Early in Homer’s ancient epic “The Odyssey,” a sage old Argonaut named Nestor passes on travel advice to a young adventurer. “Go by boat,” he suggests. “But if you must go by land, take horses.” Arguably, if Nestor were around today, he would have split the difference and said to go see the new Cavalia show at National Harbor. It’s called, Homerically, “Odysseo.”
Yes, that white tent overlooking the Potomac is the latest installment of the famous emo equestrian circus. The original already has traveled to Washington twice, but the world could use another, because maybe you can’t reinvent the wheel, but there are myriad ways horses can run around in a circle.
Walking. Trotting. Cantering. Jumping over poles. Lumbering around with a performer dangling by a stirrup. Patiently pacing while a rider twirls an airborne dancer. Splashing sideways through four inches of water. Or roaming loose with one trainer on the ground and nine other horses charging around the ring. “Odysseo” is in many ways an improvement upon the original Cavalia, with higher production values, better overall horsemanship and seamless theatrical transitions from one equine-powered scene to the next.
“In the first show, I had numbers, and in this show, I have tableaux,” said Normand Latourelle, the Cirque du Soleil co-founder who branched out on his own and began touring with Cavalia 10 years ago. He had never ridden a horse in his life. But he knew that people liked spectacle, and he knew the mythical appeal of a rider on a white stallion. Put the two together, add popcorn and a boutique selling stuffed ponies, and you have a Cavalia franchise.
“Odysseo” opens with a handful of horses at play in a small, circular arena. The audience “Oohs” if they so much as spiritedly toss their manes. Then, a warp-speed anthropology lesson: Humans emerge, costumed a bit like you might imagine a rider for the equine cave paintings in Lascaux. The horses circle up, riders leap onto their bare backs and we’re off! The live vocalist is crooning something about the universe in French, and humankind will never be the same again.
This being an offshoot of Cirque du Soleil, there are tumblers and aerialists as well as equestrians in “Odysseo,” but the action is better interwoven than in some of the tripped-out acrobatic shows currently touring the world in yellow tents. Take a scene called “The Village Fete.” The tumblers — all from the West African nation of Guinea — go flipping across the arena doing cartwheels and round-offs that put NCAA cheerleaders to shame. Out come horses ready to jump over poles, and out come more circus performers wearing stilts with springs. It’s man vs. horse in a high-stakes reverse game of limbo.
A live band underscores all the action in “Cavalia,” and because of an improved set design, the tableaux shift smoothly. A 20-meter ring is at the base of the 2,000-seat theater, with entrances on both sides, like a traffic circle. Midway through Act 1, a scrim is lifted from behind the ring, revealing a three-story sand-covered ramp that slopes downward about 50 meters. (The Cavalia creators are French and French Canadian, but all horsey folks tend to use the metric system.) Surrounding the vast stage is a 160-degree screen for high-definition projections, and hanging above it, a grid that supports 70 tons of equipment. Watching “Odysseo” is like going to an IMAX theater but with horses, live music and pole dancing.
In a fantasy come to life for children, grown men and balletomanes, an aluminum carousel drops from the ceiling. Its rotating steeds become a playground for eight aerialists, who point their toes and extend their bodies perpendicularly from the poles. In Act 2, the dancers return to create a maypolelike merry-go-round. Lifted from the horses’ backs by cables, they stay connected to the riders below by swaths of white fabric. “Angels,” the scene is called, and they certainly feminize the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse well.
In terms of terrestrial horsemanship, “Odyesseo” peaks when 16 riders, mounted mostly on gray purebred Spanish horses with flowing manes and tails, perform a synchronized dressage routine. In this ballet on horseback, the riders crisscross the arena on the diagonals, serpentine down the hill and face the audience as they simultaneously “shoulder-in,” that is, step sideways. Later in the show, many of the same equestrians exhibit that they don’t need saddle or bridle to perform in unison. Act 2 opens with more than two dozen horses lying down with the humans like lions and lambs. Even a few tumblers from Guinea lead bridle-less steeds around the ring.
About those Guinean gymnasts — who also sing, dance and play djembes: One could be a geographical killjoy and point out that there are few horses in sub-Saharan Africa. That would be true. Perhaps the next installment of Cavalia will honor the zebra. Until then, the show reminds us that the Francophone world is a very big tent, and “Odyesseo” celebrates the journey from the cave painters of Lascaux to the finest creative minds of Quebec.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
Through Oct. 27. 201 Harborview Ave., National Harbor, Oxon Hill. Visit cavalia.net or call 866-999-8111.