WASHINGTON, DC—We are standing on top of a mountain sculpted out of 10,000 tons of earth, rock, and sand—but it’s not one created by God. From this spot under the massive tent for Cavalia’s Odysseo, the audience seats look miles away. Hours earlier, from there, oohing and aaahing crowds watched a herd of white horses splash through a giant blue lake at the hill’s base, and cowboys riding at high speed over the horizon surrounded by red-rock buttes straight out of a Sam Peckinpah western.
“Where I have my house in the country, I have a hill like that and we have a lot of horses,” artistic director Normand Latourelle says of his Quebec ranch, speaking over the drone of a steamroller that’s smoothing out his mountain for the evening show. “And one day I was washing dishes, looking out the window, and I saw three horses coming over the hill, suddenly appearing. That’s where I got the idea.”
The mountain brings a huge, new scale to the spectacle’s unique hybrid of circus arts and horsemanship. And as he stands at its peak, it also symbolizes the French-Canadian Cavalia founder and former Cirque du Soleil cocreator’s ability to dream big. “Everybody who goes out of here will remember the show,” Latourelle explains with something much more akin to boyish enthusiasm than arrogance. “The way to make them remember is you have to push the limits. I want them to remember this show when they die. Maybe I will fail but at least I did everything to achieve this goal.”
Looking out at his empire of dirt, he thinks back to Cavalia, the original horses-and-acrobats spectacle that wowed Vancouver crowds in 2011. “When I did the first show I didn’t know anything about horses. I had a lot of frustration when I finished because I had a lot of ideas that didn’t come through,” he says candidly. “And I’m very stubborn. So I knew I wanted to come to a point where I pushed the limit so far that nobody can reach it for a touring show.”
He adds with a self-deprecating smile: “I’m lucky because the team accepts to follow me in my craziness.”
To house this artificial landscape, the new Odysseo show boasts the largest touring tent in the world: when it finally gets erected here, the White Big Top will stand 125 metres high with a stage that’s the size of two NFL football fields. It will house the show’s 67 horses and 120 artistic and behind-the-scenes staff. Its semi-circular projection surface will be the size of three IMAX screens. And its running area will collect 300,000 litres of falling water into the lake that the horses—along with a team of gravity-defying African tumblers and other acrobats on springy stilts—splash through near the end of the show.
The effect that all this creates is one that Latourelle calls six-dimensional: first you have the three-dimensional digital projections, and then the real performers performing in and in front of them. Then, he says, “With the mountain you get a different height and depth.”
It’s a huge, multifaceted technical operation, but one of its biggest challenges, according to Latourelle, was the giant carousel that circles above centre stage. Midway through the show, its old-fashioned merry-go-round wooden horses descend, and acrobats suspend themselves upside down and at right angles off the poles above them. Engineers had to design three arches to support its 80 tons of equipment without obscuring sightlines for the 2,000 audience members. “Usually only 50 tons can be hung in an arena,” Latourelle says with some pride.
AS AMBITIOUS AS the physical dimensions of the stage are, though, what’s happening with the horses may be more so. And frankly, if the artistry was not of the same scale as the sets, the show might not be the hit it has become on its tour of North America. Odysseo ups the number of horses from the original Cavalia, with 67 performing alongside 45 rather puny-looking two-legged stars. (The distance from Washington is so great, Latourelle will hire a Boeing 747 to fly all of his equine performers to Vancouver.)
Odysseo’s acts range from the intensely acrobatic—sometimes riders hang upside-down, right over the sides of galloping quarter and paint horses—to the quiet. But one of the most difficult numbers is made to look easy. In it, eight people lead around groups of four horses, running, stopping, and turning, without the use of reins—32 animals quickly criss-crossing the stage and never colliding.
“Half of these horses are stallions and they’re either looking for fun or a fight,” Latourelle says, now speaking to the Straight while the animals calmly eat their hay in the stables attached to the performance tent. “In terms of relationships between people and horses, that’s a revolution. That’s never been done before.”
French performer Elise Verdoncq admits that rehearsing the scene was a bit intimidating at first. She does, after all, have her back to her four stallions as she runs, and they look like they could trample her at any moment.
“You just have to trust the horses,” explains the blond, Godiva-maned performer, sitting backstage after the show, her long, copper-silk gown still wet from the watery finale. “To build this and to have the horses stay in their place and stay together is so much work—especially when you mix stallions together.”
That trust is key to the solo scene she performs earlier in the show, too—the “Liberty” number where, for this show, she leads six feisty grey-white Arabians into formations with a few hushed words and a gesture of her hand. Today, one of them was being a pill, sending the audience into stitches when it refused to join the group, heading the other direction entirely until she gave a soft command, at which point it returned to its spot with the demeanour of a sulky teen. At other points her handsome, towering costars would nudge her from behind with their velvety noses.
“Sometimes they push me just to tell me ‘Hey, I can push you,’” she says, comparing them to kids. She spends innumerable hours with her animals, training, petting, and running them, and getting to know them. And doing that, she learns who the scrappy horses are. “There are ones that are used to being more trouble-makers than the others. Today Lover wanted to push the other one. Sometimes they bite or kick each other.”
But summing up the appealing unpredictability of a show based around animals, she adds: “I kind of prefer when it’s not completely perfect. I have to work a little bit harder.”
Clearly Verdoncq has a way with horses—which is why it’s so fascinating to hear how she made her way to Odysseo. A native of Lille, she had just graduated from law school and was well on her way to becoming an attorney when she heard the show was auditioning riders. And that’s when she decided to drop everything and run away with the horse circus.
“I started riding at six,” she says of her lifelong passion. “And ever since I was a kid I was always trying to find a way to be able to ride. I didn’t have money and I was working at a farm cleaning the stables so I could ride.
“When I came to the auditions here, I thought maybe I could groom the horses,” she adds with a laugh. “I never thought I would do my career with horses. I really thought I would become a lawyer and just ride for pleasure.”
Clearly, the Cavalia company’s ability to dream big allows other people to follow their dreams, too. Just as Latourelle has recruited artists like Verdoncq from France with his vision, he’s sent his scouts to the far reaches of an island off Africa’s Guinean coast to find his acrobats and musicians. And the horses themselves have arrived from as far away as Spain and Germany.
He’s criss-crossed the globe and built mountains and lakes to bring his equestrian fantasy world to life. But back in the stables, far away from the bombast and larger-than-life spectacle of the show, you get the sense that there is another, much more intimate passion that is driving his work. “Listen: can you hear anything?” he says with an excitement that hasn’t waned in more than a decade of producing his horse-circus hybrids. Before him, rows of Lusitanos, Arabians, Spanish purebreds, and other horses rest in their stalls. “See how quiet the stable is? They live in silence; they don’t speak. That’s why in both shows we have moments that are very quiet.”
Quiet—in six dimensions, that is.