’Odysseo’ :: ’Cirque’ with Horsepower
Darren Charles, the British-born artistic director and choreographer of "Odysseo," which arrives under the big top in Assembly Square in Somerville on Aug. 7, is speaking to me from the balcony of his apartment in Montreal’s Little Italy. Montreal is the home base of Cirque de Soleil, which introduced large-scale, visually overpowering productions that combine high-wire bedazzlements with technologically chilling lights, sound and music. "Odysseo," which features a performing company of 46 artists and 67 horses, might very well be named Son of Soleil: it’s the brainchild of Normand Latourelle, a longtime Cirque de Soleil creative team veteran.
Charles tells me he can see the sprawling Jean Talon Marche from his balcony. Jean Talon, originally built in the 1930s and now occupying several city blocks, is one of the largest marketplaces in North America; in the dead of winter, you can buy a fresh peach there. It seems a fitting backdrop for Charles as he heads out to work each day to oversee one of the largest scale touring productions ever conceived.
An expensive show
Productions like "Odysseo" are costly: considerable funds must be spent to bring all the elements together, to create the grand scale illusions audiences have come to expect.
While money woes hobble so many smaller performance troupes, Charles explains, finding financial backing for this large one has never seemed to hamper his boss, M. Latourelle.
"He never flinched when it came to spending funds to create ’Odysseo,’" Charles says of Latourelle. "He kept telling us, ’We can do this, we can make this work, we should never compromise our artistic standards.’"
And so, with that as a go, the creative team went to work.
"We sat down initially with Normand to create the show," Charles says of their process, "and ideas after ideas were discussed. Instead of throwing out any of our visions, he combined them. The show grew from there, and now it’s huge."
Huge is the operative word. Listen as Charles rattles off the show’s statistics.
"The big top we perform under is 10 stories high. We have a hockey rink size stage, it’s over 27,000 square feet," he says, his voice is escalating. "We truck in 10,000 tons of sand and rock. We use over 80,000 gallons of water for the finale. There are four IMAX screens that surround the inside of the tent to project images everywhere, with a tremendous sound system. There’s a huge carousel that descends slowly down to the stage -- it’s so big, it takes 15 minutes to lower it."
And then there are the horses: eleven breeds of them. Most theatergoers experience real horses onstage at small scale circuses, like the Big Apple, or as puppets, in shows like ’War Horse’ or ’Equus,’ wooden frames manipulated by actors, who crouch inside them.
But in "Odysseo," you get the real thing: pure horsepower.
"Man and horse have a time honored relationship that is deep, and emotional," Charles says. "Yes, horses are wild creatures, but, when treated with respect - and we treat them with great respect, you can bet on that - they give respect back. And horses are natural show offs on stage. They love to perform."
A particularly feisty breed is the Arabians, Charles notes.
"There are nine Arabians in the show," Charles says. "And they can be very difficult. They have a mind of their own. But with the performer who has trained them and who works with them each and every performance, they demonstrate a close bond, a very special relationship on stage. You could call it romantic."
There are 21 stallions in the show (the remaining number are geldings). According to the show’s notes, their "fighting spirit" has been channeled into one of "playfulness" by equestrian choreographer Benjamin Aillaud.
Charles talks about the theme of the show - a journey that begins in the desert and travels to mountains and then to outer space and even to ice caverns. All of this seamlessly unfolds, Charles insists, thanks to the coming together of the images on the large IMAX screens, the cast, and the horses.
The aerialists are from Guinea and they specialize in backflips, Charles said. Without giving away too much more of the show, one can expect to see these daredevil performers execute many of these feats while riding on the horses, bareback.
The show has been performing throughout North America since 2003. Charles estimates that over 4 million people have attended. An extended tour is being planned that will take the troupe - and their equestrian cohorts - overseas.
"I didn’t come to horses naturally, or easily," Charles says. "But I have grown to love working with them."
And with laboring to keep a large scale extravaganza like "Odysseo" running without a hitch that leaves even experienced directors like Darren Charles mesmerized each time he goes to work.
"Odysseo" will be performed under the big top in Assembly Square, Rts. 93 and 129, in Somerville, on August 7 - 18, 2013. The next stop on its US tour is Washington DC. For more information, visit their website or by calling 1-866-999-8111.