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.