Few equestrian theatrical productions can compete with Cavalia. The Canadian company’s international touring show features dozens of beautiful horses, amazing riders and aerialists, jaw-dropping stunts, original music performed by a live orchestra, and dramatic changing sets – all under a giant white Big Top. The display of horsemanship in the Cirque du Soleil-style show is breathtaking and huge crowds turn out to see it wherever it goes.
On a small ranch in northwest Las Vegas, two of the original cast members of Cavalia are working to perfect and grow a new show. After years of competitive vaulting and touring with Cavalia, Erik Martonovich and Alethea Shelton decided to set out on their own. Together they created Gladius the Show, incorporating vaulting, aerialists, Roman riding, chariot racing, and lots of fire. “It’s a mix of Greek and Roman mythology with a little bit of Mad Max thrown in it,” says Erik with a laugh.
Gladius the Show officially launched in 2014. Since then, the troupe of 15 performers and 22 horses has headlined at some big name venues including Equine Affaire, Equitana, Del Mar International Horse Show, Parelli Savvy Conference, Draft Horse Classic, and more. But, It’s not easy creating a huge equestrian production from the ground up, even for seasoned professionals. The Gladius team has faced many challenges along the way. But, their sights are set on the ultimate goal – a casino show on the Las Vegas Strip.
The Early Years
Horses are in Erik Martonovich’s blood. “My mom actually rode up until the day before I was born so I was a day off from being born on a horse,” he says. At first glance, it’s hard to picture Erik as an acrobatic equestrian. At 6 foot 2 and 240 pounds of solid muscle, he looks more like a bodybuilder. But the 39-year-old has spent most of his life pushing the boundaries of human feats on horseback.
Erik grew up in Colorado under the tutelage of his dressage-riding parents. Even at a young age, he had a flair for the theatrical. When he started standing up on horses and trying to do stunts, his parents enrolled him in a local vaulting club in hopes of channeling his energies. It was a match made in heaven.
Erik dabbled in other equestrian disciplines such as dressage, jumping, and Western pleasure, but vaulting was the sport that stuck. “I like more extreme things,” he says. “Sitting on a horse while it’s trotting around isn’t quite as exciting as standing on it and doing a backflip while it’s running around!”
Erik competed with his local vaulting team all through his childhood but as a teen
decided to get serious about the sport. “I decided if I was going to do it, I was going to be better than everyone else at it,” he says. He started training 8-12 hours a day, a combination of riding, gymnastics, and dance. “I went nuts and started training like crazy!” Erik says. Just a few years later he won his first national title. Erik went on to win many more and was on the U.S. Vaulting team from 1996 to 2002.
It was during that time that he met Alethea Shelton, another vaulting pro. Alethea started vaulting at age 10 in her home state of Virginia and also racked up several titles during her teen years. She and Erik became fast friends. Though they loved competitive vaulting, they found they had a desire to be more creative. In the late 90s, they formed Big Horse Productions with plans to develop and tour small equestrian acts that incorporated vaulting, acrobatics, and dance. The duo started performing at horse events around the country.
Eventually, a Canadian company in the early stages of creating a new equestrian production noticed them. “They actually came and saw us perform at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, Colorado and asked us if we would be interested in helping with the creation,” says Erik. He and Alethea couldn’t pass up the opportunity. In 2003, the two moved to Canada and spent several months helping to create what would become Cavalia. They then spent several years touring with the show. Cavalia was a sensation and Erik and Alethea performed to crowds of thousands over the years.
But, Erik admits that he gets bored easily. “After 300 of the exact same show over and over again I just wanted to do something more, something different, and have more creative freedom,” says Erik. By then he had started dreaming up ideas for his own show, one that would take the core of Cavalia to the next level. “Cavalia is really about the horse,” he explains. “The humans are supporting characters to the horse. Instead of just the horse, I [wondered] what is the maximum potential between human and horse?”
In 2005 Erik and Alethea left Cavalia and moved to Las Vegas with dreams of creating their own big show. They revived Big Horse Productions and hit the road once again to do performances of vaulting and acrobatics. “We started out with just a couple horses, a pickup, and a horse trailer,” says Erik. “I didn’t have the resources to go straight into a show.” The team performed around the country at fairs, rodeos, horse expos, and even private parties. “Anywhere we could get hired!” Erik says.
