The moment where Odysseo best earns its proclamation of being a “six-dimensional” show occurs just after the intermission. With a high-def projection of a landscape spanning the length of its massive, sand-filled arena, horses and riders begin to crest over the hill between the audience and that screen, a feat that gives the effect of emerging out of some invisible wrinkle in the earth’s fabric. It’s a gorgeous moment, one built equally out of truth and illusion.
“You feel that it’s for real; you feel like they’re coming from the Mongolian Step, or a canyon,” says Normand Latourelle, the show’s creator, of that big-wow moment in a show that aims to pack them in. Every night of Odysseo, a number of its 64 touring horses (some of them just in training), as well as a group of human acrobats, aerialists and musicians, take to that massive stage—which shapeshifts to include hills and forests, and then, near the end, swells up with a huge body of water—to perform the sort of spectacle that, as a show, has few rivals in scale. Only Cirque du Soleil really comes to mind, and there’s good reason for that: Latourelle, was one of the Montréal-based circus’s original founders.
“I left pretty early,” he explains, in a coffee place attached to the downtown hotel he’s flown into Edmonton to hold (press) court in. The company’s rapid expansion wasn’t meshing well with his personal life at that time. Or, more simply: “I left because I was the only one who had kids. I couldn’t tour anymore.”
Latourelle continued creating acrobatic shows on a smaller, non-touring scale, but when he saw a small, Montréal show a with a single horse, something began to resonate: “When he brought the horse onstage, I realized it was stealing focus from the performers.”
Just like that, Latourelle bought six horses. He found a friend who did stunts in movies and had an equestrian compound, and began training them; meanwhile, Latourelle immersed himself in the history of the horse, learning about the domesticity of the animals, how long they’ve been part of human culture.
“From there I started to travel, look at a lot of shows with horses around the world,” he says. “And started to build the idea of doing a show with horses. But I didn’t leave the acrobatic world on the side; I tried to mix both worlds.”
The pull of an equine-focused show—the answer to why a horse still steals focus, whenever it trots onto a stage—is, to Latourelle, about the peek they give into a wilderness we rarely encounter today.
“I think, because a lot of us live in the urban situation, we lose the sense of nature,” he says. “And horses, even if they are domesticated, they are very wild: even if you train them, domesticate them, they keep their wild instinct. And it brings you closer to realizing: how beautiful is nature? For me, the horses are the speaker of nature.
“I’m not a rider,” he continues. “But when I look at them, when I watch them performing, when I see them galloping in the field, when I see them being so peaceful in the stable—this is nature.”
A few weeks before the conversation with Latourelle, at Odysseo’s Calgary stop—sequestered in a corner of Olympic Park on the western edge of that city—rider Emmy Love stands in the stable while Gus, a 10-year-old moon-white Arabian gelding, pokes his head over her shoulder, searching for apples.
“Our main philosophy, the thing we try to work with every day, is to make sure the horses have fun every time they go on stage,” she says. “Because a lot of the times, [the horses] do a lot of the same stuff every night. We need to make sure every time they work with us, it’s not going to be hard, it’s not going to be punishment, it’s not going to be uncomfortable. They need to know that when they’re with us, they can trust us, onstage and offstage.”
Love’s only been with Odysseo for a couple of months, but has been riding since the age of seven. She saw this very show two years back in Miami—”I was one of the girls in the front row”—and later interviewed the equestrian director, Benjamin Aillaud, for a blog. That chat sprawled out into a two and a half hour conversation, and later, he got back in touch with Love: he needed a nanny for his son to help work on his English while in France, and offered Love the chance to train with him if she took on the nanny job.
“I did that for a few months, and then they opened up an academy to train people to do this show.” She recalls. She joined up: training began at 7:30 with cleaning out the stalls, and went into the evening, six days a week. After that, Love joined up with Odysseo’s run in Vancouver.
Love’s entry into the show was a somewhat more roundabout route in than that of Brennan Figari, an acrobat whose been involved from the show’s creation process three years ago.
“I was living and working in Las Vegas at the time,” he recalls. “And a friend emailed me saying she was working in Cavalia [Odysseo's predecessor], and they were looking for new acrobats.” He sent his stuff in, flew to Montréal to audition, and then moved there to begin developing Odysseo.
