When a show’s slogan is ‘The Best Show Ever’ I take it as a personal invitation to test that theory with as much skepticism as possible. Still, I went to see Cavalia’s Odysseo with hopeful expectations, and in truth, they were all well met. The production value was beyond Hollywood level. The performances were full of poignant beauty and drama. The music (by composer Michel Cusson) was live and as flowy as Stevie Nicks in a meadow, with a singer (Valentina Spreca) who roved throughout the show like Stevie Nicks in a meadow. But it wasn’t all meadows– the scenery was eye-poppingly lush and exotically global. Combined with the ornate costumes and the blend of horse breeds and skills, Game of Thronesesque pageantry and circus, the whole show was enthralling. Really, bravo! It shouldn’t be surprising when you consider this production has been a blockbuster on tour since 2011. They’ve had plenty of time to tweak and perfect each act. Speaking of acts, there are 12 of them, which although quite a lot, didn’t surprise me either, since the show seems to have an undefined romance and mythology to it, with acts alluding to seasons and weather and unspecific but dramatic locales.
During each of those 12 acts, the pacing might seem a bit slow to some, mainly small children who aren’t wild about dance, circus or horses. The plus side of such unhurried pacing is its willingness to explore each topic deeply, be it horse dressage or a group act of duo Chinese pole acrobatics on a carousel. Combined with the beautiful music and regal costumes, it helps create an aesthetic which hearkens back to a classical era–a time when we can imagine art was not a rushed affair. Each act begins with beauty and simplicity and builds in intensity to stunning skill levels. It is a very effective strategy for entertainment.
With a cast of 65 horses and 48 humans it is truly large-scale circus production in an era when many large-scale productions have struggled or dried up all together. Just imagine the behind-the-scenes organization it must take to acquire, train and provide for so many horses (11 breeds from 7 different countries).
As for the riding, they have covered it all, from Roman riding (one leg on each horse) in Les Fees to the Cossack riding (acrobatics on the horse) in Nomades. The sheer variety of horseback riding skills (liberty and dressage horses included) and the variety of horse breeds will leave all horse lovers in a puddle (hint, I might mean that literally). I spent a good portion of the show, trying to pick which horse would be mine if it could be mine. It was a toss-up between one of the Appaloosas or the Arabian horses. Perhaps the greatest moments of the horse acts are not when they are being impressively wrangled in to formations, but when they are given a few moments to be horses seemingly without humans actively guiding them. The show opens with one horse entering the ring, then another. And just watching them greet each other, play and bicker is hypnotic fodder. Later, there are adventurous moments with horses racing around unmanned, and it is breathtaking.
Of the human cast, there are three groups, the musicians–who played for a solid two hours; the acrobats/aerialists– some of whom were also accomplished musicians; and the riders–who were also acrobats of a sort, if you count flipping around on a horse’s back as acrobatics.
Two inventive acts of note were Carosello, a spinning carousel descends from the ceiling and a group of Chinese pole acrobats interact on it, and Les Anges, when horsemen deliver angelic aerialists to their silks and help keep the structure spinning–a visually fluid group aerial act evolves to include dramatic silks drops and the continual presence of horses.
Odysseo’s ubiquitous use of tribal imagery could be seen as cultural appropriation. That said, it is useful to consider the show in the context of the multi-cultural circus history and to note that this cast and crew is truly international. At least ten countries are represented in the cast, and the acrobats, for example, are all from the same small circus school Kalabante in Guinea (you can learn more about them in the documentary Circus Without Borders).
Still, looking deeper in to the imagery, one can identify small divisions between the riders and the acrobats and aerialists that could be easily misconstrued as hierarchical. Perhaps it is not intentional, but there is little interaction between the groups of performers though their paths cross frequently. When interactions do occur, they are not always equitable. For example, the riders carry aerialist circus performers on their horses to their apparatus, as if it were beneath those performers to touch the same sand the horses have run across. But the acrobats are firmly rooted in that sand, flipping through it dozens of times during the show. Although it seems unlikely that little details like that caused any discomfort among audience members, it is only fair to note that the underlying visual theme in the show of tribalism might conflict slightly with their larger message of imagining a united world without war, which is alluded to. If the world conveyed is truly mythological, then it would be possible to erase all divisions and portray a world in which horseback riders, acrobats and aerialists could interact meaningfully within their acts.
The true show stoppers on opening night were the circus artists from Kalabante whose energetic acrobatics, joyous drumming and mellifluous singing along to the Kora (a guitar-like instrument) brought down the house every time and even inspired a standing ovation mid-show.
Opening night ended with a finale that defied everyone’s imagination, so I will not spoil the surprise. Like the beginning of circus itself, an art form that evolved from a horse show, Odysseo has so much to offer. Both spectacle and aesthetic are on thrilling display along with the skills of the wildly talented cast and set in a magical world that is hard to resist. The show has been extended so you will have a chance to see them in Chicago until May 21. Tickets range from $34 to $259 for adults with multiple packages and promotional offers available.,