Photo credit: CAVALIA ODYSSEO

Normand LaTourelle

For those doing their daily commute throughout the county on the 101, the rise of the big top tent, 125 feet tall and the size of a football field, came rather unexpectedly to Camarillo and to Ventura County. Inside, an internationally renowned show with the best acrobats and playful horses created by a cofounder of Cirque du Soleil. Native Canadian and founder of Cavalia Odysseo, Normand LaTourelle, has decades of experience in wooing and wowing audiences with acrobatic talent and this show in particular has already garnered a lot of attention so much so that the presence in Camarillo has been extended by a few weeks. And so, how does a person go about pulling together such a show? LaTourelle spoke to the VCReporter this week to give us the inside look, including a peak at the respectful relationship between horse and man, a long-cultivated relationship upon which discovery worldwide has been built.

The show opens this weekend and runs through Dec. 10; to purchase tickets, go to www.Cavalia.com.

As seen in pictures, this show looks quite spectacular, especially with that massive tent off the 101. What drew you to working with horses?

Before creating Cavalia I was not a horse person. At the time, it was just an animal in the field, and nothing much more. Then I created a show in Quebec called Légendes fantastiques, an outdoor theatrical production based on French-Canadian tales featuring hundreds of performers and a couple of horses. I realized that every time the horses would come on stage, the audience was losing focus on the human performers and they were fascinated by the beauty of the horses. So I decided to buy more horses and learn about them. I traveled around the world to meet with equestrians and to understand the horse world. In my mind, I wanted to create something very original that people have never seen before. And that was the beginning of the creation of our first show Cavalia, that premiered in 2003. It was of course a much smaller version of my dream than what Odysseo is today. With Odysseo, I went above and beyond in creating a show that mixes top technology, the equestrian arts and the performing arts. I think it will be hard to outdo myself in creating something as magical as Odysseo in a touring environment. You have to see it to believe it. 

What is your background in working with acrobats?

I’m one of the co-founders of Cirque du Soleil. So I have seen many acrobats and acrobatic acts in my 40-plus years career. On Odysseo, we found the best of the best, and they will take your breath away. First, we have many African acrobats from Guinea that are so powerful — it’s so remarkable how fast they do tumbling. It’s unbelievable! We also have many talented aerialists that are taking part in a stunning number where we have 9 hoops hanging all over the stage to create a sort of a ballet in the sky. Also, acrobats are featured in a number where they do amazing stunts on a life-size merry-go-round that is descending from the ceiling of the tent. It’s so beautiful and poetic to see them perform on rotating poles that are also the poles of the carousel. 

What inspired you to bring together acrobats and horses?

When I left Cirque du Soleil, I wanted to create a show that nobody has seen before. I was ready for something new, something out of this world, by combining the equestrian arts and stage arts. I love to create things that do not exist and I really think I achieved it with Odysseo. I’m not sure I can top Odysseo as far as quality, beauty and technology.

Horses are so spectacular; and to me, they are the most beautiful animals on earth. They are very playful and also magnificent. Odysseo is not a horse show, but a show about horses, where they travel the world to the most beautiful landscape alongside their human friends. It’s a beautiful journey around our planet. I wanted to re-create nature on stage, where the horses and humans can express themselves. We have the top technology in this show: we have a real mountain on stage that is three stories high to create amazing perspectives. We have a real lake made with 40,000 gallons of recycled water for a splashing finale. We have a screen three times the size of an IMAX screen that transports the audience across the planet. We have a forest that opens up to unveil horse and human playing together, in harmony. We also have a live band that follows the action of the horses and artists on stage.

How long has this show been touring from the start? How many shows have you done?

The first show Cavalia has been touring since 2003 — we will be celebrating 15 years next year. Odysseo premiered in my hometown of Montreal in 2011 and we have presented this show in 31 markets so far, including the upcoming run in Camarillo. We have done 1,500 shows to date and we are very proud of the responses we get everywhere we tour.

What is unique to both the acrobats and the horses for this sort of performance? What do you look for when choosing both?

Odysseo is the perfect marriage between equestrian arts and performing arts. When we hire acrobats, we look for diversity in disciplines, stage presence and the capacity to adapt to an environment where horses are very much present at all time, on and off stage. Also, we want to make sure acrobats are comfortable around horses, and that they understand how to work their own craft while horses are present. In one of the liberty numbers in which we have 30-plus horses completely free on stage, we have riders, trainers, but also acrobats to work with the horses at liberty, meaning with no rope, no saddle. They learn how to communicate with the horses from the ground, with their body movement and verbal cues. They really love it!

On the other hand, when we look for horses, we travel across Canada, USA and Europe to find the best. We look for gray and colored horses of 6 or 7 years old in good health, good temperament, that are curious and playful. We only have male horse, no mares — it makes it more efficient for training when a mare is not present to distract the male.  The horses will perform for about five years with the show. We have an adoption program for our retired horses to make sure they find the best home after their years under the spotlight. We have very strict rules for adoption to guarantee the horse will have a quality of life comparable to the conditions offered by Cavalia. We find them a farm where they can socialize with other horses and we make sure — as one of the conditions of adoption — that they will not be in any kind of performance after Odysseo, so they can enjoy their golden years in pasture, with other horses.  We look for farms in comfortable climates, with no harsh weather, so they can enjoy sunny days and cozy temperatures all year long.  Only the best for our stars.