“It was a creation, so I knew my skills would really be utilized, because the roles were being created based on me, and based on the other acrobats they had. That’s always exciting versus another show, when you replace someone—you’re kind of expected to do what they did. So, artistically it was nice to be able to have a little bit of freedom, and to really feel comfortable and to do what I really like to do.”
Figari hadn’t worked with horses before; he’d only ever even been on one a few times, though now he’s in the rotations of the show’s Liberty routine, wherein a group of horses are led, bridle-less, in patterns and figures around the stage by a lone human counterpart.
“I think I realized I like horses,” he laughs, of his biggest revelation at Odysseo. “Coming here, I was open to the idea of liking horses, but just based on lack of experience, I didn’t really know. I like animals, so I kind of assumed I’d enjoy them, but I’m surprised how authentic and real the relationships are with the horses. How they can sense if I’m having an off day, and I know when they’re having an off day. And it really is getting to know another person—that you can’t really communicate with. You rely on a lot of different cues; with the other human performers, it’s so easy to be ‘Oh, you were late on this count, I was early on this count, we need to do it on seven instead of eight.’ With the horses it’s not so black and white. It’s not so obvious on how to address problems and teach them things, so there’s a lot more trial and error. Which is nice for my brain, to get it firing, thinking of new things and trying new ways.”
One thing that Odysseo (and Cavalia before it) has managed to avoid is the stigma that clouds around most other animal shows: the questions of poor treatment and, in more egregious situations, animal cruelty, that can linger whenever animals are put on a stage for human entertainment. That Odysseo doesn’t carry the same dark cloud around its entertainment is a reflection of how open the show is about its treatment of the horses, not just telling but in showing—the large number of animal-support staff, the vet technicians on site, the post-show public tours of the stables (you can see for yourselves how they’re living). There are fenced-off outdoor rehearsal pens, for practice and warm-ups. Both Love and Figari discuss rotating the horses involved in higher-impact numbers, warming them up, making sure they’re cared for. But perhaps most telling is, simply, that some horses just actually don’t do the tricks on any given night. And if they give their riders guff, they aren’t punished for their discrepancies, or forced through the routine.
Back in Edmonton, Latourelle admits even he had his initial worries about treatment when working with animals.
“I was totally against animals in the show for a long, long time,” he says. “I’m still against using wild animals in a show. But horses are domesticated animals. Humans have transformed the horses to complete certain goals.
“I found out, in my search, that horses find their comfort next to men, if men treat them well—which will never happen with a lion, an elephant, or any exotic animal that goes to a circus,” he continues. “But horses, they’re happy to see a human next to them, and they’re happy to have a human be their partner. For me, the best proof of that is on stage—and you saw the stage is very big. [In Liberty], the horse has no string, no rope, no saddle … We run, and they follow us—because they’re the partner, they’re security, they’re friend. Sometimes [the horses] just go, ‘not today’—and this is the beauty of it, because this shows it’s for real. If a horse doesn’t want to follow with that size of stage, it will just go away. But they return [to the human]: they say, ‘OK, I had fun, I want to have fun with you now.’
“Would they prefer to be in the field eating grass? Yes. Would I prefer to be on my cottage next to the lake, instead of working? The answer is yes. But what they have to do, they do happily, when they’re happy to do it.”
There are strict rules about controlling the horses, Latourelle notes. There are no spurs in Odysseo. Horses aren’t whipped. (Whips, the few times they appear are only for pointing directions.) Only soft-bits are used in the bridles—broken up with a piece of chain, rather than a firm bar—so as to exert pressure rather than pain when leading the horses by rein. And the horses aren’t forced to worked into their more precarious, older years: new ones are constantly in training, and those that retire from the show either end up at the show’s own ranch, or are up for adoption (Love’s parents are taking one to their 90-acre pasture in Nashville, in fact.)
For all the spectacle and structure around Odysseo, for Latourelle, it still all comes back to chance to embrace a more natural sort of beauty: watching an animal that reminds us of something more instinctual than we can find in the cities we’ve built for ourselves.
“I think it’s very inspiring to people, to see how these animals are graceful, beautiful and still innocent,” he says. “Still nature.”
Until Sun, Aug 10
The Odysseo Big Top (Intersection of Fort Road and Yellowhead Trail), $39.50 – $239.50