Ticket to ride Behind the scenes at circus spectacle Odysseo, it's the horses who hold the reins

It’s almost 4 p.m. on a particularly steamy May afternoon and Cavalia Odysseo rider Chelsea Jordan is putting on her makeup in the back corner of the very humid artistic tent.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/06/2018 (1749 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s almost 4 p.m. on a particularly steamy May afternoon and Cavalia Odysseo rider Chelsea Jordan is putting on her makeup in the back corner of the very humid artistic tent.

She’s already spent some time layering on foundation, and is now into the decorative portion of the 30-minute process, placing a pair of small gems on her forehead and enhancing her naturally sharp cheekbones with some extra contouring.

“This is the messy part of the business,” she jokes as she sticks on fake lashes over an eyelid covered in earth-toned shadow.

It’s odd that makeup is considered the messy part of the day when Jordan spends the majority of her time surrounded by horses, but as with most people involved in Odysseo, the glitzy and glamorous aspects of being a member of the largest touring production in the world aren’t nearly as fun as the time she gets to spend with her four-legged cast-mates.

Odysseo — an equestrian and acrobatic extravaganza meant to illustrate the relationship between horses and humans— returned to Winnipeg this year after 2015’s very successful seven-week, 55-show run, which resulted in 100,000 tickets sold.

Earlier this week, Cavalia — the entertainment company that produces Odysseo — announced one final extension to the show, until July 8, making the 2018 run eight weeks in duration, capping out at 54 shows total.

As of now, ticket sales are hovering around the 60,000 mark; Cavalia expects to reach numbers similar to 2015’s before their stay in Winnipeg is complete.

Performed in the massive White Big Top on the corner of Kenaston Boulevard and Sterling Lyon Parkway, Odysseo features 70 horses from 13 different breeds and 50 human performers (riders, acrobats, aerialists, dancers and musicians) from all over the world.

Jordan, 28, is American and has been with Odysseo for around 18 months.

She is involved in four aspects of the show: the Roman riding sequences, which feature female riders standing atop two horses cantering around the huge stage; a liberty routine, during which the horses are not on reins, but instead follow only subtle verbal and physical cues from their handlers; dressage, a very complicated dance-influenced riding style that focuses on the horse’s flexibility and balance; and jumps with her favourite horse, Utah, a half-paint horse, half-thoroughbred who has garnered quite a reputation around the stables for being a bit of an odd duck — er, horse.

Before she introduces Utah, Jordan gets a bit teary-eyed talking about the big brown stallion with a white patch on his face (which happens to be his favourite place to get a good scratch).

She’s been working with Utah since March 2017 and developed quite an affinity for the underdog. He takes a bit longer to learn things and has been given the nickname “the Martian” — he’s always looking off into space, ears perked up high in the air, as though he’s “listening for messages from his home planet,” says Jordan, laughing.

“He’s really high-energy, and when I go onstage with him, it’s really fun because he loves his job. Like, he hears his music and his cue and he’ll actually whinny, he’ll start jumping, and I’m like, ‘No, it’s not time yet, slow down!”… but it wasn’t like that at the beginning, it was more like, ‘Who are you? Is it safe? Can we go now?’ And now he knows and is ready,” says Jordan.

“He’s a challenge, but whatever he’s got he gives to me every day — he’s not perfect but I don’t want that. Perfect is boring.”

As with any show involving live animals, there is always some concern about how they are treated. At Odysseo, the unofficial mandate is: the horses come first.

The horses come first when considering travel — long distances are done by plane, while shorter hauls, such as the one coming up to Montreal, are done by bus, with stops every few hours and one full-day stop halfway through so the horses can get a good stretch and some play time before completing the back half of the journey. They get two weeks off between cities, when they go to a farm to relax and have fun.

The horses come first when considering the stable layout and show numbers — some of the all-male group have best friends they like to live next to, and some of them have allergies that must be accommodated. Some are more sensitive to sand and water, so they don’t take part in the finale number, which involves the stage being flooded to create a lake.

The horses come first during the training and performance. Riders are on site from around 8 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. every day except Mondays, which are typically dark days for the production. In addition to getting themselves prepped for performance, those early hours are spent working with their horses, assessing them to make sure they are healthy, injury-free and energetic enough to do the show. If something is off, there are three vet technicians on site (or on call 24/7) who can do a medical check.

Of the 70 or so horses that are trained and ready to perform each night, only 45 are in the show at any one time (there are an additional 15 to 20 horses currently in training who are not yet ready to perform). There’s a rotation, to make sure none of the stallions are getting overworked — typically they each spend about 12 minutes on stage during any given show — and to compensate for any injury that may occur.

