Without overstating in the slightest, it’s entirely fair to say that the two-hour mix of equestrian arts, acrobatics, dance, and music that occurs under the White Big Top during Cavalia’s Odysseo can change a person’s life. So imaginatively thrilling are the feats of skill and artistry demonstrated by the cast of dozens of human and equine performers, any given spectator might find themselves inspired to perfect their own craft (or embark upon a new one). The experience of watching Odysseo is nothing short of transporting, whisking away crowds of slack-jawed onlookers to a surreal dreamscape where seemingly anything is possible.
If anything, Odysseo—which opened in the Seattle-area on February 19, 2014 at Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington for a four-week run—offers a vision of beauty even more refined than its incredible predecessor that continues to tour the world 10 years after its inception (titled simply Cavalia, that show is currently stationed in Abu Dhabi). Eschewing conventional narrative in favor of a series of varied set pieces, Odysseo is a one-of-a-kind spectacle that unfolds on a sandy, hockey rink-sized stage in front of a wide-screen backdrop of constantly changing scenery. Seasons shift before our very eyes, taking us from sweltering dunes to lush greenery. Panoramas displaying icy stalactites and frigid waterfalls combine with evocative lighting effects, establishing a sequence of wildly contrasting atmospheres.
As impressive as the staging is, it all functions as the framework for the main attraction: a multi-cultural cast of 52 artists and a multi-breed array of 66 horses. At one point I counted 30 horses on stage at one time, grouped in rows of three and four, being led through amazing displays of choreographed riding. The stage slopes upward, giving a natural, three-dimensional quality that enhances the naturalistic environment. Early on, “Fete De Village” features incredible flips, leaps, and synchronized dancing (culminating in a human pyramid) by a group of African acrobats. They return many times, on occasion even playing various percussion instruments and leading the audience in call-and-response chants. Their infectious energy really gets the crowd clapping and cheering. That’s another element of Odysseo that might surprise those new to Cavalia’s world: the bond between audience and performer. The performers clearly feed off the audience’s energy.
Amidst the numerous examples of daredevil horseback riding (including, I kid you not, a rider who dismounts his horse, climbs underneath it, and remounts from the other side—all while the horse is running in circles), there are moments of exquisite delicacy. In “Carusello,” a gigantic carousel descends from the rafters, upon which acrobats appear to defy gravity (I’m talking about performers holding themselves horizontally, fully extended, while the carousel rotates). The finale involves some 80,000 gallons of water that flood the stage, allowing riders and acrobats to create huge arcs of blue-green water to splash up during their routines. But some of the subtlest moments are equally effective, such as the sight of a single horse literally dancing through the lake as the music swells. The rider has such control and the horse has such discipline, spectators sit motionlessly on the edge of their seats in rapt attention.
Given the sometimes unpredictable nature of the four-legged beasts, not to mention the possibility of a botched stunt by a human performer, every staging of Odysseo is a slightly different experience. The equestrians exhibit a remarkable control over their superbly-trained horses, but every once in a while a horse will stray from the herd or get a bit rambunctious. These occurrences, rather than “spoil” the moment, are endearing reminders that we’re watching a live performance that will never happen in quite the same, exact way ever again. Like a great improvised jazz solo, every performance of Odysseo is a unique work of art.
Perhaps the most underrated element of the show is the score by Michel Cusson, performed by live musicians (led by bassist Eric Auclair) from booths high above the performance area. Whether driven by propulsive percussion (Eric Boudreault), meditative acoustic guitar (Serge Gamache), or violin soloing (Louis Pier Racicot), the various themes and vamps form a perfect soundtrack for the action. Vocalist Anna-Laura Edmiston is the sole performer who has the opportunity to perform from the main stage as well as the musicians’ booth, the haunting beauty of her voice complementing the show from either vantage.
Odysseo is as much about the small details as the grand displays of physical ability. From the costumes (350 are part of the show, with some performers making up to seven costume changes), to the set design (by Guillaume Lord), to hair and makeup (Louis Bond and Jessica Manzo, respectively), every aspect of the show has been carefully crafted. Immeasurable praise goes to artistic director Normand Latourelle, a Cirque du Soleil veteran (1985-90) whose brainchild Cavalia and Odysseo were in the first place. It’s hard to imagine how much inventive work Odysseo director Wayne Fowkes and equestrian director/choreographer Benjamin Aillaud have invested in order to make this show possible, but viewers will undoubtedly leave all the richer for it. And again, they just might be inspired to up their own game, whatever it may be, after watching so many performers sustain such high levels of artistry.
Odysseo by Cavalia has shows scheduled at Redmond, Washington’s Marymoor Park from now until March 16, 2014. Afternoon matinees are available on Saturdays and Sundays. Ticket prices for Tuesday-Thursday are lower than weekend shows, so the budget-conscious will definitely want to keep that in mind. The 2,000-seat White Big Top has remarkably consistent sightlines, with great views from everywhere (note that the lowest ticket price, the “green” section, has a “partially obstructed” view due to equipment towers).
Keep in mind, with a show as expansive as Odysseo, being closer isn’t necessarily better. While it’s all down to personal preference, if you’re further back, you’re also higher up. Having previewed the show from the front row before taking it all in from a more centrally located seat, I can confidently say that I preferred viewing the action from a higher angle.
For a premium, Rendez-vous VIP packages are available. If you can swing it, this is definitely the most stylish way to attend Odysseo. A special exclusive lounge is available to VIP ticket holders. Preshow includes a fantastic buffet dinner (the selection included salads, shrimp, BBQ pork sliders, beef skewers, grilled asparagus, mushrooms, chips & salsa, and much more). There’s also an open bar (soft drinks are available in addition to wine, beer, and champagne). At intermission, VIP spectators can duck back in to indulge in a wide variety of desserts, fresh fruit, and cheeses. And following the performance, the Rendez-vous package includes a tour of the stables (and yes, the bar is open for the after-show reception). The VIP lounge also has its own souvenir stand, sparing ticket holders from waits in long lines.
For more information about the show and how to obtain tickets, visit the official Cavalia website. But don’t wait too long—the demand for tickets to the Seattle-area run has already resulted in a weeklong extension. March 16 is scheduled as the closing date.