Last Van stand for 'The Best Show Ever'

Five more weeks until Cavalia pulls up its tent and steals away -- permanently.

"Odysseo" riding off into the sunset. Photo: Jack Wanderly

Just as the lights started going dark on “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Normand Latourelle’s Cavalia pitched its Great White Big Top in False Creek for the final Vancouver run of Odysseo, the self-proclaimed “Best Show Ever.”

Presumably that means “ever… until Latourelle’s next extravaganza.”

But, in a pre-show interview, the Québécois impresario, who co-founded Canada’s iconic Cirque de Soleil, hinted that his future plans would not involve horses (“two Cavalia productions since 2003; I feel I’ve gone as far as I can with the horses.”) Nor would he go in for another touring show. Nor even, necessarily, would he play in this hemisphere, where the mood is turning ugly.

After flying in Odysseo’s 65 equine stars from California on their own private 747, Latourelle admits he’s appalled by the new American border restrictions. His 100+ member human troupe comprises 11 nationalities and five different religions, including Islam. “Luckily,” he says, none of them fell under Trumpian immigration bans, but still the climate is worrying. So he’s looking at China for his next venture.

Animal rights concerns of the sort that shut down the Ringling Brothers’ 146-year run have never been an issue for Cavalia. “We use no wild animals,” he shrugs. “Only horses, our oldest domesticated species, older even than dogs.” Archaeology suggests that humans and horses have been domesticating each other for millennia.

But horses have yet to domesticate Latourelle – he admits he’s never even been tempted to ride one. Nor has he grown up as a committed Big Top fan – he saw his first circus in his 30’s. Both these mainstays of the Cavalia brand are, for Latourelle, just garnish on what really interests him about showmanship: the technology.

That preoccupation manifests in the design of Odysseo. The programme notes are awash with superlatives and eye-popping statistics. A three-storey mountain, comprising 10,000 tons of rock and sand, rising out of a 1,626 m2 stage! The world’s biggest tent complex, towering 38 metres high, pegged to 1,310 metre-long stakes, supported by 5.8 km of cable! Eighteen simultaneous projectors scrolling hi-def computer graphics across a wrap-around cyclorama screen!

Odysseo needs all these bells and whistles just to offset the innate repetitiousness of horsey sports. The show incorporates every imaginable style of equitation – Cossack stunts, Roman riding, dressage, bareback – and all performed to the very highest standard. A dozen horse breeds are featured, each represented by its most impeccable specimens.

No shortage of galvanic moments. But, after nearly three hours at ringside, it all started to merge into a steady stream of horseflesh endlessly coursing along in recursive conic sections. A random, nameless eight-year-old to my left was heard to remark, “this looks like it might be funner [sic] to do than to watch.”

Much to my pint-sized seatmate’s relief, the equestrian acts were interspersed with stunning performances by bipedal acrobats, aerialists, high-jumpers and percussionists. To a chorus of tonal drums, a nine-member African troupe had the whole audience loudly howling ‘O walu guere moufan,’ which turns out to mean “No more war” in the Susu language of coastal Guinea. A quartet of leapers performed impossibly high kangaroo jumps on flexi-hinged high-tech stilts.

But what really kept the show moving was the state-of-the-art stagecraft. Multimedia company Geodezik created a sequence of videos – everything from desert dunes to ice caves to roiling cloudscapes to hurtling comets – that scrolled on the cyclorama to create the illusion of headlong cross-country velocity as the performers cycled around and around their bounded stage.

Set designer Guillaume Lord created a versatile framework to contain these images and the flamboyant choreography of Darren Charles and Alain Gauthier. Composer Michel Cusson stitched it all together with a non-stop tone poem, by turns florid or pelting, rendered by a half-dozen live musicians plus the breathy alto of vocalist Valentina Spreca.

Costume designers Michèle Hamel and the late Georges Lévesque tricked everybody out in flowing, natural fibre robes that emphasised the streaming kinesis of two- and four-legged performers alike. Director Wayne Fowkes, a veteran of extravaganza productions ranging from London’s Millenium Dome to Notre Dame de Paris and Beijing’s 蝴蝶, did his best to wrestle the whole farrago into some semblance of dramatic coherence.

Odysseo saved its snazziest special effect for last, flooding the entire ring with some 150,000 gallons of water in a matter of minutes. Silhouetted against the backdrop of a cyclorama waterfall and mirrored in the instant lake, star equestrienne Elise Verdoncq put her elegant Lusitanian mount Omerio through a good 10 minutes of exquisite haute-école dressage.

And then the whole ensemble came splashing in for a moist finale-cum-curtain-call as the cyclorama shifted to a tableau of crashing waves that mirrored the craning necks of the horses.

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