All the pretty horses

When you see the people in the first few rows picking sand from their hair after a particularly raucous routine of acrobats and riders, you know you are close to the action.

There’s not a bad seat in the house for “Cavalia,” the “cirque du equine” under a big tent near AT&T Park that takes horse play to a new level of fun, even for non-horsey folk.

The show loosely chronicles human interaction with the horse since prehistoric times, as the bond grows from tentative encounters to exhilarating riding. There’s also a seasonal march including falling leaves and snowfall that, while lovely, unfortunately never quite jells.

“Cavalia” could use some work smoothing out the storyline. A jarring recorded opening shows a mare giving birth. Big-screen placenta isn’t pretty no matter what animal, even if followed by adorable footage of a foal’s first steps.

Later, while real baby mustangs frolicking on the stage produced the inevitable “ahh” moments, the pacing slowed down to a crawl as horses and fairy-like folk played.

The beautiful sets are ethereal, evoking a sense of a dreamlike state as the songstress who bookends the performance takes the audience on a “Nutcracker”-style adventure showing fantastic lands where gorgeous horses interact with medieval equestrians, cowboys, cowgirls and even Arabian temptresses.

Roman riders stand fearlessly on horseback, racing around the 160-foot stage and leaping over jumps.

Some things have changed since “Cavalia’s” last performances here in 2004, including more emphasis on acrobats and aerialists and slapstick humor. An inspired sequence of soaring aerialists and earthbound equestrians showed how well this combo works.

High-octane crazy kicks in when a lone cowboy sees a kerchief on the trail. It quickly erupts in wild trick riders galloping across the stage as they join the hanky-panky.

Equestrians will note that this production offers less dressage — the horse world’s equivalent to ballet — where precise movements and control are best appreciated by those who know how difficult it is to achieve such balance. What remains are the flashier moves of horses dancing in place or across the stage.

There is some synchronized riding, including a pas de deux and an elegant eight-horse “carrousel,” but it’s more Las Vegas and less show ring.

The most enchanting moment comes when horsewoman Sylvia Zerbini works nine white Arabians in a beautifully choreographed liberty act with the animals responding to voice commands and the occasional toss of sand to keep them in line.

“Cavalia” succeeds in bringing the beauty, grace and playfulness of the horse into a production appealing to those who don’t want to see forced circus-like performances. Like a nice evening of “Nutcracker,” it doesn’t take an expert to enjoy the magic on the stage.

THEATER REVIEW

Cavalia

Where: Big Top Tent, Fourth and China Basin streets, San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 12.

Tickets: $29.50 to $229.50

Contact: (866) 999-8111, www.cavalia.net

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