‘Odysseo’ Combines Physical, Technical Marvels at Full Gallop

“Odysseo,” the human and horse extravaganza, is a big improvement over its predecessor, “Cavalia,” with the emphasis on big.

When “Cavalia” first migrated south from its native Canada and opened in San Francisco 11 years ago, it seemed a rough mashup of Cirque du Soleil and a rather dull horse show. There was beauty in the human-horse interaction, but the acrobats seemed shoehorned in, and for the non-horse folk among us, some of the acts were endless.

“Odysseo,” which opened Thursday night, Nov. 19, under the white big top at AT&T Park, is about twice as big in every way, and where “Cavalia” could drag, “Odysseo” soars.

The enormous stage — 17,500 square feet of space — isn’t fully revealed all at once. The show starts in a forest, with a herd of horses running free. Some ladies who might be described as horse skiing, standing atop two horses with one foot on each horse, sail through, and then the fun really begins.

A troupe of African acrobats flip and bounce and spin like human fireworks, followed by a sort of contest between man and animal. The horses impress with leaps over bars of varying heights, and men with spring-loaded stilts on their feet attempt to best them. While the horses win for sheer beauty, the men score with extraordinary backflips that the horses can’t quite manage.

“Odysseo,” for all its technical marvels — and there are many, from the massive projection screen at the rear of the stage to the acrobatic gear that flies effortlessly in and out — comes down to the beauty of the animals. Some 40 horses appear in the show — in one scene alone, the stage is filled with 32 horses — and they are beyond spectacular.

All the high-tech wonders can’t begin to compare to the primal beauty of the horses, and that seems to be the point. Two of the best numbers involve horses roaming the stage freely, controlled by humans using only their voices and body language. The first of these “liberty” scenes is quietly performed by Elise Verdoncq and eight horses. In the second act, when the scene has shifted from the forest to the open plain, nearly three dozen boisterous horses fall into line seemingly by psychic command.

The show’s creator, Normand Latourelle, a co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, artfully blends the equine and acrobatic elements of the show. The spectacular “Carosello” number begins with riders on horses forming a circle while a carousel is lowered from above. The real horses disappear while the acrobats perform slow, often stunning routines on or above the fake horses on the merry-go-round.

Another carousel-type routine involves women dangling on swaths of billowing white fabric while horses and riders below spin them around. It’s a simple yet utterly compelling setup.

The finale involves the sudden appearance of a giant pond, and the sight of running horses splashing through the water is even more spectacular than anything that has come before it. And that’s saying a lot because “Odysseo” is an enthralling equestrian epic and about as gorgeous as it gets.