The billboards and TV ads are everywhere, projecting a sense of mystery and motion, beckoning Colorado’s horse-happy populace to see what all the fuss is about.
The ornately titled “Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man” opens Wednesday for a four-week run in the Pepsi Center parking lot, and it will not be ignored. The nouveau-circus show puts horses front and center in virtuoso displays of strength, training and the sort of unabashed spectacle that has made Cirque du Soleil such a smashing, billion-dollar success.
“When I left Cirque, I knew one day I was going to do something like this, but I like to reinvent stuff,” said Cavalia founder Normand Latourelle over lunch at Denver’s Oxford Hotel. “I knew nothing about horses at first, but it was a great thing because I was very innocent.”
Latourelle co-founded Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil in the mid-1980s but departed in 1990 when touring began taking a toll on his family. He hatched the idea for Cavalia while working on a show in Quebec called “Legendes Fantastiques,” noticing how the audience was looking more at the horses than the dozens of performers on stage.
“If (a horse) is stealing focus, it’s because he’s a star,” Latourelle said.
Another stroke of inspiration came nine years ago when Latourelle first laid eyes on the iconic, white-tented roof at Denver International Airport.
“I thought, ‘Oh, this is the look I want for my tent.’ “
The result is the 26,000-square-foot, 110-foot-high structure now occupying the Pepsi Center lot, a wide, arena-like venue that seats 2,000.
It’s the ideal venue for the 60 human performers and more than 50 horses of a dozen breeds that populate Cavalia’s multimedia spectacle. It’s also not cheap: The public can grab obstructed-view tickets for under $50, but prime seats on a weekend run $70 to $100.
Still, the show has netted rave reviews around the world and millions in revenue over the past seven years. And yet in all that time it’s never been to Denver.
Colorado loves its horses, so it makes sense that Cavalia would come here. We’re a rodeo state, from the National Western Stock Show to the Greeley Stampede and Wyoming’s nearby Cheyenne Frontier Days. We love dressage shows — think of the prancing Lipizzaner Stallions at Loveland’s Budweiser Events Center — as much as equestrian competitions and recreational trail riding.
Horses permeate and define our Western heritage, which means they inform the stories we like to tell about ourselves as civilized people in a wild state. And they’re at the intersection of age, race, gender and lifestyle, with rodeos marketed to the Latino, African-American and gay communities.
In other words, horses are for everyone in Colorado.
“We’re probably one of the top three states in the U.S. in terms of people in the industry,” said Brian Curry, general manager of the Colorado Horse Park, which attracts about 100,000 people annually to its equestrian competitions.
So why has it taken so long for Cavalia to come here?
Simple economics: Cirque du Soleil’s yearly visits have squeezed Cavalia out of our market over the past seven years, and 2010 was the first time Cirque didn’t announce a Front Range stop (although Cirque’s “Alegria” will visit Colorado Springs, Broomfield and Loveland Jan. 12-30).
“Cheval-Theatre,” a similarly horse-themed show from Cirque co-founder Gilles St. Croix, visited Denver in 2001 to mostly positive reviews, but Cavalia creator Latourelle said his show is a different animal altogether.
“I started to work on Cavalia before Gilles started ‘Cheval,’ but it was more a traditional circus with horses and had nothing to do with what we were doing.”
Indeed, as much as Cavalia is influenced by Latourelle’s experiences with Cirque, his show strives to be unique. It bears little resemblance to either a traditional three-ring circus or Cirque’s own litany of surreal audio-visual stimuli, instead letting the horses command the stage.
Swaddled in flowing, earth- toned fabrics, the performers accent their equine partners’ movements, riding bareback and blowing fire, balancing on giant balls and each others’ shoulders, all the while mixing delicate horse training with open-ended gallops.
“We try to make the stage for them to become a playground, not a place to work,” Latourelle said. “Yeah, the priority is to do shows, the priority is to sell tickets. But the real priority for us is to stick with the temple of the horse, which is not always obvious, but it’s the main concern we have. Same thing for the training — we take a lot of time so we don’t push them.”
Watching a taped performance of Cavalia demonstrates how unfettered the animals — all male, and more than half of them stallions — really are.
Reins and restraints are rare, the trainers and performers using positive reinforcement to persuade the horses while also allowing them to run at full speed around the arena. Horses stay shockingly calm as women in flowing dresses twirl above them on wires. They’re so well-trained that a pair of white stallions dance to create mirror images of each other.
It’s deceptively peaceful and organic, belying the years of work that have gone into the lavish, multimillion-dollar production (Latourelle estimates that if he were to create Cavalia from scratch today it would cost about $40 million).
And the show has the animal-rights endorsements to back up Latourelle’s claims of the good life for its four- legged performers.
“American Humane Association’s Film and TV Unit had the privilege of spending an afternoon touring Cavalia’s stables in Glendale (Calif.) in 2008,” said Karen Rosa, vice president of the Association’s Film and TV Unit. “We were pleased to see the facility was immaculate, and stable hands and grooms provided the show’s stars with 24-hour care, as well as ample training and exercise areas.”
That’s no small praise when traditional circus shows like Ringling Bros. are under constant fire from animal-rights groups.
Sure, Cavalia is a poetic, idealized version of the relationship between humans and horses, but the show’s fluidity is based on the strength of that relationship. And despite the elaborate tricks and costumes, music and lighting, it’s essentially the story of humanity’s history with horses, from the wild discovery and domestication to the exploitation of horses’ natural curiosity and gentle nature.
A good fit for our state
That makes it a good fit for Colorado, where our relationship with horses has mirrored the overall evolution from working animal to recreational partner.
“If you want to learn how to work with other human beings, learn how to work with a horse,” said Bill Scebbi, executive director of the Colorado Horse Council.
Scebbi’s nonprofit organization counts more than 500 members serving 56,000 Colorado horse owners and 102,000 people in the state’s multibillion-dollar horse industry.
“Colorado’s rich history in horsemanship is still evident today by the large number of equestrian stables and clubs,” said Dori Villalon, vice president of Animal Protection for the Denver-based American Humane Association. “We are happy that the trend in horse training has shifted to positive techniques that emphasize the relationship between the horse and rider as seen in Cavalia.”
It remains to be seen how Cavalia will do in Denver — especially given the sluggish economy and the pricey tickets (VIP packages featuring hors d’oeuvres, wine and visits to the horse stable run close to $200).
But it’s likely that Coloradans already appreciate the show’s respect for an animal that plays such a huge role in our state’s past, present and future.
John Wenzel: 303-954-1642 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man.
Nouveau-circus and equestrian show. Pepsi Center parking lot. Wednesday-Oct. 10. Various times. $24.50-$189.50. 866-999-8111 or cavalia.net