Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Odysseo" rides into Seattle in a big way

(photo by Francois Bergeron)

Odysseo by Cavalia
Big Top at Marymoor Park
February 19 through March 9

Cavalia, the amazing acrobat and horse event, has come through Seattle a couple of times in the last decade, generating a lot of excitement each time. Developed by Normand Latourelle, who was one of the pioneers of Cirque du Soleil, it has an atmosphere very similar, but with the addition of dozens of horses, led almost invisibly to perform incredible feats. 

Anyone who is a horse-lover, and it's probably hard to find someone who is not, would love this performance. This year, a new iteration arrives in mid-February called Odysseo. It is bigger, at least twice the size, and innovates the tent structure to remove the inhibiting tent poles. The resulting tent is bigger than a hockey field and can house as many as 30 horses at once. 

They've also expanded the range of the acrobats who perform with and around the horses. Their innovations create, they claim, a theatrically equipped performance space that rivals anything on Las Vegas or New York City stages. Yet, they have moved it from city to city. They also include an enormous projection screen the size of 3 IMAX screens that use 18 3-D projectors. It is a massive undertaking that immerses an audience into a fantasyland. 

Two of the performers with the show are married acrobats, Tomoko Onishi and Michel Charron. Tomoko grew up in Japan, where Michel (from Canada) met her, and they became interested in the circus arts and began training in the United Kingdom. After more training in Montreal, Canada, they performed all over Japan until the tsunami of 2011. 

While they do primarily aerial work, they do get to work with the horses, too, at least by riding them. Michel says,"'Our primary act is a pole act on a motorized computerized carousel as one of three couples. It's quite a contraption. It comes in from the sky on the grid." Tomoko adds, "We bring the horses on stage, walking together, without any rope and the horses will follow us." 

Tomoko says,"'It still scares me sometimes (working with the horses), somebody moving a way we don't expect. For example, when I started training with horses, they didn't follow me at all ... they are supposed to follow me, but I didn't have a connection. Slowly, as I trained, I knew how to touch them with a stick as an extension of my hand, and they began to walk with me. That was an interesting progression."

Michel adds, "We see the different aspects of their character. They can be afraid of a curtain and want to flee. Or the first time they hear an audience applaud, it can sound like a hiss to them, which is dangerous. We have to help them be calm. Also, they have to determine who is the top horse in the hierarchy. When you see them angry, they are very powerful. They can seem gentle, but they have awesome power. If horses are going to fight it out, you can't get in the way. When they spin, you don't want to be in their way. You see where (the term) 'horse power' comes from." 

Tomoko continues, "A gentle kick for them is huge for us. I also do a silk act and horses spin us from underneath. We also train the horses and they are afraid of the fabric. We go up and down, and the horses run away, so we have to do the same thing over and over and let them be comfortable with the fabric." 

They joined the show and were part of the 2011 official opening. They had skills beyond the aerial work that were useful to the tour, as well. Michel says, "I have experience in aerial rigging and Tomoko was in costuming before." They continue to have fun in this work because every show is different, both in audience and even horse behavior. 

The tour travels by car, from town to town, so participants can experience sightseeing on the road. "We can stop and see the small towns in between the big cities," Tomoko notes."'We can pull over and have lunch in a town you might not have the opportunity to see," Michel adds. "In Vancouver, we saw the bald eagles and spent New Year's Eve on a mountaintop."

Asked about both the advantages and disadvantages of living and working together all the time, Michel notes, "Tomoko and I have been really lucky and established boundaries. If you're in a strictly professional relationship, you always have that politeness, but when it's your partner, you can express frustration or anger and that can work against you. It's better to meditate on it before. You can have a bad training session and at some point you have to say that was work and we're back to us."

Tomoko adds, "On the other hand, being comfortable together, on stage, a couple act is very easy to express ourselves and express emotion. It's easier for me. I'm Japanese and shy. I wasn't good at expressing myself." 

They've never been to Seattle before and are looking forward to exploring another great city. "I feel like I'm paid to travel,' Michel says. 'We have comfortable living quarters and we get to go explore on our days off."

For more information on this unique event, go to or call 866-999-8111.