Cavalia’s “Odysseo” Exceeds Hype, Leaves Lasting Impression

Cavalia's "Odysseo," a surreal spectacle beyond words, will be playing under the big white top in Irvine, Calif., through January 8th, 2017. Photo courtesy of Cavalia

Rarely does a show exceed its glowing publicity and hype surrounding it, but Cavalia’s “Odysseo,” which is currently enjoying a sold-out run in Irvine, Calif., succeeds triumphantly with memorable flair, redefining what an entertainment spectacle really is.

Comprised of a large troupe (65 horses, 45 performers), and an even larger part-au natural, part-digital set that is 17,500 square feet – inclusive of actual grass/soil and a panoramic 4K screen – is a realm unto its own such that observers will find themselves energized with the most inspiring imagery, still beauty, live music, and heart-pounding acrobatics. More importantly, it is the fact that the show’s allure is beautifully bound to the naturalism of Mother Earth, particularly as an ode to the ethereal equine, that both enthralls and rewards us with the joy of unconditional love.

Five women each perform a jaw-dropping balancing act atop a pair of horses in "Odysseo." Photo credit: Cavalia

Five women each perform a jaw-dropping balancing act atop a pair of horses in “Odysseo.” Photo credit: Cavalia

At the heart of the extravaganza are the trainers of the all-male horses (16 of them being stallions), who do a wonderfully adept job of ensuring that the animals are respected and taken care of over the run of their training (lasting up to a year) and the show, which galvanizes its passionately loud audience with various sights and sounds.

The roughly 2,000 attendees, who are on hand for any given performance inside the gargantuan white tent, experience, among several other attractions, rousing live music. The classically riveting melodies and wistful musicality is owed to the violinist, drummer, and especially guitarist/composer Michel Cusson, who can all be found in suspended pod-like rooms on opposite ends of the stage.

The original music reinforces the feats of fancy and surreality that transpire in the three hours (including a 30-minute intermission). A handful of these happen in the context of a rotating plane; for instance, in the first half of the event, a carousel descends from the ceiling, where acrobatic couples exhibit incredible core strength, performing vertical leg splits using only the poles. In another example, male and female acrobats contort their bodies using gymnastic rings, oftentimes stabilizing themselves using only their upper backs. Furthermore, in a particularly heavenly showcase, four women demonstrate their agility and flexibility as they wrap and unfurl themselves from large-scale silky white drapery, which is coralled by four men on white horses. These aerial experts are barely hanging on at times, without a net to catch a miscue, and yet make it all look so effortless.

If that isn’t enough, there is a “Can you top that?” sequence also involving poles that are vaulted by stilted super-jumpers, who do 360-degree twists in mid-air, and in perfect synchronization. Of course, the gorgeous horses also join in on the fun, clearing the hurdles, which get higher and higher, demanding greater displays of sheer athleticism.

The terrifically talented band of African performers, who can perform both acrobatic and musical feats. Photo courtesy of Cavalia

The terrifically talented band of Africans perform both acrobatic and musical feats in “Odysseo.” Photo courtesy of Cavalia

To this point, some of the most spellbinding and death-defying stunts occur inside a large ring on the awe-striking stage – designed by Guillaume Lord – where performers hang by the crutch of their heels from their galloping horses, who are running at 40 MPH while their riders’ heads ostensibly graze the ground. The fantastic finale of this sees a man springboard upon his saddle – while in kinetic motion – before going under and around his moving horse’s ribcage. Undoubtedly, mere words don’t do it justice as it has to be seen to be truly appreciated.

Yet, the most athletic individuals of the show may be a group of amazingly musclebound African daredevils, who bring an astounding level of raw energy. They do somersaults, handstands, and back flips for what feels like light-speed perpetuity, and somehow never seem to tire even slightly while doing it. Truthfully, they might as well be superheroes because, as watching them form 20-foot-tall pyramids using each other to jump and balance off of, one gets the impression that they’re infallible and not subject to the rules of physics.

And, surprisingly, when there is a lull in the human-stunt fireworks, there is an elegance that takes the breath away just as effectively. At the core of the exquisiteness are the horses, who are the undisputed headliners of the one-of-a-kind “Odysseo” experience. They shine brilliantly when they are being led by head equestrian and horse whisperer Elise Verdoncq, who put law school on hold to dedicate her time to the magnificent animals. For the numerous times she is on stage, Verdoncq evokes gasps of enchantment with her virtuosity in leading the horses through a complicated choreography of turning on a dime, switching directions, and moving to and back from a designated space on the stage with impeccable timing.

A daredevil on stilts does a full rotation in mid-air during the finale as two of his fellow cast performers look on. Photo credit: Cavalia

A daredevil on stilts does a full rotation in mid-air during the finale in “Odysseo” as two of his fellow cast performers look on. Photo credit: Cavalia

Where Verdoncq becomes unforgettably etched in the minds of the audience, however, is in the penultimate scene. With the artistic direction of Normand Latourelle and Wayne Fowkes having already entranced onlookers, there is a moment – when the seated Verdoncq is getting the crowd to ooh with complex dressage techniques at the back of the stage – that the upstage area suddenly appears to be brimming with shimmering water. In fact, it is – 40,000 gallons of it to be exact – which prompts a veritable painting to fruition, as Verdoncq carries on with a tranquil routine in the quasi lake, and one last cumulative hurrah before the well-deserved final bows.

Cavalia’s “Odysseo” earns the highest recommendation for its unique ability to unite the spiritual grace of horses, aerial feats, impressive stage technology, and showmanship from an an accomplished and courageous cast of performers. It is a quintessential pageantry perfectly suited for the 21st Century.

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