“Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man,” now playing in Santa Monica, does seem magical at times. The ability of equestrian co-director Frederic Pignon to guide three Lusitano stallions with just his calm voice and body language to do such things as to line up side by side and walk in unison in a circle around him, or, again side by side, to rise up in front of him (for more than a few seconds), or to kneel all at once is impressive and leaves one wondering, how does he get them to do that? (Of course, a great deal of training is involved, and I believe I did see little sneaks of treats given to some of the horses-not necessarily the Lusitanians-after they accomplished certain tasks, but still, when Pignon talks to the horses, and, in turn, they listen and do what he asks, it is not an ordinary thing.)
While some of the feats might not seem extraordinary, the seeming gentleness with which Pignon, and other human performers, work with the horses is pleasant, and sometimes awing to watch. Also adding to the pleasantness is that, for the most part, the horses are without heavy saddles and hard metal bits.
The magic of unbridled horses running free is enough to appreciate as is evident when the show opened with two horses, one white and one black, playfully cantering onto the stage, eliciting gasps of delight from the audience.
Pignon and equestrian co-director Magali Delgado use an ethological (the study of the behavior of animals in their natural habitat) approach in training the horses. And, as Quebec veterinarian Andre Dallaire writes in a press release describing the work of the “horse whisperers,” “Through intelligent observation of these animals, they have been able to develop a perfect communication based not on human emotional language, but on the language of the horses themselves … Inconspicuous sounds and, above all, gestures and facial expressions, more effectively replace words, because in the horse world, body language predominates.”
There are more involving and heart racing performances, such as when Delgado rides standing on not one but two horses, along with other equestrians doing the same thing. The group races around the perimeter of the sand floor and jump bamboo poles held by acrobats (who also perform wonderful feats reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, of which Cavalia creator, Normand Latourelle, was one of the founders. Erick Villeneuve directed the show and is the visual designer). At one point during the show, one performer himself jumps over a pole as the horses go underneath, and lands atop the horses again. He almost completed a perfect thrilling feat, but lost his balance on the turn and fell against the hanging backdrop. The audience did not seem to care that it wasn’t perfect, and gave loud applause. He gamely led the horses offstage after the rest came to his rescue.
The horses themselves did not always do what they were supposed to do, or perhaps they did. Certain times, one of the Lusitanian horses refused to comply, to laughter from the audience. But Pignon would play along, and eventually all four-the horses and Pignon-came to their symbiotic moment of communication-indeed magical.