The routines grew as more talented performers joined the team, including Lisa Varmbo. The Norway native started vaulting at age 12. She eventually became a 7-time Norwegian champion, representing her home country in World Championships and European Championships. Lisa and Erik met in 2002 at the World Equestrian Games in Spain. They kept in touch over the years and eventually a relationship sparked. In 2010 she moved to Las Vegas to officially join the team and marry Erik.
“I came and I mostly vaulted to begin with,” says Lisa. “I didn’t ride because I never really learned to ride!” But, Lisa quickly learned the ropes – literally. She became a skilled aerialist, learned to Roman ride, and perfected her skills as she toured with Big Horse Productions. “I enjoyed performing a lot,” she says. “I didn’t really miss the competition.”
Boom and Bust
Erik, Alethea, and Lisa expanded their routine, adding in bigger and better elements to amaze audiences. “I was starting to come up with the show in my head, but I didn’t have a way to do it yet,” says Erik. What they were lacking were the funds to take their act to the next level. In early 2012, it looked like their struggles were over when a wealthy California couple offered to invest $10 million to help build a proper show. With an infusion of money, the team was able to start making their dream come true.
The investors said they wanted to create a “hot version of Cavalia,” and Erik and the team did their best to oblige. The next few months were a whirlwind as the show quickly ballooned to nearly 100 crewmembers and dozens of horses. They created new acts and produced an original score. But, only two months before the new show, called Valitar, was scheduled to premiere at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego, Erik’s relationship with the investors soured. Creative differences and personality conflicts led to disagreements and Erik was fired.
It was a blow, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When he left, Erik took with him the rights to the show, including the acts, music, and costumes. “Without that, I don’t think we’d be able to be where we’re at as far as the show goes,” says Erik. “That was what gave us enough to actually make Gladius work.” Most of the crew left too, including, of course, Alethea and Lisa. “It sucked at the time. But looking back at what we learned, we learned so much,” says Lisa.
It’s worth noting as an epilogue to the Valitar saga that after Erik’s departure, the show’s former investors rushed to create an entirely new show from scratch. Just two months later, Valitar opened at the Del Mar Fairgrounds as promised, but it only managed to eke out four performances before it closed amid low ticket sales and scandal. The investors disappeared leaving the cast and crew unpaid, horses without food, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills. Lawsuits followed. But by then, Erik, Alethea, and Lisa had moved on.
Gladius The Show
Back in Las Vegas, Erik, Alethea, and Lisa threw themselves into their show. They gave it a new name, built their own props, and raised funds. Gladius the Show premiered in 2014 with a six-week run in Denver after a successful Kickstarter campaign raised $20,000. “Which basically got everybody to Denver and that was about it!” says Erik.
The crew of 15 performers and 20 horses wowed the crowds with aerial acts, Roman riding, vaulting, Liberty work, chariot racing, dressage, a Garrocha act, and even a clown act. By then the team included several other ex-Cavalia members and veterans of other performance companies. The show was a hit. Reviews called Gladius “raw and powerful” and “riveting.”
The 90-minute production follows a storyline of gladiators and goddesses, loosely based on Greek and Roman mythology. “That gladiator theme, there’s so many options with it,” says Erik. “There’s plenty of options for the horses, and chariots, and fight scenes. It felt right.” But Gladius is not strictly a historical recreation. There’s lots of fire, rock music, and scantily clad performers. “It’s kind of a post-apocalyptic version of Rome!” says Erik.
The show is designed to be a sensory overload. There are concurrent performances happening at the same time in the arena. Aerialists do death-defying maneuvers high up in the air while multiple riders circle on horseback doing jaw-dropping stunts at breakneck speeds. “It’s really high intensity,” says Erik. “It’s kind of what the original investor was talking about – it’s a hot version of Cavalia. It’s turned up. Everything is bigger, faster, and hotter. Hotter because we use fire!’
It takes a special horse to be a part of a show like Gladius. Erik has a fondness for Belgians which he has been working with since he started vaulting. “They’re really smart,” he says. “They learn really fast and for whatever reason, they have really nice gaits.” There are eight Belgians in the Gladius show, along with a few Andalusians, Fjords, and minis.
