I should start this review with a big disclaimer: I am afraid of horses.
I wasn’t always. I spent my childhood on horseback, practically, with my friend Tina (on her own horse, usually). I lived on a small farm with some horses and ponies; she lived up the road on a small sheep farm with a horse and a pony. We made up a crazy course through the woods, with jumps including logs and gullies and small shrubs, and we raced through it bareback. Sometimes we’d even ride without bridles, pretending we were wild girls who lived in the woods with our horses (go ahead and laugh).
Riding wild or not, I fell off plenty of times. I got kicked more than once. One time, our old mare Misty even stepped on my face (well, it was more of a kick/graze; she started to put her hoof down on my cheekbone and fortunately moved it forward off my head in the nick of time, leaving me with merely a bruise and a bump).
None of that fazed me. We continued to spend all our time riding, grooming, cleaning hooves, making up stories about ourselves and our horses. Sometimes I’d ride my horse to her house and we’d ride the trails near her, which included an exciting creek crossing.
But then when I was 14 years old, my family bought a horse that was not quite broken. She was to be mine, but I wasn’t experienced enough to handle her. Let’s just say that by the time we sold her, she probably needed to be completely retrained, and I was scared of horses for life.
This didn’t stop me from saying “Yes!” to the opportunity to check out the new Cavalia show, “Odysseo.” Imagine that one of the co-founders of Cirque du Soleil started a different show and decided to include 63 horses. That’s right — 63 horses, 23 of them stallions. That number was announced in an on-screen quiz before the show, which only built my tension. I mean, that is a lot of horse testosterone, right?
The set of the show is breathtaking. The tent is enormous, but inside is intimate. You start out looking at a lovely forest, mystical and magical. The trees can slide out of the way, revealing a hill. That’s right, a hill. A hill that actual horses can run on. Lots of horses. The landscapes in this show (more accurately, of this show) are breathtaking, with a moving-graphics backdrop the size of three IMAX screens:
“To give life to this extraordinary equestrian adventure, Cavalia created a 17,500 square feet stage, in the middle of which rise two hills each three storeys tall. Some 10,000 tons of rock,earth and sand are trucked in and then sculpted to create the vast space of freedom where human and horse come to play in complicity.”
A full-size carousel also makes an appearance for an unforgettable segment of horses and gorgeous, compelling pole acrobatics.
The opening scene made me a little nervous. Suddenly a lot of horses were running free on the stage, which was surrounded only by a low wall. Knowing there were so many stallions, and that most of the horses were totally free (no halters, ropes, nothing — just bare horses running) and watching all the nipping they were doing to each other (more than once during the show, I feared some kind of horse-fight would break out), well, it was hard for me to relax and just enjoy the beauty of the animals.
I needn’t have worried. The trainers are exceptional, as are the horses. And the group’s attitude towards their horses is as follows: “The Cavalia approach is based on training methods designed to ensure the horses enjoy training with us and performing on stage. Trainers pay close attention to the horses to ensure that every request is adapted and respectful of what they are ready to offer.” It’s obvious, as you watch the humans and animals together.
The acrobatic team was fantastic, and the leaping stilters were a sight to behold. But — again with the worry! — all the horses and stilters leaping together over jumps made me think, “STOP that! Someone’s going to get hurt!” (I admit I had this thought a few times during the show, seeing as I’m afraid of horses and all.)
While much of the action takes place on the ground (let’s just call the stage “the ground,” for that’s really what it is, for all intents and purposes), the show also contains some stunning aerial performances, especially in the second half. My favorite was the silks act, with riders and horses pulling the aerialists into a graceful pattern. One thing I appreciated about the aerialists was having my vision pulled up, with much to see on every level instead of just looking toward the stage ground.
Though parts of Odysseo did seem to border on dangerous at times (I really didn’t used to be this way, I swear!!), most was just gorgeous. In “Arabians Liberty,” for example, a woman kneels in the center of the stage/ground while a herd of horses cavorts around her. They speed up; they slow down. They come over to her. We cannot hear her commands; the horses seem to be making their own decisions, yet as a group.
This woman, Elise Verdoncq, continued to display such a quiet confidence and control over the horses, who clearly respect her. In another scene, when humans and horses run together, with four horses per human, the other trainers frequently turned their heads to check in with their animals. Verdoncq did not need to, trusting that they were following her lead (they were). While the riders in the show demonstrated some serious riding skills and horseback acrobatics, I especially enjoyed watching Verdoncq’s quiet connection with the animals.
And the musicians! Did I even tell you? Much of the music was live (with an actual vocalist, who sometimes was on stage amongst the horses!!), and they were in a clear box up in the trees by the audience! Musicians in the trees, like fairies!
It was those little touches that really pleased me — the surprise and magnitude of the hill, or the horses running wild and nipping each other but yet under a fair amount of unseen control by the performers, or the lake. The lake! There’s a lake. It just kind of appears (80,000 gallons, but really, it just kind of creeps in), mesmerizingly, for the horses and acrobats and everyone to cavort through. (We were, to be honest, slightly underwhelmed by the finale; I’d expected something much splashier and more raucous, but perhaps it was because we were sitting at the far edge of the seating area).
Though we were encouraged to bring our children, I thought mine were too young for an 8 p.m. show. Plenty of children were in attendance, though, and people I spoke to said their children loved it. I imagine they would, as would anyone who likes to see a magical otherworld filled with horses and acrobats, fairy singing and drums, leaping stilters and flying aerialists, and more horses, cantering and leaping and turning and waking up in the dunes and splashing through the lake and moving amongst the people, who moved amongst the horses, human and animals perhaps not so distinct after all.
It’s a gorgeous and amazing show, all in all.
Oh, and we got to go to the after-party! If you buy VIP tickets to the show, you get a pre-show buffet dinner, open bar, excellent center seats, free desserts during the 30-minute intermission, and a party after the show, as well as a post-show tour of the stables. Unfortunately, we’d already pressed our sitter to stay extra-late, so we stopped by the party only briefly before we had to head home, skipping the stable tour and our chance to meet some of the performers.
Due to popularity, Cavalia has added several shows, extending Odysseo’s Boston-area stay until August 25. You can like them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cavalia and follow them on Twitter: @Cavalia #Odysseo
Disclosure: I received four complimentary tickets to the show and to the VIP after-party. No other compensation was received, and all opinions are my own. All photos are from the Cavalia Odysseo website and are used here with permission.