Theater Review: CAVALIA’S ODYSSEO (North American Tour Under the White Big Top at Soldier Field)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 5, 2017

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Pegasus would be proud: The vast White Big Top commanding the south parking lot of Chicago’s Soldier Field barely hints at the $30 million “theatrical adventure” beneath this tent. From the Canadian-based creators of 2011’s Cavalia comes Odysseo, an elaborate extravaganza celebrating the bonds between people and horses.

What we see are two happy herds that, as the title suggests, journey well together. We witness 11 different breeds of horses (all males, no mares) ranging from 6 to 14 years of age–and 48 two-legged artists wearing 350 costumes—daredevil riders, ground and aerial acrobats, African tumblers and jumpers, runners on prosthetic legs a la Oscar Pistorius, Chinese pole partisans, and musicians—speaking nine languages and ranging in age from 21 to 56. They make a beautiful circus together and it’s with none of the condescension of Buffalo Bill’s “rough riders,” National Velvet’s black stallion, Annie Oakley shooting pigeons while riding bareback, My Friend Flicka, Mr. Ed, Broadway’s “war horse,” or Roy Rogers’ now-stuffed sidekick “Trigger.”

Providing the most panoramic perspective possible, an enormous sloping stage flanked by ten stylized trees gets stretched even further by cunning projections on a vast video screen perched on a three-story “mountain.” It’s ground zero for some meticulously coordinated and ravishingly diverse make-believe. The cyclorama depicts in detail everything from flowing hills to waterfalls to traveling constellations to the “Northern lights” in full panoply. At first the oval stage, its sets created by Guillaume Lord, resembles an Edenic meadow or clearing for recreational riding. But then the backdrop of birch trees pulls back—and, well, seeing this expanse in its seemingly endless entirety is enthralling wonderment indeed.

As subtly shaped by artistic director Normand Latourelle and executed by director Wayne Fowkes, Odysseo carries no narrative or precious concept a la Cirque du Soleil, just pictorial splendor: The ensemble, equine and biped, depict Silk Road caravans, fairies bestriding gentle chargers, village celebrations involving competitive calisthenics, a highly gymnastic “merry go round”/carousel of humans rather than horses, a storm in the steppes, African drummers, trapeze “angels” soaring on sweeping sashes with diaphanous trains and pulled ever higher by the horses, even a vast downstage lake where the horses dash and splash. (How 40,000 gallons of recycled water materialized under so much “stage soil” I cannot fathom.)

At the heart of Odysseo, of course, are these streamlined horses. Each steed takes 2 to 6 years to tame and train, lessons not lost on awestruck observers. Exponents of literal chivalry, the magnificent mounts are superbly trained to canter, trot, prance, leap, and jump steeplechase logs (but never bow their necks). Choreographed by Darren Charles and Alain Gauthier, they’re skilled in Roman-style riding (a woman bestriding two horses), the processional dressage of equestrian travelers, Cossack thrill riding with nomadic abandon, regal “paseo” processions, and elegant “round ups” as these beautiful creatures cavort in tandem or line up in perfect formation across the sprawling stage. As the Russian (or Mongolian)-style trick riders spin around, over and beneath their coursers in full stampede, they’re seen but still not believed. (Here the rule is, “Don’t hold your horses!”) The whole enterprise beats to the style of Michel Cusson’s Euro-pop score which features exotic instruments like the Kora as well as skilled spiritual solos. And, in an exuberantly interactive moment, the performers from Guinea teach the crowd how to chant, “O walu yuire muifan” or “No more war on earth.”

But, mostly free of saddles, harnesses and stirrups (just bridles and “soft bites”), these four-legged marvels are equally free to take “a run on the wild side.” Unlike the Lipizzaner stallions of Vienna (and Wadsworth, Illinois), these animals make no movements you wouldn’t see in the wild. Their interactions with people all but redefine “peaceful coexistence.” So, seemingly set loose in a liberty act, nine purebred Arabian stallions are moved only by soft murmurs from their trainer.

The second act’s awesome opening reveals a dozen horses sleeping with their riders. They slowly shake off their artificial torpor and rear up to run. As if to prove how natural are these animals’ actions, on opening night a few horses broke rank and galloped off on their own, having to be gently cajoled back into place. (Also, no need for PETA to get involved as they have with elephants: These horses, none of which performs for more than 12 minutes, are regularly groomed, their manes braided for health and shininess after each performance, and allowed to leave their paddock each day to enjoy the Chicago weather—which may be the only unintentional cruelty.)

150 minutes of gorgeous spectacle and heart-stopping excitement, this Midwest premiere is a labor of love and nature, a happy excuse to rekindle the sense of astonishment that real life discourages with its downers. Though not cheap to see (tickets are $35-$145), Odysseo pays the perfect tribute to human “horse sense” and imagination and equines’ supple elegance by combining them into some very material magic. Choose your odyssey.

photos by:

Dan Harper, Pascal Ratthé, Jak Wonderly, Phil Crozier, Chris Waits,
Andrew Miller, Dominick Gravel, Jonathan Kozub, and Lynne Glazer

Under the White Big Top
Soldier Field South Lot
1410 Museum Campus Drive in Chicago
ends on April 23, 2017
EXTENDED to June 3, 2017
for tickets and tour info,
call ­866.999.8111 or visit Cavalia

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