On this, its first visit to St. Louis, the Canadian-based entertainment Cavalia has made camp just north of Busch Stadium. Inside its turreted, Camelot-like main tent there is a display of magic worthy of Merlin himself. At its simplest, Cavalia is a glorified horse show. But the production is not so much simple as it is primal. Without dialogue, it speaks to the secret communication between man and animal. Although the evening includes elements of Riverdance, Cirque du Soleil and even the Ice Capades, at its core it feels totally original, for it is an evening of wonder, mystery and breathtaking beauty.
Forget the horses for a moment: The scenic design alone is astonishing. Early in the evening, center stage is filled with a pond that suddenly disappears. Trampolines emerge and vanish. Aerialists fall into view from the rafters. (Relax: The horses remain grounded.) The stage itself seems to grow ever larger as the evening progresses. Large-scrim projections transport us through the centuries (beginning with primitive cave paintings of horses) and across the continents. We experience the seasons of the year. No one can fault Cavalia for lack of ambition.
If Act One is filled with wonders, in Act Two those wonders become the norm, and an aura of mystery begins to pervade the tent. Midway through the second act, five horses saunter onstage. Two of those horses roll on their backs in the sand; another two nuzzle each other. The fifth is a loner who lopes over to the far side of the stage. A minute later a fair-haired damsel with tresses down to her waist joins the scene. She goes to each horse, strokes its ears. She is in no hurry, gives no indication she's aware that 600 people are watching her. She might as well be in a field in Kansas. Then she begins to move, and when she does, the horses follow her every motion. Because the actions are so casual, so unshowmanlike, there is time to ponder the mystery of what's happening here. In his poem, "The Letter," John Malcolm Brinnin wrote, "There is communication on the earth/As quiet as the opening of a wing." I sense that's what we're witnessing here, a kind of communication that is, to the normal eye, unfathomable. Cavalia has its flashy, grandstanding moments, but to me it is most moving when it's least trying to dazzle.
At one point in Act One, the all-purpose stage becomes a ring, and horses ride around the ring as feats of balance are performed on the their backs. Not to take anything away from the prowess of the performers, but I enjoyed the show most when the horses were not riding in circles but rather were free to gallop from one side of the stage to the other. The rush of that spirited movement made me wonder if what I was feeling was closely akin to the same thrills enjoyed by audiences who attended Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in the 1890s.
I think some people will find Cavalia to be too slow to their liking; others will expect more bang for their buck. All I know is that from the moment the evening began with film footage of the birth of a foal and we watched that newborn instinctively figure out how to stand on its four wobbly legs, I felt that I was being prepared for something remarkable. When we attend the theater, don't we most want to see something we've not seen before? On that score, Cavalia delivers with astonishing understatement.