Odysseo is Cirque du Soleil for the horsie set. It’s the latest creation from the people behind the 2003 hit Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Human And Horse, that ran to popular acclaim in Toronto’s Distillery District.
Artistic Director Normand Latourelle was a co-founder of Cirque back in 1985. His latest spectacle (running in Toronto’s Portlands District to June 10th) combines equine and acrobatic skill, as well as some impressive technology. Twenty-two strong stallions and 39 geldings (including some beautiful Appaloosas) constitute the majority of Odysseo’s cast. Show riders are strong and lithe; costumes (by Georges Levesque and Michele Hamel) conjure South American, Arabian, and North American Indian looks, though the show’s overall design (by Guillaume Lord) is kept purposely vague, implying a Horse Universe where beasts and riders roam free and unencumbered.
Latourelle was apparently inspired by what he saw outside his window on his Quebec farm, and at last Monday’s preview he called Odysseo “an adventure of love.” This adventure unfolds on a 27,000-square-foot stage filled with sand, earth, and rock that is subsequently flooded with 80,000 gallons of water for the finale. The vision of author Raoul Duguay, as realized by Director Wayne Fowkes, is a visually-driven series of vignettes that combine the physicality of a Cirque show with the physicality of equine choreography. It includes traditional jumping and leading as well as riding formations and high dressage. All of this is set within quasi-mythical lands represented by various projections on immense screens (twice the size of IMAX ones) behind the performance space. We see the giant heads of Easter Island, Death Valley, and open grasslands that recalls Tolkien’s Rohan. Set to a lively New-Age-meets-Movenpick-style soundtrack by Michel Cusson (and solid live singing by Claudia Paganelli), Odysseo, far from its titular Homeric roots, is good (if pricey) family entertainment that underlines the deep connections between horse and humans.
Human Pyramid / Pyramide Humaine
It’s charming, to be sure, but there’s a troubling racial element at play. A troupe of black acrobats (from Guinea) perform an impressive array of physical feats (pyramids, back/front flips, etc) -but none of them is afforded the opportunity of riding a single horse over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour show. What’s worse, these performers appear (with depressing reliability) at the behest of percussive elements, highlighting an unacknowledged perception around the definition of “African” culture for a North American audience. Might one assume the sequence “Appel D’Afrique” is a creation of acrobatic and dance choreographers Darren Charles and Alain Gauthier? If there is genuine cultural authenticity to this scene, it needs to be plainly stated somewhere on the Odysseo website, because as is, it only adds to the perception that Odysseo’s Guinean performers function primarily as cutesy minstrels, a point underscored by their heightened physical comedy and call-and-response with the audience. It’s a troubling undercurrent to a show that relies on the fantastical for much of its mojo; clearly the fantasies projected within Odysseo are meant for certain groups and not others.
Unlike its predecessor, Odysseo features no intimate scenes of Horse Whisperer-style relating. Opening night there seemed to be an attempt between a Whisperer and a lovely white stallion, but the latter was having none of it. That simple refusal perfectly encapsulated the beauty of horses: they are an intoxicating combination of mischief, fear, strength, and unpredictability. But Odysseo seems determined to dampen much of that spirit in a rush of thunderous sound, shifting lights, special effects, and carefully-choreographed spectacle, some of which involves copious amounts of tacky dancing and/ or gushing water. Horses are grouped together and made to run around, ad nauseum, as mere accessories in a larger visual aesthetic that takes its cues from a weird hybrid of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Waterworld, and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Duguay and Fowkes could have produced a far more compelling work had there been an actual narrative in place to tie the various scenes together, one that would place equine and human elements in a more involving drama, allowing for a beautiful equality across the board that would complement its “back-to-nature” theme. Instead, the audience is treated to a series of horse-and-human tricks (sometimes separately; more often combined) and though they’re initially thrilling, showing off both the animals’ incredible agility and speed and the riders’ skill and control, they’re not enough to hold one’s attention over time. Backwards, upside-down, standing up, lying down: there are only so many ways you can watch someone ride a horse.
Les voyageurs VI / The Travelers VI
Add to that a sense of confusion if you’re not well-versed in the equestrian world. The final scene, set amidst all those gallons of water, sees a Lusitano stallion (named Omerio) raises his legs in a balletic sort of trot-dance that is especially striking set in silhouette, and, while impressive, is too long for those not well-versed in dressage technique. It was only through an experienced rider-guest that I learned the horse was doing was something called “piaffe,”a series of complex, detailed moves that demonstrate an incredible command and discipline. But after acrobats, dance, high-jumps, and numerous horse tricks, the subtlety of piaffe movements was entirely lost. It was a pity for both those who know about equestrian training, and those who are interested in learning more.
As such, Odysseo thrills for those who either know a lot about horsie culture, or those who know precious little but enjoy a grand, noisy spectacle. Its heart might look impressive but is ultimately hollow - and deeply stratified. Odysseo certainly is good at hooking up the carriage for what one expects to be a wild ride, but then it never goes anywhere, save in those interminable circles, content to admire itself, happy to overlook its more troubling racial layers.