Bring out all the superlatives that can be mustered: Odysseo is awesome, spectacular, fabulous, beautiful, heart-stopping, magical and ethereal. Watching it is a little bit like whale watching in the wild: the closer the horses get, the more breathtaking it is. When they line themselves up and approach the front of the 1,626 square metre performance area and look you right in the eye, it’s almost a spiritual experience. The smell of the horses. The thunder of hooves. And when they gallop past at full speed and their hooves throw sand flying, your heart will pound. You might wish you weren’t an urban dweller but lived in the company of horses.
Some of the most beautiful moments in Cavalia’s Odysseo are when the horses are riderless and are simply free to wander, nuzzle (or nip) each other and roll in the sand. In an act appropriately called Liberty, horse-whisperer Elise Verdoncq slowly gathers grey Arabian geldings Gee-Gee, Chief, Bravas, Shake, Pearl, Gus, Silver, Frosty and Nezma together and with gesture and voice; eventually she has them choreographed, moving in unison, running together or standing side-by-side, each with its head over the neck of the horse alongside. It’s such a quiet, lovely moment before they all come forward, stand and look out at the audience that is wildly applauding.
At the other end of the performance spectrum are the death-defying trick riders — up and over the backs of horses, lying sideways along the flanks, backwards, upside down and, breath-stoppingly, right under the belly of a thundering horse, its four legs pounding the sand.
While the major feature of Odysseo is the relationship between horse and rider, the setting itself is a huge element. Five tents — the biggest of which is the White Big Top — comprise the Odysseo “village.” Ten thousand tons of rock, earth and sand are sculpted to create a hill that rises three-storeys high. One hundred and fifty thousand litres of water quickly flow in, providing a shallow pond in which the horses walk or gallop — sending water splashing into the surprised front row audience.
Making dressage looks so beautifully simple is Elise Verdoncq on Omerio, a 15-year-old Lusitano stallion that daintily and flawlessly executes the intricate moves before running free in the pool.
In between the equestrian acts are stilters on steel-sprung leg extensions; acrobats from Africa — one of whom does a series of such rapid backflips that he becomes a human blur; aerialists on silk streamers, drawn by four horses; musicians; dancers; a full-size carousel that is lowered from above.
The odyssey begins in a misty forest before embarking on a virtual journey that takes them — and us — on an adventure from the Mongolian steppes to Monument Valley, from the African savannah to Nordic glaciers and from the Sahara to Easter Island. This imagery is accomplished with high-definition computer graphic images projected onto a cyclorama three times the size of the largest cinema screens. Musicians are elevated stage left and right; singer Valentina Spreca appears on these balconies and, periodically, on stage.
Created by Cavalia founder and artistic director Normand Latourelle, Odysseo is a truly unique experience: theatre, music, Cirque-style artists — but most of all, 65 horses in all their beauty, power and splendor and 48 fearless performers. The show reaches back in time when horses and riders formed inseparable, necessary, harmonious bonds that approached something sacred in human experience. The furthest thing from a rodeo — except, perhaps, for the trick riders — Odysseo leaves audiences full of wonder and with a longing for a different life, one full of horses and wide, open spaces under vast sun-filled or starry skies.
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Odysseo is at the White Big Top at Olympic Village, until March 5. For tickets, call 1-866-999-8111 or go to cavalia.com.