They Couldn’t Drag You Away

Cavalia’s Odysseo must be seen to be believed

There’s a point near the end of Odysseo, the part-equine, part-human show on now at Toronto’s White Big Top, that sees a handful of skilled riders do turns racing in circles within a large iron hoop while performing tricks atop (and sometimes below) their steeds. About halfway through the segment, one rider swings to the side of his horse, hangs on tight and then suddenly goes limp; the audience goes dead quiet.

After two turns inside the ring the horse’s rider springs back to life, the animal is once again mounted and the audience’s breath collectively releases. The horse doesn’t start and his rider doesn’t flinch. It’s just one remarkable horse-human interaction among hundreds during Odysseo’s two-hour run-time, but it perfectly encapsulates why the show is purely, utterly, wholly, completely captivating: the man-beast alchemy is so precise, it goes beyond comprehension.

This is all to do with the skill of Odysseo’s performers, both the ones on two legs and on four. The animals are obedient and calm, and if you’re close enough to the stage, you can see their human companions delivering constant cues and assurances, both verbal and non. It lends a sort of informality — if there is a fourth wall to Odysseo, which doesn’t really have much of a plot, it’s barely ever standing — and a sense of calm and comfort. These aren’t just circus animals, after all.

The horses, more than 70 of which are in Odysseo’s employ, don’t have too much asked of them — which is, again, a comfort — so it’s the subtlety of their movements, their patient obedience and the tidiness of their formations that impresses most. And indeed, it is impressive stuff — more like magic than anything. But the performance has the sort of informality, too, that can only be borne of putting horses onstage and expecting them to know their blocking.

The fact is they don’t, or sometimes don’t want to: this past Wednesday night, one of Odysseo’s many white horses decided that he wasn’t particularly interested in racing through the White Big Top’s flooded stage with his friends. So he took two turns out before rejoining the herd. Things don’t seem to go wrong in Odysseo; they just go differently. It’s charming.

And it’s not all about the horses. Odysseo’s acrobats, dancers and riders are as technically impressive as their equine counterparts, soaring above the stage and pulling off the sort of superhuman muscular feats that you’d expect of a show from Normand Latourelle, a Cirque du Soleil alum. The stage seems to ever-expand as brilliant technical design leads a journey from mossy hills to snowy mountains to sandy deserts; one breathtaking sequence involves a carousel descending from the roof and being mounted by a crew of acrobats who swing, spin and hang from its posts as it turns. A group of African dancers — Guinean acrobats brought on board by Latourelle in 2013 — tumble and leap, performing back-flips and somersaults with breathtaking height and speed. Four aerialists dangle from the ceiling, their ribbons held and spun by riders on horses below.

It’s a lot to take in, and at the risk of leaning on an old cliche, the only way to really understand the magic of Odysseo is to see it for yourself.