I had walked by it, ridden the train by it – probably hundreds of times while the show was in Portland – so it was surreal to finally be inside the “White Big Top.” But instead of my hometown, I was in Irvine, California visiting my friend and former roommate, Shonna, and the Big Top was the reason she was there.
Shonna works for Cavalia – the Montreal based entertainment company – and was (and still is) working on tour with their show, Odysseo. The space inside the tent was enormous, with everything you would expect from a grand scale show at a brick and mortar location – a gift shop full of cheap memorabilia, concessions, a bar, and people milling about everywhere. All underneath the tarps stretched tens of stories into the sky.
I climbed the metal stairs to my place in the steep stadium seating and made myself comfortable in a thick plastic fold-down seat. It was odd to be by myself at such an event. The tent was filled with couples dressed up on dates, parents with kids in tow, and chatty extended families. Then there was me, solo with a comp’d ticket, finally seeing a show that felt strangely already like an ingrained part of my life. I had passed on seeing the show in Portland after I found out Shonna was going on tour. I felt, somewhat irrationally, that the show was stealing a friend. I turned down tickets multiple times. But three months had passed and there I was, about to take it all in.
As the clock ticked toward showtime, the black screens covering the stage were illuminated with multiple choice questions about the show; the audience was encouraged to give their answers by show of hands. In no way official or tallied, it was simply a fun diversion to pass the wait, and I happily joined in. Eventually the lights dimmed and the stage was revealed. A woman’s voice, whimsical and melodic, filled the tent. Musicians played from balconies above both sides of the stage. The first horses appeared in pairs with one rider for each – standing over them with feet straddling their backs (Roman riding, I learned later, is the official style). The riders moved their arms with a flourish as they rode circles around the stage and then cantered out of sight.
The overall effect was certainly beautiful – the riders were wearing light, gauzy costumes which, in combination with the white, gliding horses, added a magical feeling. But I’ll be honest, my first thought was, “So… that’s it?”
I am generally impressed with most things beyond the scope of my own ability. And I appreciated the skill that I am sure is required for one person to ride two horses in a standing position. I simply wasn’t instantly blown away like I expected to be. I had waited so long to see the show, I had heard so much about it from Shonna and friends that saw it in Portland. What I didn’t factor in was that, not being a person particularly drawn to horses, I might not enjoy it. But it was just the beginning, so I settled in and waited for the next act to begin.
Cavalia was founded in 2003 by Norman Latourelle, one of the four co-founders of Cirque du Soleil. The organization is based in Montreal, Quebec, and their shows toured all over Canada, the US, and eventually worldwide. Odysseo is their second production, premiering in 2011. Both shows are traveling and each has its own unique tent. Odysseo’s white top is nearly 125 feet tall and holds over 2000 spectators. The shows themselves are an amalgamation of horse and human acrobatics. 65 horses and dozens of performers complete floor and aerial acrobatics, dressage, and trick riding. Both horses and performers come from all over the world.
The tempo picked up once an African dance troupe came out to perform tumbling runs of greater complexity and pumped up the crowd. Acrobats bounded out on stilts and trick riders jumped their horses over obstacles of increasing height. I was finally beginning to feel entertained and I was amazed by the skill on all levels. The pace slowed again as a carousel appeared from the ceiling and acrobats showcased their talent on the vertical bars. There were acts with rings and one with ribbons – horses below circled, creating a swirling mobile of human strength. The singer and musicians all the while adding whimsy. But there were also entire acts comprised, essentially, of horses running in circles. Different numbers of horses running in different types of circles with different numbers of trainers keeping them in-check (later I would mention to Shonna that I was sure this required a lot of skill I didn’t understand, to which she replied something like, “Oh no, it’s not that hard.”)
A side note on the Odysseo horse acts. There are a variety of different types of acts, but the one that stands out is Dressage, which has been around for a very long time. The modern version was first recorded in 1550. According to the International Equestrian Federation, it is the highest level of horse training. In its essence, Dressage is the execution of a specific set of steps performed by horse and rider from memory. The rider is to remain at ease, as though the horse is performing without guidance. There are all different levels of Dressage and it is even an olympic sport. It is, sure, kind of impressive, but it is also repetitive and in my opinion…so boring.
The finale involved a lake appearing – the water slowly seeping in until it flooded the front half of the stage – and a variety of different horses running through and around it (sigh). All in all, I can’t say the show wasn’t spectacular, it certainly was. The sets, the costumes, the music, the talent – it was all on point. It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It was the human element that I found impressive. And I was most entertained by the horses during trick riding, but even that was more a showcase of the rider’s skills. As I walked back to the stable tent with Shonna, she asked about my favorite part. I told her a bit awkwardly that I liked most of it. Well, except for maybe the dressage. And the horses running in circles. That got a laugh.
The show is, after all, about the horses. That’s what differentiates it from every other acrobatic performance out there. The Seattle Times says in a review: “…what distinguishes Latourelle’s vision is the horses, and their preternatural rapport with beautiful, otherworldly humans…who put them through their paces without ever raising a voice or registering a reprimand.” Yes, this is very true, the horses are beautiful, and the relationship between horse and rider is amazing. I had a lot of behind the scenes intel from Shonna. She has her favorite horses, her favorite riders, she gets to ride the horses, groom them, and assist backstage. She understands the training and dedication that goes into every piece of the show. Something I tried to keep in mind as I reflected on the performance.
We wandered around the stable tent and Shonna introduced me to the horses (and a few people). I hung around while she finished up her work. Once again, it was surreal to be experiencing something that I had been a party to for so long in Portland. Something that I had heard so much about. To settle both curiosity and resentment. To see the horses in their stalls, to walk on the stage and see the acrobatic training tent. I found I’d moved past my initial resistance. It felt fine, during that visit, to get the full experience. To sit alone in the crowd and watch an amazing show, but also finally understand the adventure that Shonna was on. I just could have done with a few less horse circles.