A veteran photojournalist on the Toronto arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.
A peek behind the stage of Cavalia’s Odysseo
Cavalia Resident Director Darren Charles giving a preview with the mechanical Carousel prop under Odysseo’s White Big Top.
Whenever the equestrian entourage of Cavalia comes to town, as it prepares for its return engagement of Odysseo for Toronto in April, there’s an awful lot of preparation involved by the staff that would be basic routine for a touring show of this magnitude, including the care and maintenance of its biggest stars – the horses.
Getting a backstage tour of the facilities of Odysseo’s White Big Top with Resident Director and choreographer Darren Charles as a guide in explaining the details and layout of the venue from its 1,626 square-meter surface of sand, earth and filler right up to is three-storied ramp before the high-definition backdrop the side of three IMAX screens does stand out. But its Carousel, weighing at 16.3 metric tons; that takes twelve hours to assemble is the trickiest and ambitious segment of the show, all involving people, horses and machinery in motion.
“Safety is a priority,” said Charles, whose background involved working in African and contemporary dance, aerialist work and a little horse riding in his native England; “and that is something that artist has to realize every day. Bringing (multiple) disciplines to the stage is challenging. The Carousel itself, we have the riders, the acrobats and we have the machinery itself. We have to desensitize the horses, so we introduce them to the machine (and) the movement. Some of the horses are scared at first, and we just keep repeating the same process and then the horses are ‘Oh! It’s okay, it’s safe.’ And that’s how we make the safety very crucial on the stage, because the horses are familiar with what we are doing.”
Since this show, and the company in general, are about the distinct relationship between humans and horses, it’s this cooperation that brings performers like Elise Verdoncq from northern France here not only to be its handler, but also a horse whisperer to their designated equines, through voice and body language, free from the olden days of whips and prods.
“It means that everything I’m working with the horses because we have a good relationship (and) huge trust between them and me,” she said. “And then after, it’s like kind of play. We’re playing around and telling them to do things by the way I will move (either) this way or that way in what they have to do in which order, and all those things.”
And viewing the stables firsthand, the reputation of them being like a spa for horses isn’t too much of a stretched exaggeration. The area is brightly lit, spacious and clean and the horses are quite affectionate toward any person upon approach, so any type of mistreatment or sordid conditions doesn’t seem to be in existence here or has ever been filed by anyone, not even by any chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for that matter.
“Every show is different,” Charles explains. “The riders are working with the horses from nine o’clock in the morning until after the show, so the relationship they have with the horses is that they understand each other with the movement that they have. The horses are very temperamental, obviously and the riders are temperamental and the aerialists and acrobats can be temperamental. But this is something they have to bond. They have to work very closely with the horse, get to know the horse (and) get to know the (stage) space.
“All the acrobats that don’t know or understand the horses are involved as much as they can, so they understand the horses to all the movements that’s put onto the stage, whether it’s the acrobats or aerialists or rider. It all amalgamates together and works as one big team, you know? Just keeps rolling and rolling, and when you come to see the show, you’ll see that’s really evident in the show with everybody, not just the riders working with the horses.”
Rider Elise Verdoncq with a friend in the stables of Cavalia’s Odysseo.
Being with the horses of Cavalia is almost like a 24/7 job. As Verdoncq puts it, she starts her day around eight in the morning by riding her horses and taking care of the Arabians either in groups or individually during rehearsals and in between until show time and afterwards, often mixing up the routine in getting them to do different things.
“You can see that, especially in the show,” Verdoncq continued, “especially with the Arabians, they are completely free. We really want them to stay as horses and to don’t be a machine, where you just press the button and they’re doing the same thing every day, so there’s a lot of improvisation. Sometimes you can tell when you come and see (Odysseo) where some horses just want to have fun, they just go out of the ring and not listen to what I’m doing (or) go play together and then come back. And that’s what makes the horses look like horses.”
That kind of begs the question: who are easier to handle – the horses or people?
“(The performers) all have their personalities,” Charles chuckles. “Obviously it’s easier to communicate with humans, but you get everything out of the horse that you could possibly ask for that you don’t often get out of the human. (People) can have a bad day or they’re not feeling very well, but a horse is very consistent with their personality. They’re not so demanding. All they want to do is be ridden, be let loose on our huge stage which is like a big playground (for them), which is why they love the show and we give them the opportunity to (be themselves). We keep the horse happy and the riders are happy; so the rider and horse are happy and the acrobats are happy. So it’s a bit of everything but I would say,” he quips, “yeah, the horses are easier to handle.”
Odysseo’s limited Toronto engagement at the Port Lands (383 Lakeshore Boulevard East) runs April 8-26. For tickets/information, call 1-866-999-8111 or cavalia.net.
Cataclysmic pop-culture musical involving The Simpsons readies to go nuclear (and off-grid)
The acclaimed dystopian pop musical allegory Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play will make its Toronto premiere at the Aztec Theatre (1035 Gerrard Street East) with previews starting May 9 starring television’s favourite animated family The Simpsons, as announced by the Outside the March theatre company that combines theatre, television, music, dance and puppetry into this production.
Mr. Burns depicts a post-apocalyptic world devoid of electricity, where a small group of survivors band together in search of food, shelter and the most precious resource of all: classic lines from The Simpsons. In order to bring the audience deeper into the world of the show, the company will create the performance totally off-the-gird; staged entirely without the use of electricity.
Loosely based on the show’s 1993 episode “Cape Feare,” playwright Anne Washburn wanted “to take a TV show and push it past the apocalypse and see what happened to it” after considering other TV sitcom staples like M*A*S*H* and Friends. Working around the limited usage without violating the copyright laws (thus avoiding any lawsuits from Fox TV and creator Matt Groening) and winning some critical acclaim after its 2012 world premiere in Washington, D.C., it has since moved onto off-Broadway in New York and subsequent U.S. cities, even garnering a Drama League Award nomination last year for Outstanding Production of a Broadway or Off-Broadway Play.
“Audience members will be able to join in on the action, wielding flashlights to help light our off-the-grid experience,” stated Outside the March Artistic Director Simon Bloom. “For our patrons sitting in the front rows, we’re offering the chance to kick back and watch the collapse of civilization from the comfort of a rec room sofa.”
“On previous productions we’ve invited our audiences to inhabit a kindergarten classroom or venture out on an EMS call – now we’re inviting them to immerse themselves in the apocalypse with Homer, Bart, Marge and Lisa as their guides,” added Co-Artistic Director Mitchell Cushman. “We’re thrilled to be collaborating with leading Canadian companies Starvox (Entertainment) and Crow’s (Theatre) to bring this larger-than-life experience to the east end of Toronto.”
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play runs May 9-31 (Additional Victoria Day weekend performance on Saturday May 16 at 2 p.m., with no Sunday May 17 evening performance). For tickets/information, call 1-877-435-9849 or ticketfly.com.
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