You are living under a rock if you haven't heard about Cavalia, the show often described, at least around our office, as "Cirque du Soleil with horses." Between the giant, quadruple-towered tent the production has set up under the Fremont Bridge; the adjacent building-sized, draped banners; and the flood of advertisements all over the city, the show's logo of a white, doe-eyed horse with long flowing locks of humanlike hair is forever ingrained in my mind.
On opening night, I was skeptical. The cynic in me couldn't wait to take a jab or two at the extravagant spectacle of hauling 45 stallions and geldings around the world so acrobats can do flips on their backs in front of thousands of people. Or to poke fun at how most of the male performers have longer hair than the horses do.
Cavalia's Portland premiere slapped my cynicism in the face. It is a spectacle, indeed. Though the acrobats and aerialists have rubber bands for bodies and are seemingly immune to gravity, the real performance is by the "four-legged artists," as creator Normand Latourelle calls his horses.
The show opens with a quote: "The noblest conquest of a man is to have gained the friendship of a horse." This relationship is the backbone of the show, and it evolves beautifully throughout the performance. In one of the most touching acts, a trainer coaxes six loosely running horses into a perfect concentric trot around her and, with the slightest change in her body, the steeds simultaneously turn the other direction as if all seven figures are one breathing, moving entity.
The mood quickly changes from elegance and obedience to a heart-racing cowboy-clad atmosphere. One by one, horses gallop against a vast desert landscape as daring riders perform a number of tricks, including hanging upside down, sideways and backward off the saddle. Soon a rider's head is only inches away from thundering hooves, and the audience is somewhere between astonished and horrified.
Cavalia explores all sides of the horse: gentle and nurturing, fierce and powerful, wild and tame. And the connection between horse and human, the exclusive bond between performance partners, is quite a sight to see.