‘Cavalia Odysseo’ at National Harbor by Justin Schneider

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FOUR STARS
Do you remember the first time that you saw Walt Disney’s Fantasia? That feeling of amazement that crept over you at something just happening and being in front of you? Cavalia Odysseo elicits that same sense of grandeur and sensory overload. Horses perform with and without riders; acrobats work on the ground and in the air; the music and singing is live. All of this is accompanied by that nostalgic circus smell of dirt and animals and popcorn. If you could pet the horses, it would be a feast for all five senses. [Note: please do not pet the horses!]

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If the production (or its ever-present posters) sounds like Cirque du Soleil with horses, there’s a reason for that. Founder Normand Latourelle was also one of the co-founders of Cirque, whose 2003 venture Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Human and Horse broke away from the former group’s “no animals rule.” Odysseo, on tour since 2011, is the second production by the Canadian troupe. An astoundingly large number of talented personnel worked on developing the show (I’d cut the technical list out of the program and paste it here if I could), but Benjamin Aillaud’s equestrian direction and choreography is certainly the centerpiece.

Well, the horses are the centerpiece: the choreography just shows them off. For someone like myself who isn’t used to being around horses, their very presence can be overwhelming. In the show’s opening scene, a lone woman directs a large herd of unbridled horses with gesture and voice alone. At the same time, my guest to the show (a former competitive rider) is leaning over and whispering in my ear, pointing out breeds and markings, and I’m sitting there crying because the horses were running in a circle. The show can be a bit intense.

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Choreographed horses not enough for you? Fine. How about the most spectacular and effortless acrobatics I’ve ever seen in my life? Still not satisfied? Horses leaping over bars. Acrobats on spring-shoes leaping over bars. Acrobats without spring-shoes leaping over bars. Want more? Riders standing on horses. Riders standing on two horses. A rider being pulled by two horses in a chariot made entirely of horses. Want some variety? Toss in some aerial acts. Stifling a yawn? Fine. Odysseo will drop a full-sized carousel from the ceiling.

That’s all in the first half.

I broke every rule in my reviewer’s handbook and leapt on to social media to start plugging the show during intermission. But with a lead-in like that, where’s left to go? The answer: not very far. For the most part the second half of the performance was more of the (admittedly impressive) same, a repetition compounded by the fact that, aside from a loose seasonal theme, Odysseo lacks a narrative. There are a few other issues with the piece, including the fact that those who are versed in the equestrian arts may have a very different experience than a lay audience member. The crowd thrilled at what was really average difficulty horse jumping; my companion was amazed at a difficult piece of dressage that was overshadowed by more spectacular parts of the show. And for a show that celebrates the bond between horse and man, it was interesting to see that the most amazing pieces of the performance featured either horse or man.

Along with all the horses, there’s also an elephant in the tent at Odysseo: race. The core of the acrobatic performers is a group of black acrobats from Guinea. The group is supremely talented – their first scene set the bar for the human components of Odysseo – but like the horses, segregation by color is the order of the day. The uniformity of the troupe itself can be chalked up to standard circus procedure, inviting pre-formed groups to be part of a larger show. But there are no black riders or aerial performers in the larger piece. Additionally, the Guinean troupe frequently appears shirtless or in tribal paint, and playing drums. They’re also the clowns of Odysseo. By the end of the night I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that I had sat through a minstrel show.

So where does that leave us? Although I have some serious intellectual issues with Odysseo, at the same time, I spent the entirety of the performance with my mouth hanging open, trying to take it all in and failing, and just loving the spectacular, fantastical, breathtaking, awesome nature of the thing. It’s not often I can use those words with their original, literal meanings. Odysseo deserves them.

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Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes, with one thirty-minute intermission.

Odysseo plays through October 27, 2013 at The Plateau at National Harbor in the White Big Top – 201 Harborview Avenue in National Harbor, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 1-866-999-8111, or purchase them online.

In response to the government shutdown, Cavalia is offering up to 50% discounts for a limited time on all tickets to Odysseo.