Dozens of world-class performers — more than 60 of them four-legged — have descended on Somerville to perform “Odysseo,” the circus show celebrating the unique bond between humans and horses.
The show is written and directed by one of the co-founders of Cirque du Soleil, Normand Latourelle.
“It sounds pretentious to say, but it is one of the best shows you will ever see,” Latourelle said.
“Odysseo” pairs human and horse performers to explore the bond that people and horses have shared throughout the centuries. From the deserts of Africa to Nordic glaciers, the show loosely follows the history of humans and horses, and the journeys that the two species have undertaken together.
“The human and the horse are both great performers, and it is fun to watch,” Latourelle said.
Writing and directing a show that involves more than 60 horses was an unlikely choice for Latourelle, who had little equine experience before he began working on “Cavalia,” Odysseo’s sister show, 10 years ago.
After seeing Cirque du Soleil become one of the most celebrated shows in the world, Latourelle returned home to Quebec to work on shows that would not require as much travel. One of these shows featured a horse, and Latourelle soon began to notice something interesting.
“It happened every time that horse would come onstage. It was stealing focus from the performer,” he said. “That attracted my attention. I said, ‘What is going on? It’s just a horse.” I am not a horse person, but I saw that the audience was very attracted by that horse.”
Latourelle recognized that the horse had the potential to captivate the audience in a way that even the most skilled human performers could not. He bought six performing horses and began to familiarize himself with the animals.
“In the end, I thought they were the most beautiful animal on Earth,” he said. “They’re very playful, very elegant. They are really stars.”
Latourelle knew that he was onto something. However, he had to be able to incorporate horses into the performing world in a way that was good for the animals.
“In Cirque, our trademark was that we were a circus with no animals,” he said. “Going to the animal world, I wanted to make sure that we were in total respect with the animals. I started to look for people who were training horses in different ways than the traditional ways. We started to do ‘Cavalia’ with the idea of showing the bond between humans and horses, but in a very eloquent, high-tech, theatrical way.”
“Cavalia” was a great success. Latourelle began working on a second show, “Odysseo,” to take the horses’ performance even further.
“With ‘Odysseo,’ I wanted to bring nature to the stage,” he said. “I created the biggest stage in the world to have these fantastic animals perform in a space where they will have even more fun.”
The larger stage — complete with two hills that are three stories tall — offers the horses more space to work with.
“When they come onstage, it is like their playground,” Latourelle said. “They are very playful when they are confident. When you treat them well, they will be your best friends. And that’s what ‘Odysseo’ is. It is two friends — humans and horses — going together, traveling across the most amazing landscape in the world to discover what nature has to offer to us.”
In addition to the horses, “Odysseo” incorporates acrobats, dancers and high-tech video components. There is no doubt, however, that the horses are the stars of the show.
“It is not a horse demonstration. It is almost a ballet,” Latourelle said. He said that his lack of horse experience allows him to push forward with new ideas that more experienced horsemen might have discounted as impossible.
“Some of my ideas seem crazy to horse people, but in the end, it works,” he said. “When my crazy ideas work, the show becomes spectacular and different. I have pushed all the limits with what the horses can do.”
Still, Latourelle is realistic about what he can expect from the horses.
“I do not ask the horse to become human, I ask them to stay a horse,” he said. “That is the most beautiful thing. I tell my performers that the horses never make any mistakes, the people make the mistakes.”
But Latourelle knows that he cannot expect perfection from the horses, and he recognizes that the equine cast members are individuals, he said. If some horses choose to hold their heads up, while others prefer to leave them down, that is fine with him. It involves a certain amount of letting go from the director.
“Everyone knows that,” he said. “You have to follow who they are. We have a way of training where the animal has total comfort, and the animal is happy to be with us. They have not chosen to be with us, we have chosen them.”
If you go
What: Cavalia’s “Odysseo”
When: Through Aug. 18
Where: The White Big Top at Assembly Square, intersection of Route 28 and Interstate 93, 201 Assembly Square Drive, Somerville
Tickets: $34.50-$139.50, www.cavalia.net or 866-999-8111
By the numbers
63 horse performers, representing 10 different breeds
47 human artists
$30 million spent to produce the show
10,000 tons of rock, sand and earth used to construct the stage
17,500 square feet of stage space
350 costumes used in the show
8 years of preparation before premiere