Theatre/Circus Review – Cavalia Odysseo

Everyone remembers the sponsorship scandal as rife with greed and fraud, but in some cases, funding actually got into the right hands. Ten years ago, Normand Latourelle, late of Cirque du Soleil, had an idea for a horse spectacular, and it was a sponsorship grant that gave him the money to develop a show about horses and their very special relationship with humankind.

After a test run in Quebec, Cavalia made its first foray into Toronto, and it was Toronto that made the show. The success here ensured success everywhere, and that first production, simply titled Cavalia, is still touring the world. Latourelle has now brought his second production to Toronto. Called Cavalia Odysseo, this new show bears the innovative theatricality that makes the Cavalia brand synonymous with spectacle. Latourelle and his horses take us on a glorious journey.

The first Cavalia was one of the most beautiful productions I had ever seen. There were moving scenes with the horse whisperer, who seemed to be able to make horses do anything he wanted with just simple hand commands. There were also two sisters who performed stunning mirror image dressage. It stays in my mind as a more dreamy, reflective show, with stunning visuals.

Under British director Wayne Fowkes, Odysseo is more exciting and more lavish. There is a small scene with the horse whisperer (Benjamin Aillaud) and one horse, but the bulk of the acts are on a grand scale. Like the first Cavalia, human acrobatic and aerial skills play an important part, even more so in Odysseo where they are more fully integrated with the horses. There are 10 gymnasts from the African country of Guinea, who all seem to be related in some way, and who perform fantastic feats, such as unbelievable rapid body flips in any direction. The aerialists are all attractive and skilled. One should also mention the fabulous jazz-influenced music score by Michel Cusson that is performed live. The haunting vocals by Italian singer Claudia Paganelli are absolutely stunning. Needless to say, the tribal-evoking costumes, which speak of the myriad colours of the earth, are outstandingly beautiful and in the best of taste.

Both Cavalia shows set their horses against scenes of nature. There are a whole raft of visual designers mentioned in the program but the Big Kahuna set designer is Guillaume Lord, and kudos to him and his team for one of the most magnificent coup de theatres ever witnessed. For the first part of the show, the acts are performed in a large ring area backed by beautiful pictures of natural settings. And then the miracle occurs. The back wall separates and slowly, as the two sections move apart, a huge green hill is revealed. You could actually hear the gasps from the audience. That the tent could contain this enormous a set is astonishing.

As for the acts themselves, the fun trick riding is always showy, but there is also a lovely scene of the women riders in their long dresses standing on the backs of the horses and putting them through various patterns. Horse jumping is accompanied by humans on bungee sticks. The horses sweeping over the hill is gorgeous. There is actually a large carousel that is lowered on the stage, and above the beautifully carved wooden horses, acrobats perform feats on the poles. And then there is my favourite. As four horses circle below, four women on silks perform above, but it is how the horsemen hold the silks that create the patterns in the air between horses, humans and material. And you can’t have a horse show, it seems, without waterfalls and rain. A super treat at the end is the chance to visit the stables, where each stall has the name of the horse and its breed.

Latourelle’s idea is a marvel – just another brilliant idea coming out of Quebec. No one will leave the big top disappointed, particularly since there are no poles impeding sightlines in this state-of-the-art chapiteau. The run has currently been extended to June 10, but it can’t stay in town forever, so grab granny and the kids, and see a true spectacle that is a feast for the eyes and a balm for the soul.

Cavalia Odysseo, conceived by artistic director Normand Latourelle, with director/choreographer Wayne Fowkes, equestrian director/choreographer Benjamin Aillaud and composer Michel Cusson, The Portlands, May 15 to Jun. 10, 2012.



Dance Review – Laurence Lemieux’s Les cheminements de l’influence

Laurence Lemieux christened the new studio theatre at the Citadel with a very personal solo. The dancer/choreographer chose a very abstract topic – a piece to honour her father, renown Quebec political scientist Vincent Lemieux.

The title comes from a book that Vincent Lemieux wrote – Les cheminements de l’influence, or in English, Pathways of Influence. When I interviewed Lemieux before the work’s premiere, she admitted that one could not actually dance “political science”, but she could pay tribute to her father’s exacting pure science approach to measuring the zeitgeist of the Quebec people, and compare it to her own artistic approach to creating dance.

Now if one had not read the comprehensive program notes, one would have no idea about Vincent Lemieux’s place within the choreography. What is vividly apparent, however, is Lemieux’s love/hate relationship with Quebec.

Gordon Monahan’s wonderfully evocative soundscape references Quebec history with old radio broadcasts. The background to the dance includes the national anthem sung in French, a 1984 hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques that turned into a brawl, news reports of the 1962 Quebec election, politician Camil Samson’s rant against credit, the funeral of Premier Maurice Duplessis, the opening of the massive James Bay hydro project, and the 1977 Stanley Cup final overtime period between the Canadiens and Boston Bruins – and all this interpolated with deconstructed Chopin music for prepared piano. (The program does include excellent translations of the spoken French.) Gabriel Cropley’s simple lighting design suits the piece’s political/reflective theme very well.

Lemieux arrives sporting a tuque, gloves, boots and a winter coat. In time, she sheds the coat to reveal a red plaid lumberjack shirt and jeans. The costume places her right in the heart of Quebec. Lemieux begins by walking pathways across the dance floor, but each time with a difference – in military mode, confusion mode, defiant mode, aggressive mode and the like. At one point, she even staggers and stamps about like a drunk in a barroom. She also goes through motions of skating, and even preening. Big arabesques and lunges, goose stepping, the discipline of pure ballet, turns and balances, frantic gathering and reaching – all depicting the various emotions that Quebec evokes within her.

For example, during the Hydro Quebec segment, Lemieux executes distorted physical shapes on the floor, all the while balanced precariously on her arms and legs. I saw in this the rape of the environment, and the dam’s impact on the Inuit and caribou. There is also a section where she manhandles a stack of much-despised American money. At another point, she is a barefoot penitent, or, she swivels back and forth like a feather in the wind. Volumes of subtext can be read into these images.

In essence, Lemieux is paying tribute to her father by exploring her own feelings about Quebec. That is the point where her father’s methodology and her own methodology merge together.

To be perfectly frank, I would be happy watching Lemieux perform to Old MacDonald Had a Farm. At 47, she is still one of the most exquisite dancers in the country. In Les cheminements de l’influence, however, she does gives us choreography with substance, which makes for satisfying viewing. Lemieux has crafted an intriguing dance out of a tough theme. How this piece would go down in Montreal and Quebec City is anyone’s guess.

And a final word on The Citadel itself, created by Lemieux and husband Bill Coleman. This old Salvation Army soup kitchen/worship hall has turned into a stunning studio theatre. It’s a welcome new performing space.

Les cheminements de l’influence, choreographed and performed by Laurence Lemieux, The Citadel, Feb. 15 to 25, 2012.