There’s a faint collective gasp all around me the instant ten pale horses break from the darkness and tear, as a herd, through a clearing dappled with soft light.
Cantering freely and tossing their heads, the sleek Arabians surprise us again when they suddenly stop, in unison, and line up shoulder to shoulder, giving us a good look at them before loping off again in a swirl of tails and manes.
I’m watching “Odysseo,” a new creation by Cavalia, the cirque-meets-equine arts production that last came to the Valley in 2009. Running through Jan. 13 under an enormous white tent at Loop 101 and Scottsdale Road, “Odysseo” is not the kind of thing you see every day.
The two-hour show loosely explores, in vignettes backed by fanciful geographic and celestial images projected on a screen, how man and horse have journeyed together to discover the world.
Horses — from Appaloosas and Paints to Oldenburgs and Lusitanos — play freely at times, with humans barely interacting at all. In other numbers, riders and horses create kaleidoscopic patterns from their movements with choreography, vibrant costumes and flags.
The most exhilarating scenes occur when horses and riders are paired with humans on the ground, particularly energetic stilt jumpers and a troupe of endearing acrobats the show’s creator, Normand Latourelle, discovered on an island off Guinea. With big smiles and infectious energy, these performers have the crowd cheering with every end-over-end somersault — many of them performed alongside horses jumping hurdles.
Trick riding segments, when men and women do handstands in the saddle and other cringe-worthy stunts, are also thrilling.
The audience is separated from the action by a low wall, which the horses approach frequently. The tent, with seating for 2,000, feels surprisingly intimate, and those in the first few rows are likely to get splashed during a number when the 15,000-square-foot stage floods with 80,000 gallons of water.
Latourelle, one of the founders of the world-famous Cirque du Soleil, says he knew nothing about horses before starting Cavalia.
“I could barely see the difference between a cow and a horse. It was something in the field,” he says. But, “the first time I brought a horse on stage, he completely stole the attention away from the human performers. I had 120 performers, beautiful costumes, brilliant choreography — and people were looking at this bare horse. I noticed something there.”
In fact, he says, if someone had asked him 15 years ago if he would go to see a horse show, much less create one from the ground up, he would have said no.
But, he says, “I am very attracted by what is beautiful on Earth, and this is beauty. It is about beauty.”
In this age of constant amusement, much of it computer-generated or forcefully sensational, Cavalia hearkens back to an elemental appreciation of what man and beast can do — without the assistance of technology or even all that many props. During the show, old-fashioned, discipline-derived feats like human pyramids, aerial dancing and horseback riding are interesting — dare I say, enthralling — again.
Latourelle says what makes the show most difficult is working with so many stallions. They make up nearly half of the horses used in the show.
“Stallions are difficult, but they are more spectacular. They’re animals, and we do not control them. But when you are good with horses, they give you twice what you give them,” he says.
Though a horse may be trained up to six years before entering a production, Latourelle says each show varies — sometimes by as much as 10 minutes — depending on what the horses do. They don’t always stick exactly to the script, and the performers work around it.
“The idea of live music is, we have to support the action — because there’s a lot of improvisation on stage ... (the musicians) follow what’s going on on stage,” he says.
At such a harried time of year, I most enjoyed “Odysseo’s” ability to keep me fully present and content in the moment.
At the same time that you’re hearing powerful live music, smelling a mixture of horses, kettle corn and wet sand, and seeing vivid colors and fluid movements, the show is paradoxically a break for the senses. With no plot to follow or dialogue to keep up with, it simply washes over you, transporting you for a bit from concern and distraction to a dreamy reverie.
If you go
What: Nearly 100 horses, acrobats, dancers, riders and musicians put on “Cavalia Odysseo,” a colorful, dreamlike show beneath a 10-story big top tent.
When: Most days through Sunday, Jan. 13
Where: 18777 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Cost: $29.50-$149.50 for tickets. VIP packages, which include dinner, stable tours and cast meet-and-greets, are $129.50-$259.50.
Information: (866) 999-8111 or Cavalia.net
Contact writer: (480) 898-6818 or firstname.lastname@example.org