Images courtesy of Cavalia
After weeks of enthusiastic anticipation, Cavalia Odysseo made its Arizona premiere last night in front of an audience of 2,000 in Scottsdale. The unique show ended with rapturous applause and a standing ovation.
If you think Cavalia is “just a horse show,” think again. Rather it’s a blend of Cirque de Soleil, a concert and a 3D movie that appeals even to people who have never cared a dime about our four-legged friends.
The new show, Odysseo, is considerably larger in size and scope than Cavalia’s previous production that visited the Valley five years ago. The $30-million theatrical production now features more horses - 70 horses of 12 different breeds; and more artists - 50 talented riders, acrobats, dancers and musicians. The stage itself is nearly twice its original size, enabling larger-scale and even more cutting-edge performances.
Last week, Cavalia’s magnificent horses arrived in Scottsdale in style. One by one, they stepped off the trailer and right onto the red carpet, long manes fluttering in the breeze, while camera crews blitzed off the shutters like at any Hollywood premiere. The only difference was that these equine stars left the red carpet slightly more soiled.
Cavalia’s gigantic tent bustled with activity when I arrived for the media sneak preview. Caterpillars were moving earth to create a three-story-high mountain as a backdrop. While workers hurried through with equipment, I was panicked considering how they would get done in time for the premier only a few days later. However, by now the Cavalia team has traveled around the world and pinned down the assembly like clockwork.
Slowly, a merry-go-round was lowered from the ceiling to the ground. “Overhanging the performance area is a technical grid that can support 80 tons of equipment, including a full-sized merry-go-round. This defies everything that has ever been done under a tent to date in the world. You really don’t need to go to Vegas to see a Vegas show while we are in town!” says artistic director Samuel Alvarez.
In addition, the theatrical effects include a state-of-the-art projection screen, which is three times the size of the world’s largest movie screen, and a real lake made of 40,000 gallons of recycled water, which emerges for a splashing finale.
In essence, Odysseo celebrates the ancient relationship between horse and humans. More than any other animal, horses have marked our history, as they have taken us to the ends of the earth enabling us to build bridges between cultures and expand civilization.
Illustrating the bond between man and horse, a group of Arabians performed at liberty (i.e. they are free, unrestrained and rider-less). Tails high, the white stallions elegantly cantered around equestrian director Mathieu Bianchi, following his nearly invisible cues to change direction or pattern. It’s one of these things that look so easy, yet if I ever tried it myself, I would end up smashed under a stampede of raging stallions.
Liberty is the base of all training at Cavalia, and it requires the trainers to pay close attention to the horses in order to ensure that every request is adapted and respectful of what the horses are ready to offer. Violence and coercive methods have no place here. “Nourmand Latourelle’s [Cavalia’s creator] message is that we shouldn’t do the exercises at any cost. If the horse doesn’t want to, let’s play or do something else. We should never force him to do anything,” says Mathieu.
Cavalia’s training methods are designed to ensure the horses enjoy training and performing on stage. The trainers must have patience and be able to adapt the exercises to each horse’s character and current mood. “It’s up to us to put ourselves at the horse’s service and that’s the challenge. When you work with several horses you have to adapt to each horse’s needs. You may have to concentrate to give one horse more energy that day,” Mathieu says.
If you have ever seen a fluttering plastic bag’s disastrous effects on a horse, you may wonder how the Cavalia horses deal with booming music, 3D effects, and flying acrobats. “It’s all about creating confidence. If the horses trust their trainer they can go anywhere and be comfortable,” Mathieu explains.
A highly successful training method, liberty is growing in popularity. More and more people also want to learn how to communicate with their horses to deepen their bond. Cavalia spearheads the message of humane training not only to the horse world, but to the larger public.
At opening night, the deep trust and respect between horse and human is clearly visible. The riders reassure their horses by patting or touching them. At one point a horse refuses to jump a couple of high bars, but rather than reprimanding or forcing him to redo the jump, as at many competitive horse events, they simply ride out and are replaced by another team. The new gelding flies over the obstacle to the audience’s deafening applause.
Near the finale, horses gallop at full speed while their riders crawl around and under their bellies. Later, the silk performers whirl high in the air, while the fabric flows right above the horses’ heads. All acts are an ethereal vision for the eye, and impressive not the least when considering the incredible amount of preparation that it took to get there. Sure, there are amazing shows and productions available, but working humanely with animals requires a much higher level of skill, talent, and adaptability, that is not only remarkable per se, but instills hope of a future when respect defines the relationship between man and animal. As world-class entertainment, Cavalia Odysseo offers an immersion for the senses—visually, acoustically—but also for the soul and mind.
From savannas to mountains and magical forests, horses have pushed boundaries for humanity and allowed different cultures to blend, creating a legacy we are free to enjoy, explore, and appreciate. Beyond celebrating the deep bond between horse and humans, Cavalia Odysseo is a tribute to the immense beauty present in the world and an invitation to connect with the unfamiliar.
EDIT: The producers of Cavalia are delighted to announce the addition of an extra week of performances to its limited run in Scottsdale, including shows on Good Friday (March 30) and Easter Sunday (April 1). The impressive cast of 70 majestic horses and 50 riders, acrobats, aerialists, stilt walkers, dancers and musicians will now be performing under the White Big Top near Red Mountain 202 at McClintock Dr. through Monday, April 2.