November 2015 - Odysseo

Brand new show by Cavalia debuts in San Francisco November 19.

by Patti Schofler

After interviewing for the director position for Odysseo, Cavalia’s brand new equine spectacular which makes its Bay Area debut Nov. 19 at AT&T, Wayne Fowkes flew to Cavalia’s Montreal headquarters to determine if his ideas about  direction and choreography would work as well with horses as they had with humans.

Wayne Fowkes.

The closest the show’s director had come to a horse was watching the ponies run at the races. Growing up in England, he was warned not to go near a horse because he will kick you.

“For four days I was mesmerized by how working with horses – not using them – can be so beautiful. That was when I decided to take the challenge,” says Fowkes, who began his career as a singer and dancer in London’s West End. Soon his career took off to include television production in Great Britain and Europe, and to become resident director for Andrew Lloyd Webber. From then on, he had many successes as a theater artistic director and producer in both Europe and Asia.

The challenge began with meeting the Odysseo horses. On his first day, he stood in front of a horse and looked him in the eye. “I was told to let the horse understand you, feel your energy, and once he knows you are going to give affection and attention, he will let you into his world. Within 15 minutes, I was walking in between his front and back legs. I would never have dreamt that I could do that.”

Cavalia’s latest theatrical production Odysseo is about those special moments, blending the equestrian arts, stage arts and high-tech theatrical effects in a way that pushes the limits of live entertainment. Odysseo boasts the world’s largest touring production and traveling big top, the biggest stage, the most beautiful visual effects, and the greatest number of horses at liberty.

Odysseo steps up the fantasy where more horses, riders, acrobats and musicians embark on a dream journey that leads them from the Mongolian steppes to Monument Valley, from the African savannah to Nordic glaciers, from the Sahara to Easter Island.

The dream begins in an enchanted three-dimensional forest, soon covered by a canopy of moving clouds. A blue mist rises from the earth. A herd of horses appear grazing and enjoying the setting sun. Suddenly, the flat surface of the stage begins to curve and undulate, growing into rolling hills from a distant desert as horses appear, searching for an oasis.

A Very Big Big Top

More than twice the size of the structure created for Cavalia, Odysseo’s White Big Top is the size of a NFL football field. The enormous Odysseo stage – one of the largest on earth – creates a natural playground for the 75 horses of 11 breeds from Spain, Portugal, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Australia, the United States and Canada. The 17,500 square feet stage is so large horses canter up and down the three-story hill.

To direct and choreograph these 75 horses in such a large expanse, Fowkes stepped up his knowledge and experience. He even learned to ride in order to understand “what it was like to be on a horse and let him take you on its journey.”

Most horse people know the expression “horse time” – time passage according to a horse’s agenda. Wayne learned to direct according to horse time and he learned not to rush. “When I’m choreographing dancers and acrobats, I may say, for example, that I have one hour to get the job done. With horses, it might take me five days or two weeks. It has to be done in a way that the horses learn and accept what to do. Creating the patterns was not difficult; it was getting them used to the patterns.

“We work generally more in circles than figures with corners, so the horse has natural curves to work around.  Everything from the Cossacks to trick riding, is circular to some degree, all worked out before so we know what we want to do in it.”

When Fowkes works with people, he can ask the actors to practice the pattern five, 10, 20 times in order to see that the patterns have visual impact from different parts of the theatre. With horses, the testing is done before bringing in the “stars.”

“With horses you can’t change your mind every day. Changes have to be progressive or you confuse them totally and you end up with soup.”

That, however, does not mean the talent – the horses – won’t change the program. One of the beauties of the many liberty scenes in Odysseo is that the horses are free to do so.

Unscriptable Spontaneity

In one of the most spectacular scenes is reminiscent of a 19th Century painting with 24 horses lying down on the hill, with no tack. One horse gets up, another rolls, eventually all are trotting around the stage in teams of four, each team following a person – without tack.

“You can’t make a horse lay down. Some don’t want to and some would love to do it all day.  We never, ever force a horse to do what he doesn’t want to do. We never, ever use whips. We encourage their participation and wait for their feedback. Everything we do here at Odysseo revolves around the horses.”

La Sedentaire. Photo: Color-ish Company

“At liberty, the 24 horses, divided into fours, run behind an individual to make patterns. They respect the distance from the horse leader and from each other, and they understand how to keep it together. But, of course, you may have one or two that decide they don’t want to play that day.

“It’s alright. The music is always live and can be played in a loop, so we can continue playing it without seeming like we have a great emptiness in the middle, until the horse decides to return to the troop. If a horse goes off on his own, the audience is amused and respects our way of working with the horses, with patience, respect and trust. When the horse comes back to his place, he gets bigger applause than the scene itself.”

The tempo of the music is important to the horses’ safety and stress level. “For the ridden horses, we are careful about the speed at which they work.  We don’t want it to be so demanding that they develop repetitive strains on shoulders and legs.”

Fowkes did his homework on the best tempo for the walk, trot, and canter relevant to each scene.  After that, the composer took the chosen tempo and laid over it his feeling about the scene concurrent with the style for Odysseo to develop the music.

“Normally, when I do a creation, I have my music first or I work with dancers to inspire the music. But with this world of Odysseo, it is done in reverse. You find the tempo best for the horses first. And you wait to see if they will like it!”

Similar to creating a dressage or reining freestyle, use of the stage in a creative manner boosts audience engagement and enjoyment. The Odysseo stage is divided into layers: the forestage, the mid-stage and the hills. Fowkes uses the three areas to create drama. “You don’t reveal everything straight away or you’re giving the game away. So you have to tease the audience by slowly progressing, give a little more, a little more, and then close it back down again. The surprises are breathtaking!”

The tent for the world’s biggest touring show is engineered so that no supporting structure or masts obstructs the audience’s view of the multi-dimensional stage, allowing for large-scale possibilities, as does the story of Odysseo, seeing the world through the movement of the horse while taking beauty and grace and magic to another level.

For information on performances of Odysseo in San Francisco, visit or call 1-866-999-8111. Follow Cavalia at or Article provided by Cavalia.