Of Humans and Horses: Cavalia’s “Odysseo”

By Caitlin Antonios

A big, white tent by the side of the 405 freeway is probably the last place you would expect the world’s largest touring company featuring equestrian arts and acrobatics to be.

Cavalia’s “Odysseo” opened last week, returning to Irvine as Orange County’s best-selling show. It’s no surprise that it has returned for the holiday season after its very successful run the previous year. Unsurprisingly, the minute the big white tent became visible from the freeway, people from all over Southern California were talking about it.

The show begins with a series of trivia about the show, like what breeds their horses are and how long training takes, to get the crowd warmed up. Attendees are seated in a semicircle under the big tent, where the smell of popcorn is overwhelming. Families of all ages sit with baited excitement and the crowd gets more enthusiastic and involved with the trivia questions.

The “stage” is a shifting oval arena, containing a giant grass hill with sand and dirt at the bottom that fills with water for the show’s finale. There isn’t a bad seat in the house.

Music plays a huge part of the show as well. Performed by a live band tucked away behind glass at the outer edges of the circle, the music serves as an ambient soundtrack to the incredible display of athleticism and grace.

The show features 69 equine performers and over 40 human performers. Originating from Quebec, over 900,000 people have seen the show since “Odysseo” was launched in 2011, touring around Canada, the United States, Australia and Asia. It begins with a gentle display of the horses meandering around the stage with their riders. In a flash, they begin to run, racing around the arena at breakneck speeds. Seeing the horses running, free of saddles or restraints, was honestly quite emotional. From the moment it begins, the show establishes that the horses are the stars — but that’s not to say that their human counterparts are any less impressive. The show succeeds in melding together the talents of human and horse performers to create a show where they are on equal footing. One moment, the spectator is stunned by the discipline and training of the horses; the next, they’re stunned by the sheer athleticism and talent of the human performers.

The human performers were an array of aerialists, acrobats, riders and a West African dance/acrobatics group. The latter received multiple standing ovations for their routines that pushed the limits of the average human body, including human pyramids and building up towers of great heights without any help from stilts or trampolines. The West African dancers were showstoppers, and the audience couldn’t get enough.

Possibly the greatest part of the show is its respect for the animals. With any performance that features “show animals,” there tends to be an apprehension toward the way the animals are treated. However, the incredible respect the horses are shown throughout the performance is reassuring. The horses were never reprimanded, nor did they ever need to be reprimanded at all because of the palpable connection between the horses and their riders. There is a clear mutual respect, and the hours of training together shines through. The movements were so graceful that it was hard to even tell that the riders were giving the horses commands at all. For a majority of the show, the performers rode their horses bareback and allowed the freedom to be playful and unrestrained.

This show is probably one of the most beautiful shows running in Orange County right now, and Southern Californians are lucky that it’s here in Irvine. It’s a show that demonstrates the beautiful bond between humans and animals in a way that exalts both parts equally.