Horses, like people, have their own individual personalities. This realization comes to me as I watch the beautiful, dream-like opening of Cavalia’s current production Odysseo, on now in Toronto. Ten pure-bred, unbridled Arabian horses move in a choreographed dance amidst a midnight, springtime forest setting as one lone woman silently leads them with small motions from her hand and body. The horses though, seasoned pros, instinctively know what to do and where to go. They move as one, and because of the thoughtful, slowed melodic nature of this performance, their personalities begin to emerge.
The lead horse is clear, but directly behind him another (the classic understudy) attempts to overtake the star, perhaps wanting his turn in the spotlight. Two others, possibly in the midst of a personal tiff, flick their manes and tails at each other like battling stage divas. But my favourite, the slow rebel, keeps either forgetting his movements or is clearly only interested in doing his own thing. Then when I think this serene segment is winding down, another 10 horses gallop fiercely onto the stage, manes flowing, to join and perform with their brothers. It’s, in a word, majestic.
“This is the first time in Cavalia, and in the world, that this number has been performed with 20 Arabians,” says artistic director Normand Latourelle after our daytime media preview. He goes on to say, perhaps because not all the horses were performing to perfection (I’m looking at you, Slow Rebel), that “it is also always a challenge to channel their naturally competitive nature. We do this by bringing out their playful side.”
The next day on opening night, over the course of two hours, the audience of tonight’s sold-out show is treated to the results of this challenging process. Under The White Big Top, a massive 38-metres-tall tent the size of two NFL fields, sits a stage larger than a hockey rink and is filled with 10,000 tons of sculpted rock, earth and sand that form two, three-story hills. The grand scale is impressive on its own, but with the addition of high definition digital backgrounds — which use 18 projectors to simultaneously fill a curved wall the size of three IMAX screens — and complex lighting schemes, the audience is taken on a journey to several continents and through the four seasons of the year. From the spring time forest setting where those 12 Arabian horses run free, the scenes range from Mongolian steppes to Monument Valley, an African savannah, Easter Island and Nordic glaciers.
The production is so detailed and immaculate that it actually does feel like a sweeping, cinematic Hollywood film.
And like a big budget Hollywood film, there are some hot leading men. African tumblers with the bodies of gods threaten to steal the show, while the male acrobats with the tightest derrières this side of a tight rope expertly work metal poles. On the sandy stage, urban stilters in flowing pants astound by jumping higher than the horses; above, aerial artists create dream-like dances on rings and a full size merry-go-round that descends from the top of the tent. But it’s the horses and their handlers who perform complex, military-like moves, intricate hoof-step dance routines, heart pounding (and dangerous) speed race tricks and disciplined stillness that are the main attraction.
Training these horses is a labour of love and discipline. All riders in the show are trained to ride every horse, and it is not uncommon for them to perform with three or more on any given night, depending on what the horses have been trained to do. “This horse does not do tricks,” says handsome rider Guillaume Dubrana from atop his equally handsome horse, Intrepido, during the media preview. “But they all have gymnastic training every morning to condition their bodies.”
“It is best to start training them when they are young,” says rider Dorian Escalon as he expertly straddles his horse, Erujan. “It usually takes about six months before they are ready to perform in the show.” There are 70 horses of 154 breeds and, surprisingly, all of them are male; 12 are Stallions and the rest are geldings. Coming to a surprise watery finish, the stage quickly and quietly fills up with water to form a shallow pool where one horse performs an intricate step dance to the beat of a live band and vocalist Claudia Paganelli. By then end of this journey, the audience is left applauding greatly for the impressive acrobatic numbers, for the music that beautifully narrates each scene, for technical displays that dazzle our eyes and for the stunning visual mastery of the sets. But mostly we cheer for the incredible equestrian performances. The horses. For them, it’s all in a night’s work.