It was a close call, but here's the moment in “Cavalia’s Odysseo” that delighted me and my young companions the most: Clusters of horses were trotting obediently around the ring when one black stallion tossed his mane, broke away and took a lap alone.
He quickly got back in line. But his rebellion, while appealing to our desire for a dramatic narrative otherwise absent from this glowing and muscular exhibition, served as a reminder of the sheer horsepower that “Odysseo” has marshaled for our pleasure.
For it’s easy to forget, after only a few minutes of seeing unbridled herds roam the stage, or respond instantly to a gesture, that horses don’t naturally behave this way. There are 67 horses in the cast of “Odysseo,” including 21 stallions (the rest are geldings) whose “fighting spirit,” according to a note projected on a screen before the show, has been redirected into playfulness (by equestrian choreographer Benjamin Aillaud and his team).
That’s a lot of redirecting.
It works. “Odysseo,” like the original “Cavalia” show, which is still touring the world, and their ever-popular precursor, Cirque du Soleil -- “Cavalia” creator Normand Delatourelle was one of the founders of “Cirque” -- stands out for its impeccable gloss.
The horses are just one element in this giant entertainment package. “Odysseo's" big top tent, visible from Interstate 5 in Burbank, is 10 stories high. Its set, by Guillaume Lord, is the size of a hockey rink. Its rear screen, on which stunning vistas by Geodezik convey the impression that we are speeding across plains or over rolling hills or even up into space, is the height of four IMAX screens.
There is a life-sized carousel tucked up above somewhere that lowers to provide a new venue for the large cast of acrobats and aerialists. And just when you think “Cavalia” director Wayne Fowkes has finally run out of tricks, the ring fills up with water.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if the water had frozen over and the horses had come out on ice skates. One drawback to this heavy artillery approach to entertaining is that it can turn into an arms race.
The show stars acrobats from Guinea who specialize in backflips. Each can cross the stage in a calligraphic line of sinuous loops faster than a pen on paper. But I found myself less impressed the more times I saw it -- a backflip junkie jonesing for a bigger fix. There are incredible stunt riders who plunge halfway off their mounts, then pull themselves back on. But 10 in a row felt like overkill.
The cyclical structure of the show may be a factor here. Acts are assembled to suggest a conceptual journey from deserts to mountains to outer space to ice caverns. This odyssey seems to have no particular goal but to showcase stunts both equine and human, and many stunts recur in multiple scenarios.
One I didn’t mind seeing several times had acrobats springing about in peculiar fiberglass footwear called (I asked afterward) urban stilts, which give them the jumping ability of mountain goats -- and make them, bare-chested with loose pants, resemble mythological fauns. But it often felt as though the creative team feared that the audience would be bored if every possible trick wasn’t on display at every possible moment.
After each exhibition of strength and skill, the attractive horsemen and women fixed the audience with sidelong smiles and lifted eyebrows that seemed to ask, “Well? Can you do that?”
“They’re kind of show-offy,” my 11-year-old companion remarked. Maybe that slight resentment contributed to our excitement when Zajn the Arabian stallion revolted. (We weren’t alone -- he got mad applause and wolf whistles.) But other moments that felt unscripted were equally appealing: horses rolling in sand, drinking the stunt water or nipping at the flanks of slowpokes ahead of them.
Most delightful of all is any demonstration of the rapport between the horses and the humans. In two enthralling numbers, Elise Verdoncq keeps in absolute control of her charges with nothing more than gentle words and pats.
If you spring for the “Rendez Vous” VIP package, which gives, among other perks, backstage access after the show, you will see the army of horses being groomed, fed and watered, like divas in their dressing rooms, by their riders.
The ancient human-horse bond is the heart of “Odysseo”; its high-tech, grandiose bells and whistles seem to be the creators’ expression of reverence for the magnificent stars in their care.
“Cavalia’s Odysseo,” 777 N. Front St., Burbank. Performance schedule varies; see website. Ends April 14. $34.50-$159.50; VIP packages available. 1 (866) 999-8111 or www.cavalia.net. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
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