This is what you’re not going to get: the Spanish Riding School in Vienna with its pure white horses and haute ecole repertoire; the regimented uniforms and uniformity of the annual Trooping of the Colour in London; gaudy circus tricks with animals doing unnatural and often uncomfortable things; the whips and silks and screaming gamblers at a commercial race track.
No, what you get with Cavalia is a perfect rapport between humans and horses, gentle natural behaviours and a sense of the holistic joy of all living things. It doesn’t begin with a bang, or a clash of cymbals and fiery hooves, or even structured marching. The space is a 50-metre stretch of sand, the size of an NFL football field, with a projected backdrop of summer woods, where two live horses graze quietly and freely with no human beings in sight.
This is nature at its primal best, where all things live in harmony and, as the chronology moves on, a young girl in simple draped clothing makes her way to one of the horses and gently persuades it to drink from water in her hands, which she has scooped up from a pool which, in a feat of technical magic, seeps up from beneath the sand. And so the connexion and rapport between humans and horses begins, without tight reins, without whips and spurs, but at the beginning just what my horsy friend told me was liberty riding, where the horses move totally untouched by their handlers, responding to their quiet voices and the pointing of a whip indicating where they should go.
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And so it went on, through the ancient worlds of Rome and the Aztecs, the Wild West and the fairytale landscape of a little girl’s dream, all suggested by imaginative back projections and subtle costumes. It’s horse whispering on a grand scale, exquisite communication between handler and horse where the magnificent animals are treated with respect and love, to which they respond in equal measure.
But the handlers don’t always have it their own way. During the sequence called “Grande Liberté”, where six purebreds walk, trot and canter in exquisitely detailed patterns, one of the stallions decided that he wasn’t going to play this game, thank you, and wandered off to the side of the stage and couldn’t be persuaded back until one of the other horses tried to take his place as leader. And then it was push-comes-to-shove time until the pecking order was re-established and the show went on, to the relief of the handler and the delight of the audience.
But there’s even more. It’s not just the 35 horses who perform in the show (from a total of 44) and their trainers, but a talented troupe of acrobats and high-wire artists who perform sometimes with and sometimes without the horses. One of my favourite sequences was “La Vida”, where two wire artists dressed in subtly-flowing silks pirouetted above two horses like Botticelli angels, occasionally descending close to earth to touch hands with the riders while the horses stayed perfectly still; the other a sequence called “Le Miroir”, where two white horses ridden by two girls with long blonde hair and trailing white robes straight out of Camelot did a slow movement sequence in mirror image of each other.
There were four-handed and even six-handed sequences, wild gallops which the riders seemed to enjoy as much as the horses, and fantastic live music with a French-Spanish flavour.
Even I, who am terrified of horses after a childhood experience on a bolter, was blown away by these gentle beasts, and although I can barely tell a Pinto from a draught-horse our tour of the stables (available to those who buy the special packages) stilled my fear and reignited my love of these gentle giants.
It is indeed a magical show, as far removed from the razzle-dazzle of circus and the cruelty of commercial racing as you can imagine, but full of fire and vitality and a sense of the oneness of all things. Eleven out of ten for this one — the experience of a lifetime.
The details: Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Human And Horse plays under the Big Top at Brisbane Airport until April 7. The show plays seasons in Sydney (May 15-26) and Melbourne (August 7-18) — tickets on the show website.