People may have concerns about horses in a tent/circus-style atmosphere, similar to how they feel about elephants. Explain why people shouldn’t be concerned, generally speaking, when it comes to working with horses.

If people have concerns, I’m glad, because that means they love horses as much as we do. The horses are the heart and soul of everything we do at Cavalia. We spend a lot of time and an enormous amount of effort and energy to care for them, all year long. And I wouldn’t do a show like Odysseo if the horses were not happy horses. It is the horse and its personality that inspire and give life to this production.

I would never do a show with elephants and tigers and lions. They belong in the jungle. The horses are not caged with us. The horses are a domesticated animal that have been part of the human life for centuries. We traveled together to discover the world, we build bridges between civilizations. We wouldn’t be here today if it was not for the horses and the bond they created with man. When you look at the history of humanity, you are also looking at the history of the horses. That is what we are portraying in Odysseo. In all its beauty, poetry and magic.

Our horses live in a spacious stable next to the White Big Top, in an area to relax, roll and lay down comfortably. They all have windows to see their buddies next door. They are very social and curious. And when we open the stall, they do not want to escape or get away from us. They look at us as if they are inviting us in for a pet (or two), or to find that carrot not-so-well-hidden in our pocket. 

Explain what you may do differently for your horses to prepare them for performances.

We have the luxury of time with this show, and we spend hours and hours with the horses to build a bond, a true relationship based on trust and respect. That is the core of Odysseo. With this strong bond, we know the horses feel safe with us; they come to us to find comfort, safety. Because we don’t treat them harshly, we don’t hit them, they are not afraid to be with us.

You will never hear whip clacking in the show, and we do not use spurs. The trainers spend a lot of time with their horses to understand them, to comprehend their natural behavior in order to transpose that on stage.

For our horses, the stage is a big playground. Most of the time during the show, the horses are completely free on stage in what we call ‘liberty’,  with no tack, no rope, no saddle, nothing. They behave the way they want to behave and we never force a horse to do something they don’t want to do. We have to adapt ourselves to what they are willing to give. But once you have their trust, they will give you 10 times more of what you ask. It’s phenomenal.

We have a 20-person stables team, which includes trainers, health technicians, grooms and farriers to create a very comfortable environment for the horses and provide daily health care, grooming and activities. Every single day the horses get their share of pampering and roam free every day in outdoor paddocks we built on the show site. Each horse performs for about 12 minutes per show and we also have backups, so no horse ever goes on stage if he doesn’t feel like it. The training methods are designed to make sure the horses enjoy training as well as performing on stage. Our training is based on a philosophy of understanding the needs, the preferences and the emotions of our horses. All this with mutual respect, kindness, patience and trust. It is a lot of time — all of our time — dedicated to their well-being, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Our 65 horses just arrived from an 11-day stay at a local farm in Los Alamos, north of Camarillo. After the performances in Nashville, they traveled with our team to this great ranch where they were surrounded by paddocks, where they bathe in the sun and roll in the grass. We always go with the horses on a retreat in between cities.

Have you ever known a person to see the show and then want to be in it — and is now working for you?

Yes! We have a few performers that are currently in the show that fell in love with the production the first time they experienced it as spectator. They voiced their interest to either a friend that was already in the show or they sent their video to get an audition; we met with them and the rest is history! They went through six to seven months of training and they integrated the show gradually, while learning every day. They often tell me it is an experience of a lifetime to be part of Odysseo. To travel everywhere and wow spectators of all ages. The entire cast is a very tight-knit community, like a big family. 

Why did you choose Camarillo and Ventura County?

Cavalia has a true love story with California. Over the years, about 1 million California spectators have seen either the first show Cavalia or Odysseo in L.A. County, Orange County, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose.

We know we have a lot of fans in Ventura County — we already sold more than 20,000 tickets and we have added a few weeks to our calendar already and we are not even open! The fans are encouraging their friends, their family and their coworkers to buy tickets and the word of mouth is strong. We found a very good site in Camarillo for our show with great visibility from the freeway, easy access and lots of spaces for all our tents and the outside paddock for the horses that we are building next to their stable tent. It is the perfect combination for a very successful run.

What are the best reasons to come see this show?

Odysseo is a feel-good show that spectators will remember forever.  It is like a Hollywood movie, but for real, that happens right in front of your eyes. We have created a show that is beautiful and poetic. I wanted to create a show as good — or even better — than any production in Las Vegas; and I think, with my team, we have succeeded. Whether you are 4 years old, 44 years old or 84 years old, I can guarantee that the whole family will not go home disappointed and it will create memories lasting a lifetime.  Since the first show, all Odysseo performances received a standup ovation.