It’s a few hours before showtime, and Amanda Orlowski is giving a tour of the stables at Cavalia’s Odysseo, a spectacle that combines the equestrian and circus arts. As one of the riders in the show, the Toronto native introduces a number of stallions and geldings.
“I don’t think any horses are born untrainable,” Orlowski says, all the while warning of a couple of horses that might like to playfully nibble on any hands that reach through the stable gates.
Whether “untrainable” applies to all horses is probably up for debate, but for the 63 horses from 11 breeds in this show, at least, the fact that they are respected as animals of great artistry is welcome.
The mutual respect shows with these horses, which can move with dancerly precision, exhibiting all the grace and strength we love about one of man’s best animal friends.
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Odysseo is an exquisitely beautiful production that uses elements of European-style cirque shows with stunning aerial and entertaining acrobatic feats, but focuses on the equine stars. Along with trick riding, dressage, Roman riding and jumping, some of the most striking moments come when the horses roam — unbridled — in “liberty” segments on a 17,500-square-foot stage that features sand and a large, grassy hill.
It all happens under a white big top, taking up the space of about two football fields — reportedly the largest tent in the world — set up in the parking lot of Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, where it will run through early March. (As of press time, tickets were only on sale through Feb. 8, but more shows will be added as sales dictate.)
It takes the concept of the cirque — which we’ve already seen expand to magical heights thanks to productions from the world’s best known cirque outfit, Cirque du Soleil — to another level.
“Everyone is looking for something bigger and better,” says Darren Charles, an Englishman who is the choreographer and resident artistic director of Odysseo. “The is more on the experimental side of the cirque shows. It’s complicated and brings in this new element by combining the horses with the humans.”
From north of the border
Cavalia began in the early 2000s in Montreal — home of so many cirque spectacles, including Cirque du Soleil — with a show, called Cavalia, that has been touring the world ever since (it stopped in Dallas in 2004). That show used one large ring to showcase the equestrian arts, with some human elements.
Odysseo, Cavalia’s second show, expands the playing field into something that has more of a narrative, albeit a loose one, about the relationship between human and equine.
Orlowski, 24, who has been with Odysseo for four years (this show began in Montreal in 2011), grew up with a love of horses, and auditioned to be a rider. Her skills led her to be sent to the Cavalia ranch in Tarbes, in the south of France, for further training.
In the show, she is one of the Roman riders who stand, with feet in the stirrups, as the horses gallop across the stage. “I’ve learned so much about the horses and have a greater respect for them,” she says.
The same sentiment is held by aerialist Claire Beer, 21, a Detroit native with a stage background that includes Shakespeare training. She took a circus class in Lexington, Ky., which led to her being cast in Odysseo.
“I’ve always liked being onstage and connecting with people, and I always enjoyed adventure,” Beer says. “What’s great about this production is that I could perform different roles each night, as assigned by the directors. That’s the cool thing — you could do this one night and something else the next night. It’s like you’re switching characters.”
One of the roles Beer takes on is in the Carousel act, in which a large carousel is lowered from the ceiling. As the circular structure, with its carousel horses, turns, aerialists hang from and balance on the carousel poles, which rotate and move up and down.
“In other cirque shows, you see a static pole, but not one that is rotating,” says Charles. “It’s another example of how we take traditional circus acts and make them unique.”
Another staple in Odysseo is a team of Guinean acrobats who tumble and balance on one another, and provide comic relief, much like the clown role you’ll see in most circus acts.
“We discovered them, and they trained on the beach in Conakry, Guinea,” Charles says. “So performing on the sand in the show was a natural fit for them. It’s a tradition in Guinea, so we’re helping set up schools there for more acrobatic training.”
Charles trained as a dancer and had his own contemporary dance company in London, and has also choreographed for musicals in the West End. In a show like this, in which the horses are the focus, the choreography mainly entails setting patterns on the stage that sometimes enhance the lovely video productions on a large cyclorama at the back of the arena.
“It’s a big challenge for me, being given the role of resident artistic director,” he says. “I give directions to the riders and the performers, but it’s all about choreographing the patterns that make up the overall look.”
Music to ride by
Another element that brings the show together is the original, ethereal music, composed by Michel Cusson and performed by three musicians and a singer. The music uses Arabic, Spanish, Eastern European, African and other world music influences.
Percussionist Eric Boudreault, who has been with Cavalia since 2003 and has worked as a session musician in Hollywood for such TV shows as The X-Files and Lost, says getting the balance right is much like how a conductor and pit musicians would work with a live ballet, opera or musical.
“There is a metronomic order to the music,” he says, “but the conductor is watching the horses and the action and slightly adjusting the tempo so that we fit the speed of the horses, and the human interaction with them.”
In fact, every human involved with the show has to allow for flexibility when dealing with animals.
Although these horses are beautifully trained, there’s always a chance for equine improvisation.
On the night I saw the performance in Mexico City, during a second-act section in which the horses move together in large, symmetrical formations, one horse decided he would break from the herd and roam on the hillside alone. In such a case, the trainers let the horse do as he will until he’s ready to come back. In short time, he rejoined the group.
“Sometimes they have a mind of their own,” says Orlowski, “and you just have to let them be themselves. We show that we have great respect for them, and they respect us back.”