“Odysseo” opens with horses. They enter the performance area quietly, in a loose, casual way, without any trainers or human performers. A horse saunters into the arena alone, then another enters, then a couple more. The stage is not actually a clearing in a verdant, primeval forest, but it’s decorated and lit as if it were, and the horses behave accordingly. We’re seeing a wild herd at the end of day: they’ve arrived at a place of safety and repose after a long migration, they nuzzle and give playful nips, there are a few contented whinnies, they clean each other, one rolls in the dirt to scratch its back. In short, these horses can act: Silver and the gang have taken up the Stanislavski method.
It’s a nice opening, and it encapsulates something of the show’s overarching revelation: horses have personalities (or they can pretend to, which is even more clever). The show does not remain an idyll for long, and things pick up pace when people with manes almost as long, flowing and lovely as the horses’ enter the clearing to rouse the herd.
Those who are familiar with the Cirque du Soleil shows or who saw “Cavalia” two years ago at Atlantic Station will know the general nature of what follows: a show in which everything is either dangerous or pretty or both. “Odysseo,” the Cavalia organization’s latest production, certainly delivers on its promise. There are amazing stunts, cool set pieces, gorgeous horses, evocative production elements and lovely music. The performance arena, underneath a big tent on Spring Street in Midtown, is much larger than “Cavalia’s.” It has large offstage areas as well, so horses can enter and exit at a full gallop. (The show will run through January 8. For tickets, click here.)
Some might worry about the treatment of animals in a show like this, since horses can’t really choose for themselves whether or not they’re cut out for a life in the theater. I didn’t have time for a thorough investigation, but there was an optional stable tour after the show, and I can report back that the stalls were clean, the oats fresh and the hay warm. The scary stuff that we may associate with horse training — whips, blinders, crops, spurs — was nowhere to be seen. (I hope there’s not a chamber of horrors hidden somewhere.) I ended up imagining that horses can enjoy stage work in much the same way people do: it’s an elaborate system of challenges and rewards in which daily effort is given meaning through accomplishment. That seemed to be the look I read in Pico’s eyes, anyway.
“Odysseo” is not inexpensive entertainment to create, and thus not inexpensive to attend. Is it worth the price of admission? For people who are dating, the answer is a no-brainer: it’s the perfect way to impress a date, because even if you’re a bore, the evening won’t be. For families, the answer may be more complicated.
Shaping a show like this has become a science. Tedium is the enemy, and producers wisely understand that nonstop flash and noise create their own form of tedium. “Odysseo” has an effective, nicely undulating shape. There’s an especially wonderful, almost meditative segment with a carousel, horses and women performers suspended in sheets. The show is a well-oiled machine that has settings for “stun,” “rouse,” “dazzle” and “amuse.” But pure mechanical perfection is also wisely avoided. We occasionally see a performer on springy stilts take a spill, or a tumbler turn to the audience and give a cocky grin after nailing a difficult and impressive run of flips and turns. There’s a spaciousness throughout the goings-on that reminds us that this is a live event. Someone could break his neck. Of course we hope it doesn’t happen, but it wouldn’t be thrilling if it wasn’t a possibility.
“Spectacle” has become something of a dirty word among arts critics during the last half-century or so, but I don’t share the disdain. “The Wizard of Oz” movie, Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino,” an elaborate production of “The Tempest” — couldn’t all these qualify as spectacle? Certainly they can be distinguished from the type of presentation that critics deride as “spectacle,” but that’s no more revealing than saying that the drawings of da Vinci can be distinguished from the scribblings of a neophyte. Spectacle, like drawing or painting, is a medium: it can be used poorly or well. Critics should not shake their fists at a broad category of artistic production simply because they’ve encountered bad examples of it. Spectacle carries its own particular challenges, dangers, limitations, costs, strengths and weaknesses, and I would make the case for “Odysseo” as a pretty good spectacle.