The discipline and grace of the unreined horses are amazing, but it's still Disney-fied

The masters of (normally animal-free) Cirque du Soleil seem to have noticed that a circus with no horses is like a county fair without pigs. A few years ago Cirque co-founder Gilles St.-Croix presented a horse-and-acrobat show called Cheval to mixed reviews; now another co-founder, Normand Latourelle, trots out his elegant (and more successful) Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man. Under a semipermanent tent, the horses run free in a big, soft bed of sand. A grottolike centerpiece offers a platform for the acrobats to stand on, or vault over, but in general the performers stay on the horses, guiding them through balletic dance routines and incredible harness-free dressage. A "horse whisperer" from Europe, Frédéric Pignon, also turns up to order the animals around using nothing but inaudible voice commands -- no harnesses, reins, or bits, and only the slimmest suggestion of a whip. The discipline and grace of the horses are amazing; the reluctance to use fetters and cracking whips is impressive. But the Cirque-ish fairy-tale aesthetic is still kitschy and strange. Marc Labelle's scenery and Mireille Vachon's precious costumes draw, in a Disney-fied way, from traditional horse cultures (Rome, Spain, Arabia); Michel Cusson's music sounds too much like Enya (or fake Ravel); and Alain Lortie's lights have the colors and tones of an airbrushed horse poster in the room of a preteen girl. Cavalia casts an illusion of dreamlike purity and freedom; in fact, it's a highly orchestrated and expensive spectacle in a lot behind a baseball stadium, where parking costs 15 bucks.

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