‘Odysseo’ opens to standing ovation; extended to Sept. 1
By Elizabeth Sheeran
Cavalia’s Odysseo opened at Somerville’s Assembly Row on August 7 to a completely full house. Skeptics have said the production could not possibly live up to all the advance hype generated by the U.S. premiere of the largest touring show in the world. But nearly all of the 2,000 spectators in the opening night audience were on their feet with a standing ovation as soon as the curtain call began.
Each performance features over 30 stallions and geldings. But to refer to Odysseo simply as a horse show is a bit of an understatement. The production also showcases the talents of world-class acrobats and aerialists, traveling alongside the horses on the odyssey invoked by the show’s title. And the ever-changing scenery brings a third element to the journey: the arena-sized performance space is continually transformed with light, color and even water, while three-dimensional images on the massive backdrop extend the horizon as far as the eye can see.
Odysseo certainly does celebrate the beauty, power and agility of its four-legged stars. Fans of traditional horsemanship will enjoy top-notch show jumping, stunt riding and dressage. But Cavalia has also raised the bar for the equestrian arts. The horses perform a great deal of the show without riders or harnesses. And they don’t just go through the paces of their routines; they perform. In a morning setting at the opening of Act Two, nearly two dozen horses act out the process of waking, rising and greeting each other, all in sync with the live musical score.
Artistic director Normand Latourelle, a Cirque du Soleil founder who created the first Cavalia show ten years ago, has stressed that the company goes out of its way to respect and preserve the welfare of the horses, and uses only “soft” training methods. Still, there will be some who believe the animals should not be performing at all.
In any event, Odysseo’s equine artists willingly execute a great deal of choreography without the kinds of tools traditionally used to keep them in check, like spurs or bits. In one particularly impressive scene, nearly 30 unbridled thoroughbreds pull off a series of complex group maneuvers. In another, a single human kneels center stage while free-running horses perform their routine around her, all the while playfully kicking and nipping at each other.
“Sometimes they do what they want,” said Latourelle in a pre-opening interview, “But that’s part of the fun, to watch the horses do what they do.”
Cavalia’s human artists are presented less as the horses’ masters, and more as travelling companions and fellow performers. At one point, four-legged jumpers and two-legged acrobats take turns clearing the same hurdles. Later, horses, riders and aerialists combine to create what might best be described as a living carousel.
The show moves seamlessly from one scene to another, with a well-balanced blend of the fluid and the fast-paced. There are the balletic, almost dream-like sequences accompanied by the haunting vocal style made famous by Cirque de Soleil. But these moments are interspersed with raucous stunt-riding displays and a West African acrobatic and dance troupe who infuse their own gravity-defying stunts with a playful sense of humor, even bringing a bit of audience participation into the mix.
Anything can happen in live theater, especially in a touring show, and not everything went according to plan on opening night. It took awhile to get the audience parked and seated, the restroom plumbing wasn’t working up to par, and a horse and rider took an unfortunate fall in the final scene. (Cavalia spokesperson Annie Leclerc has confirmed that both were seen by medical staff after the show and are doing fine).
And then there is the high cost of tickets. All that talent and technical wizardry doesn’t come cheap, not to mention the proper care and feeding of over five
dozen horses. Mayor Joseph Curtatone has said Cavalia has committed to working with the city to see that excess tickets go to Somerville families who otherwise can’t afford the admission. But most of the public will be looking at spending from $50 to over $200 for adult-priced seats.
Still, that’s comparable to what fans are shelling out for some of the hottest tickets to major league sporting events, stadium concerts or popular Broadway shows. And Odysseo patrons visiting the stables after the opening night performance said they had no doubt they got their money’s worth.
“It was totally worth it. Totally unexpected. Totally incredible,” said Martha Weston, who came from Martha’s Vineyard to see the show and was staying in Somerville overnight at the nearby La Quinta Inn. “No matter the expense. It was worth the price. The whole experience was a treat.”
Cavalia does not disclose advance ticket numbers. But sales appear to be going well according to the online box office, where there are no longer any seats available for this Sunday’s matinee. Producers this week extended the run for a second time, so that Odysseo’s “big white top” tent will remain in Somerville at least through Labor Day weekend.
Sergio Baez, who said his love of horses began in his native Argentina, travelled five hours from New York City for opening night. Baez sprang for the full VIP package including dinner and drinks, and said he’d do it again in an instant. “We’re still not believing what we’ve just seen. It was brilliant,” said Baez. “I felt like I wanted to clap for everything, but I wanted to watch the show. I almost didn’t know what to do. It was just brilliant.”