Thursday, September 15, 2016

Cavalia: Odysseo

Elise Verdoncq and Omerio. Photo courtesy Cavalia and Dan Harper.

Created in 2003 by Cirque du Soleil co-founder Normand Latourelle, the troupe Cavalia combines intricate human acrobatics with complex equine performances featuring dozens of trained horses in the lavish custom settings. Their recent touring show Odysseo is a melding of visual delight and incredible precision, simultaneously evoking a fantasy dreamscape and the horse-riding cultures of the world. The performance continually exceeds its own standards for what’s possible in human and equestrian motion, never settling to simply meet audience expectations.

Normally, descriptions of the technical theatre go near the end of a Theatre and Bites review, but because Odysseo’s performances are so profoundly tied to its venue, the subject deserves to be mentioned first. The show takes place in a gigantic white tent that can be seen from the highway, featuring a curved proscenium stage several times bigger than that of Bay Area regional theatres. Because of its size and subtle lighting, the space almost seems like watching a show outside. The stage itself tilts to create the illusion of great distance, which provides a sense of vastness and glory.

Odysseo consists of fourteen scenes; almost all feature its four-legged performers. These scenes can almost be seen as an introduction to the spectrum of horse performance, with riders enacting deliberate, precise dressage routines at one moment and performing wild Cossack riding acrobatics the next. The scenes don’t simply hew to formal notions of equestrian skill, either: “The Odyssey,” which opens Odysseo’s second act, opens with horses lying prone and slowly bonding with their handlers before joining together into the spectacular choreography of a Liberty performance.

Though all of the scenes are gorgeous, the very best are the two at the end: “The Great Adventure” and the grand finale, “Odysseo.” Without giving too much away, “Great Adventure” begins with a quiet, captivating solo performance by Elise Verdoncq, riding Lusitano horse Omerio, as the front of the stage fills with a shallow layer of water. This water, though no great impediment to human or horse, adds a layer of spectacle to the daring, adventurous routines about to unfold.

The inclusion of horses adds an interesting dash of uncertainty to a performance art that is almost robotically precise with only human dancers. The horses are well trained and talented, but they are still animals and possess their own habits and idiosyncrasies. (I saw the aforementioned Omerio try to sip some water out of a groove in the stage at the end of “The Great Adventure.”) The broad staging and ensemble of Odysseo allows audience members to follow a horse that particularly interests them, which adds a nice touch to the theatrical experience.

Cavalia’s Odysseo is a lavish, incredibly well choreographed performance piece that combines the best work of human and horse alike. It provides an evening of stunning visuals, uplifting themes, and a glimpse at the connection between species that has existed since the dawn of civilization. For people drawn to the performing arts for aesthetics as much as they are for a well-crafted script, Odysseo is a must-see.

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