At Soldier Field (South Lot)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago - The production of “Cavalia” now installed in the south parking lot of Soldier Field, is desirable viewing for horse lovers. But given the announcement that the Ringling Brothers circus was disbanding permanently, “Cavalia” becomes essential viewing for all circus lovers.
We first saw a version of “Cavalia” back in 2009 in a makeshift arena in a vacant lot just west of the Loop. My reaction to the show was tepid and I bypassed the opening of this year’s version (subtitled “Odysseo”) in favor of other commitments. But when I was reinvited by the show’s management as part of a media promotion, I accepted I thank “Cavalia” for giving me a second chance. This show is tremendous, especially in comparison with the 2009 presentation.
The show has set itself up in a 120-foot high tent. Interspersed with the horses are aerialists, acrobats, and tumblers who are as amazing as anything I ever saw at a Ringling production. The physical staging, pretty primitive in 2009, is now wonderfully imaginative and sophisticated. The stage is a large semi circle with great depth. The show makes creative use of Cinerama-style film screens that enclose the performance area at the rear, taking us into mountain ranges, near waterfalls, beneath a starry sky, and onto starkly beautiful deserts. There is no dialogue and mercifully no clowns to disrupt the mood of the show.
The melding of film projections with the performers and horses create marvelous stage pictures. In one magical scene, we see the horses and their riders vividly outlined against the horizon in a rugged mountain setting resembling a scene from a John Ford western filmed in Monument Valley. In other scenes, we can enjoy horses running free on the stage, the independence and speed of their movement a stirring sight. We also watch exhibitions of disciplined and synchronized movements, with horses arranging themselves in small groups, in circles, and in long lines, sometimes unmounted and sometimes carrying riders often standing on the backs of pairs of the animals as human and horse dash around the arena.
Some scenes may be a bit leisurely for spectators accustomed to a more bumptious circus style. “Cavalia” does not go the sawdust-and-tinsel route. The exhibitions of horse maneuvers are lengthy and require the attention of the audience. The viewers soon adjusted to the understated nature of the displays, though there was nothing understated about examples of trick riding with the riders risking life and limb as their horses speed across the stage. Some of the stunts elicited viewer shrieks of alarm as riders executed amazing gymnastic moves above or beneath the racing horses.
The purely circus portion of the show is dominated by a troupe of eight tumblers, hand balancers, and acrobats from Guinea who thrilled the audience with one “you have got to be kidding” demonstration of stamina, strength, and agility after another. One man back flipped across the wide stage with such speed that he looked like a single body in continuous motion. The men are also adept percussionists on African drums, demonstrating that rhythm is the universal musical language.
The aerialists are poetry in motion, often wrapped in white fabrics and matching white costumes. They are masters of long poles and hoops, their grace concealing the hard fact that they were performing high above the floor with no safety devices and no margin for error.
There are 48 male and female performers, including musicians, from 10 countries. The company is based, like the Cirque du Soleil, in Quebec, Canada. There is a temptation to comparer “Cavalia” with the Cirque, and there are a few resemblances, like the use of a vocalist (Valentina Sprecca) who singles al most nonstop. I didn’t understand a word she sang but she performed with engaging warmth and passion. The live musical accompaniment was supplied by live musicians perched on facing balconies high above the stage.
The comparisons between the two shows stop there. The Cirque du Soleil relies heavily on bizarre costumes and grotesque figures, emitting a faint whiff of pretentiousness among all its excellences. Other than the superb film and projections backdrops, no special effects divide the “Cavalia” performers from the audience. A purity exists in the show that is refreshing and sometimes exhilarating.
The theater itself offers unobstructed views from anywhere in the house. This is understandably an expensive show to mount and tour and the ticket prices reflect the cost, though tickets can be as little as $34.50. But for people who want to splurge, there is a VIP ticket that includes a prime seat, a buffet meal before the first act, and desert bars between acts. All beverages are included in the ticket price, which peaks out at $269.50. The sky-high $25 parking charge is set by Soldier Field.
I had an opportunity after the show to go backstage to view the horses up close and personal even get a selfie or two taken and tour the stables, but I took a pass because of fatigue. I suspect the loss was mine, but “Cavalia” had already proved it was a great night of entertainment.
“Cavalia” has been extended one week and hopefully will play here through the summer tourist season. It’s a terrific family show, though maybe not for toddlers, unless they are precocious enough to enjoy the extended stretches of horse dressage. But there is a unique quality to the show emitting from the presence of 65 beautiful horses moving singly and en mass with so much majesty.
“Cavalia” runs through May 7 at the Soldier Field south parking lot. Performances are Thursday and Friday 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $34.50 to $269.50. Call 866 999 8111 or visit www.cavalia.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.
Contact Dan: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. April 2017
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