Each horse was handpicked for their potential in the show but is always paired with the act they are good at. “We have a few horses that are not cut out for vaulting,” says Lisa. “If they canter like a camel then we can’t do anything! Then there are those that don’t like it.” Of course, the crew spends a lot of time training each horse to work up to specialty acts. That core training includes foundational ground and under-saddle work.
The team has a gentle approach to training and uses a lot of voice commands. “You can’t force them,” Erik says. “They’re just too big and powerful. You really have to work with them.” Getting the horses to be willing partners and performers is the goal. “I’m riding this 2,200-pound animal and the fact that I get him to do all these things by working with him is really rewarding as a rider,” says Lisa.
Erik says the horses learn the routines and even anticipate their next moves. But, once they are performing, flexibility is key. “It’s a live horse show so everything is open to adaptation. They’re not robots,” says Erik. Sometimes a horse will put its own unexpected twist on a routine or have an off day and need to sit out. “You never know, but that’s what makes it exciting!” says Lisa.
Home on the Ranch
Erik and Lisa’s ranch on the outskirts of northwest Las Vegas is also the home base for Gladius the Show. Beyond their modest house, the property is dedicated to the show. The Belgians share a large pasture. Next to them is a row of open-air stalls housing the rest of the equine performers. Behind the horses is a large arena with floodlights and spectator bleachers. Several trucks filled with gear, tack, and props are parked on site.
Nighttime is showtime in Las Vegas and it’s no different at the ranch. When the sun starts to set and the temperatures drop, the property comes to life. The Belgians get tacked up one by one and the Gladius team gets to work. The core members of the Gladius team practice at the ranch most evenings often until 11:00. Erik effortlessly swings up on a Belgian and stands up. He practices his Roman riding routine, standing astride two Belgians while driving four more. The horses canter around the arena making figure eights, while Erik guides them from the back.
Meanwhile, Lisa is practicing a routine on a six-foot tall guitar-shaped aerialist hoop suspended from a 37-foot tall metal frame. She dangles upside down and then smoothly lifts herself using her arms. She’s joined by Shyamtara, another member of the troupe. The two lithe women do flips and drops, catching each other, and laughing whenever they have a near miss. After a while, they descend to the ground. As Erik canters the team of Belgians past them, Lisa and Shyamtara each jump onto the horses from the ground.
The team is practicing extra hard right now because Gladius the Show is getting ready to head to South Dakota to perform at the Black Hills Horse Expo. Erik says they’re planning to put on their best performance yet. “The show that would have launched in 2012 with the $10 million wasn’t as good as the show we’re going to do in South Dakota,” he says. “Even though we don’t have the money anymore, the show itself has gotten better.”
Erik says their plan is to tour Gladius as much as they can to build it up so that they can eventually approach one of the Las Vegas casinos to become resident performers. “I want to see it on the Strip is where I want to see it!” he says. The ultimate goal is Caesar’s Palace. “Realistically any casino that wants to house us, but that one just fits!”
In the meantime, they’re looking for new investors so they can do more stand-alone shows. “It should be really appealing for investors to do this,” says Lisa. One thing they hope will attract investors is the show’s low overhead. “We don’t have big, extravagant costumes. Everything is kind of grungy and rough and metal. So our running costs are actually really low,” says Erik.
While they wait for their big break, Gladius is a labor of love. Most of the teamwork side jobs to make ends meet, but virtually all of their time, energy, and money goes into the show. “The core is doing it because we love it, not because of the money,” says Lisa.
“The amount of hours we put into this show and horses, it will take us years to get paid back for that. But we’re doing something we love.”
Things are looking good for Gladius the Show as long as the rave reviews keep coming. “All of our reviews have compared us with Cavalia and Cirque du Soliel,” says Erik. But those comparisons don’t bother him. “I like it because I think they’re comparing us to those as a reference of quality,” he says. “We’ve never had a review that says ‘looks like Cavalia,’ but ‘Cavalia-level show’ or ‘Cirque du Soliel-type show.’ We’ve never been compared to Barnum & Bailey!”
Learn More: www.gladiustheshow.net
Story by Samantha Szesciorka