By: Angela Guardiani
Cavalia’s Odysseo bills itself as “like no other show on earth!” Now, that’s a big claim…but it’s not wrong. If you’re not familiar with Cavalia, you probably will be soon. Like their better-known cousins Cirque de Soleil, they are a Montreal-based entertainment company that combines circus arts, live music, and film with the beauty and vigour of horses. It’s an usual combination that sometimes feels hard to pin down. Is it an athletic competition, a concert, an equestrian exhibition? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I would even try to classify it. The bigger question is – does it work? And to answer that, I can give you a resounding yes. Whatever else Cavalia’s Odysseo is, it is undeniably full of spectacle, movement, and excitement.
The evening begins as we enter the White Big Top, Cavalia’s custom-designed venue. From a distance, the tent looks like a turreted castle straight out of a fairy tale. Inside, a wide stage is filled with a packed sand surface surrounded by trees and vines. The sand is real, the trees are not, but the effect is mysterious and lovely all the same. Stadium seating ensures that no matter where you sit, your view is unimpeded, and it’s surprisingly comfortable. It may seem odd to mention it but trust me, after a two and a half hour show, I was very grateful for those seats. Flamenco guitar was playing softly as we took our seats. I assumed it was recorded, but when the lights went down I could see musicians tucked away in the wings.
The seating, the popcorn, the tent all feel like the circus, but the extensive projectors and light systems create a very different experience. It’s similar to an IMAX film, with a huge screen at the back of the stage illuminated with magnificent landscapes. Indeed, as the name suggests, Odysseo is loosely themed around the idea of travel, of extremes, of scenery, from plain to mountain to ocean to desert. The costumes are striking too, vaguely suggesting exotic places as they drape and swirl and float around the performers.
All of this elaborate stagecraft creates a visually striking framing device for the stars of Odysseo – 48 human and 65 equine performers. The show begins with a woman's voice singing something lilting and hypnotic. Horses enter the stage. Without any human hands to guide them, they begin to trot, then to gallop around and around. More and more horses enter and form patterns, criss-crossing in kaleidoscope-like formations as dappled shadows turn the entire stage into a forest glade. The whole scene has a dreamy quality to it – I couldn't quite get my brain to accept that the final few moments of Blade Runner were unfolding right in front of me.
As the show goes on, it settles into a series of varied acts. There are several scenes like the one that opens the show, called “liberty” acts by horse enthusiasts, where unbridled, unsaddled horses respond to gentle whistles and hand motions from their trainers. There are more traditional equestrian displays, like steeplechase and dressage, but there are also some inventive scenes that combine human and horse performers. One stunning sequence on aerial silks has four acrobats suspended in harnesses, propelled in a circle by galloping riders holding the ends of the fluttering silks. Another (horse-free!) sequence involved a troupe of acrobats performing music from their native Guinea while they did a dizzying series of backflips and human pyramids.
While Odysseo is clearly a very polished production, one of my favourite moments of the evening was completely unscripted; a wayward horse did not feel like falling into formation at that particular moment and gleefully pranced across the stage, ignoring all the other well-behaved horses walking in docile circles. Contrary to what I expected, nobody shouted or chased the horse. There were no whips and no bridles and no panic. The trainers took their time, patiently calling and calling the horse until, of his own accord, he joined the rest of his herd. And that's the real wonder of Odysseo, I believe. The acrobats are astounding, the music and scenery lush, but there's really no other show I can imagine that integrates the intelligence and beauty of our non-human companions into such a visually stunning experience. There's a spontaneity and playfulness that can only come from animals that love what they're doing. Odysseo is an experience that you won't find anywhere else.
Cavalia's Odysseo plays until July 30 under the White Big Top beside the Hershey Centre, 5399 Rose Cherry Place, Mississauga. Tickets range from $39.50 to $239.50 and are available at the box office, by phone at 1-866-999-8111, or online at cavalia.com.