the middle of the wide sands and entices Tunante, a lovely grey Spanish pure breed gelding, to join her in the water? It was like seeing that ancient demigoddess, the White Rock Girl, reborn and making music videos.
All of the costuming is carefully calculated to sustain the primordial spell, from the elegance of medieval gowns and monastic robes to the garb of the American prairie, cowpokes and Indians. In conceiving Cavalia, Normand Latourelle, who co-founded Cirque du Soleil, discarded the painted faces even in the stray touches of humor that dapple this independent production, favoring the idiom of the rodeo clown.
Most spectacular are the segments where riders, horses, aerialists, uptempo music, and spectacular video excitingly intermix on the superwide stage. In Act 1, that climax is "La Vida" with riders Julien Beaugnon and James Buchanan -- plus Michaud returning to take wing with fellow aerialist Marie-Élaine Mongeau. That same basic core team, with Mathieu Bianchi replacing Beaugnon, returns for the Act 2 extravaganza, "Bungees Cavaliers." Lest you think the animals are overworked, Tardon and Hades, the two horses of "La Vida," are replaced by Penultimo and Igor. Joining them in the spectacle are cellist Olivier Caron and vocalist Mary Pier Guilbault, but the more memorable overlays are the falling snow and the dreamy blue lighting, deepening the poetic beauty and circling us back to the New Age feel of the opening segments.
Or we can say that it hearkens back to Zerbini and "La Liberté," which charms us two segments beforehand. For the public, Zerbini commands eight horses instead of the five she displayed for the press corps, making the group slightly less picturesque and her gentle discipline more difficult to impose -- with results that are dramatically unpredictable. A couple of the horses took to rolling in the sand on Tuesday, behavior unseen at the preview, and one of the horses was perpetually a tad out-of-step with his fellows.
If you've been to a Cirque du Soleil tent city, expect the same luxury levels at the concessions and at the lavatories. Horse lovers like my wife Sue will feel like they've arrived in Paradise -- or the Holy Temple -- especially if they splurge on the Cavalia "Horse Lover" ticket package, which seats you in the front rows during the show and gives you access to the stables afterwards. The "Rendez-Vous" package piles on additional blandishments, including pre-show hors-d'oeuvres, intermission desserts, an open bar, a gift, and more.
You don't get to enter the Stable of Stables immediately, because the 62 animals that await must be properly settled down and groomed. In the meanwhile, there's a brief extra show featuring training sessions where performing horses of the future go through their routines in front of a live audience. On press night, this built up to Charles-Étienne Ménard replicating the delights of "Liberté Play" -- with an unnamed horse replacing Xadrez. There was not a single misstep as the neophyte performer gleamed a shiny copper in the spotlight, all the way to the horse's final bow.