Horses are strange animals. They are majestic creatures, whose strength and speed have enabled humanity to rise above our physical limitations—but they’re also giant, goofy fart tanks with tiny toothpick legs. Contradictions like that are on full, lovely display in Odysseo, the new production of human-equine pageantry from Cavalia.
Described as “a celebration of the beauty and harmony of the meeting of two worlds,” Odysseo has no dialogue or plot. People and horses move together and apart through a series of fantastical worlds, inviting the audience to project our own narratives onto the scenes. We went from a dreamy Celtic forest to a sexy Spanish-flamenco desert to maybe a fairy-tale space carnival(?) to a mystic, tranquil lake and beyond. In every new place, beautifully costumed horses and riders, and often acrobats as well, performed mind-blowing feats of athleticism, coordination, and trust.
One of the biggest audience hits, and rightfully so, was the trick riding. At a flat-out gallop, riders would take turns performing escalating displays of daring and/or suicide attempts. Tricks included: leaping off the horse sideways, bouncing off the ground, and landing back in the saddle; jumping up into a standing position and striking a pose; hiding entirely behind the horse’s body, invisible from the other side, then popping up from what seemed like a riderless horse; and most terrifying by far, a man who climbed partly off his galloping horse, seemed to slip, and then proceeded to climb UNDER THE HORSE’S BELLY AND UP THE OTHER SIDE, hooves flying within inches of his head. My heart may have skipped enough beats to qualify as a heart attack at that point.
Another repeated theme was a group of women in long, flowing dresses, who would come out in a line, each riding two horses. Standing with impossible poise, long reins in their hands and a foot on each jostling back, they flowed calmly through a series of complex maneuvers.
Sometimes the humans would walk onstage, joined by untethered horses. As if by magic, each guided a group of four horses, controlling them only with gestures and sounds as they wove around and between one another. This quiet, Horse Whisperer–like dance showed a depth of trust and communication that bespoke countless hours of practice and play together.
Amazingly, in a show I’d assumed would be all about the horses, the non-horseback-riding acrobats were also gasp-inducingly enthralling, particularly the core group: a troupe of maybe nine lithe, shirtless, dark-skinned young men whose bodies seemed capable of genuinely superhuman movement. Sometimes amid the horses, sometimes on their own, they flipped, sprang, and stomp-danced around the sandy floor exuberantly. At one point, they performed a variation on a human pyramid—except they were all STANDING. With abs I could see from halfway back in the audience, they made a surprisingly wonderful addition to the show.
I’ll admit, some of my personal favorite moments were those when the horses just decided to be horses, breaking the serious spell a bit. Seeing one slow from a picturesque run to flop down awkwardly and roll, grunting, in the dirt, reminded me that those magnificent beasts are basically just great big dogs. It also demonstrated how voluntary the horses’ participation really is, making the trainers’ work that much more impressive. I also got to watch one horse fart directly into his trainer’s face, a fate with which I’m depressingly familiar, so that was fun. (The man in question ignored it valiantly.)
Odysseo works so well in part because of the care given to every detail. The horsemanship and acrobatics are top-notch, yes, but so are the set design, the (live) music, the direction, the transitions, and the costumes. The massive set pieces are beautifully designed and amazingly unobtrusive, even as they morph frequently into whole new worlds.
This is not just a show for people with a particular love or knowledge of horses, although horse-folks like myself will certainly not be disappointed. It’s a grand horse-human circus, and to witness it is to fall under its spell.
Click here for more information and tickets.