Review: Odysseo (Cavalia)

Cavalia presents its new equine fantasy show Odysseo in Toronto’s Port Lands through June 3, 2012.

I love horses, who doesn’t? They’re beautiful, graceful, intelligent animals. Unfortunately, being a city boy, my experience with horses is limited to some occasional trail riding. Still, I have a profound appreciation and respect for these magnificent creatures.

Founded in 2003 in Montreal, Cavalia has been touring the world with its blend of theatrical circus and equestrian arts. It’s perhaps a bit reductive and unoriginal to refer to it as “Cirque du Soleil with horses” but the comparison is apt; Cavalia’s founder Normand Latourelle was also a founding member of Cirque du Soleil.

Cavalia attempts to do for equestrian shows what Cirque du Soleil did for circus; that is, overlay a theatrical concept incorporating music, lighting and choreography and applying high-gloss production values to create a grand ethereal spectacle.

Odysseo, the company’s second production, is enormous in scope and scale. The show plays on a stage the size of two NHL-hockey rinks under a gleaming white big top erected in the Toronto Port Lands. The cast features 61 performers of the equine variety as well as 49 humans performing a variety of acts; riding in formation, trick riding, roman riding, show jumping as well as human acrobatics.

I’m a huge fan of the “nouveau” circus genre and I’ve seen dozens of shows by Cirque du Soleil and other companies like Cirque Éloize and 7 Fingers that blend circus arts and theatre. When done right, nouveau cirque shows can elevate physical performances to the realm of art.

Odysseo is a grandiose spectacle with high production values but I found that it lacked the level of depth, artistry and theatricality that the best shows in the theatrical circus genre can deliver.

Not surprisingly, the show is all about the horses, they are the unmistakable stars of the evening. They are gorgeous to look at and a lot of fun to watch. However, after a while, I found that most of the acts went on a few beats too long and started feeling repetitive. As a result the show as a whole felt a little one-note to me.

That isn’t to say it’s unenjoyable and there were several aspects of the show I really liked. The production design is ambitious. I was really impressed by the set; the main ring extends far back into a giant hill and projections on a massive cyclorama extend the depth of field often to stunning effect. At times in the show, layers of curtains and scrims fly in and cut off the back of the stage making the performance space more intimate.

While the production design is impressive I found the show itself a little confused. The show lacks a coherent theme or visual identity, the scene jumps around randomly to different locales; from Africa to Arabia to Easter Island to the North Pole, while the costumes all kind of have the same non-descript Mongolian goat herder look in a variety of colours.

The music, performed live by a five-piece band, is a vaguely world-beat, new-agey fusion, predominantly Celtic in influence. I found the Enya-esque score suffered from a sense of sameness. The music is merely atmospheric and doesn’t create dramatic tension, convey emotion or drive the action forward. I’ve often left Cirque du Soleil shows compelled to buy the CD of the music but I found Odysseo’s score largely forgettable.

As I mentioned, the horses are the stars of the show and subsequently I thought the human acts fell a bit short. The human merry-go-round and group aerial numbers weren’t as impressive in terms of skills, choreography and overall artistry that I’ve seen in other nouveau cirque-style shows.

The show does feature an energetic Guinean acrobatic troupe but I don’t think they were very well integrated into the rest of the show which created a bit of an unintentional racial subtext that sat uncomfortably with me. My date also pointed it out afterward so I don’t think I was the only one who noticed.

It’s true that Odysseo is only Cavalia’s second show and the company hasn’t yet had time to really evolve their style and develop their artistic point of view. I really hope they will in subsequent productions. I think a little more thought in the overall concept, design, and artistry of the show would add a level of sophistication to the production that would make the experience much more rich, engaging and satisfying.

As it stands Odysseo is very pretty to look at but falls short of being emotionally engaging or intellectually stimulating. Still, most people will be going for the horses and they’re beautiful and everything you’d expect them to be. If you’re a horse-lover or a fan of grand spectacle then Odysseo is a show you’d probably enjoy.

Details:

  • Cavalia’s Odysseo is playing under the White Big Top in Toronto’s Port Lands at 324 Cherry Street through June 3, 2012
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00PM, Saturday at 3:00PM and Sunday at 2:00PM, there is no show on Wednesday, May 16.
  • Tickets $29.50 to $119.50 plus service charges
  • Tickets are available by phone 1.866.999.8111, at the on-site box office or visit www.cavalia.net

Photo credit:

  • Image from Cavalia’s production Odysseo