The relationship between the horses and their handlers is paramount. If the trust can’t be built, a show like Odysseo simply cannot happen. That’s why riders spend so much time with their mounts — they get to know each other inside out, all the quirks, all the behavioural red flags, all the boundaries.

“When we’re in a show like this, we’re working with live animals — they’re not robots and they’re prey animals, so they’re nervous in new situations, so we want to make sure they trust their handlers above all else, and that takes a lot of time,” Jordan explains. “That takes consistency and relationship-building, so I have the same horses I work with every day. I know their personalities back and front — they know me, they trust me — but it’s never like that in the beginning; it takes time. We say it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.”

That solid relationship is never more evident than when walking into the stables in a few hours before showtime. Dozens of horses peek their heads out into the main aisles to see if anyone walking by will offer a pat or a treat; it’s impossible to resist their sweet faces, and more than one rider plants big kisses on their muzzles as they pass.

“Hi, Utah!” Jordan shrieks as she makes an extra-long stop at his stall, giving his face a good long scratch. It’s as though she hasn’t seen him for months, though it’s only been a couple of hours.

This one is just a quick visit, though, because it’s time for dinner.

In the context of being a member of the cast, the horses have the same schedule as the humans. It’s now 5 p.m., which means dinner of hay for Utah (though the animals are fed numerous times daily) and buffet of options in the kitchen tent — one of five tents in the Odysseo village — for Jordan.

The kitchen churns out hundreds of plates of food every day, and the dishes are generally as healthy as you’d expect: rice, curries, salads, smoothies. These are athletes, after all, and it is a top priority to remain physically fit.

“For me, it’s very important that my core and my legs are strong, especially for the Roman riding because I’m essentially holding a squat for a significant period of time, so I have to make sure my legs are always stretched and strong enough to hold me. It’s kind of like doing a squat on a stair stepper,” laughs Jordan.

“Core for riders is really important. It’s not so much pulling the horse in the direction you want to go in; the majority of it is in your seat, in your weight shifting, to be able to sit consistently when the horse is moving — that’s partly for us but more for the comfort of the horse and precision of communication.”

Ritual is a big part of being in the Odysseo crew. Two hours before each show, they have the “tapis bleu” in the artistic tent. All the performers gather on the red (formerly blue) carpet, and get notes from the artistic and equestrian directors. Changes from the previous day’s show are marked on a massive and intricate cue board: red means something’s been altered, blue means it stays the same.

The wardrobe and hair departments are nearby, too; women sit and listen to instructions as their natural hair is braided into long, flowing wigs, not dissimilar to the braids used to keep the horses’ manes from getting too tangled.

And then the clapping starts — it’s loud and fast and paired with laughter and hollers. One performer, who is either doing something new in the show or is back from injury, jumps up and does a silly dance. Everybody cheers, and then the meeting continues as usual.

The camaraderie among cast members, and the genuine love of their jobs, is infectious. It’s easy to write off “I love my job,” soundbites as cliché, but there’s a truthfulness and warmth that comes through when every person repeats the same sentiment no matter the situation — on the record, off the record or when they think no one is even listening.

“Maybe before this job, I couldn’t think about working more than 12 hours a day, but here, the time just kind of flies by and I almost feel like I don’t have enough time to do what I want to do,” says Jordan.

It’s a work environment entirely built on trust and relationships. Of course, the handlers work very hard at building trust with the horses, but in a parallel way, the human cast members have found a way to translate that non-verbal relationship-building to their interactions with each other. Many Odysseo staff speak English and French, but there are many who do not.

“For me, of course horses are a big passion, but I really love working with the people here,” Jordan says. “We are a very diverse group from very diverse backgrounds. We have over 13 different nationalities here. I majored in international relations and I thought I’d do international policy or something, and then this job happened — and to my surprise, I still get to work in that field, but combining the art form and theatre and the horses too.”

“It’s challenging – there’s language barriers, there’s different religions, there’s different cultural expectations and we just all make it work. We all share the same passion, so it really goes to show that verbal language is just one part of communication. We speak in other ways.”

One of those ways is an intense game of pick-up soccer happening in the warm-up tent before the horses are brought in. The acrobatic team from West Africa is fully invested, hammering shots at the two collapsible nets and yelling as though it’s the World Cup final.

It’s not long before they are shooed out, as the horses, who have been freshly tacked, are ready to do their pre-show stretch.

A team of grooms typically helps prepare all the horses; the grooms travel with the show and have a cue board similar to that of the performers to tell them which horses need to be ready to go and what costuming and other tack they need to have side-stage for quick changes.

At “standby-30,” otherwise known as 30 minutes until showtime, Jordan is in the stables with her Roman riding duo, Fadista and Redino, to get reins on them and walk them to the warm-up tent. The Roman riding section is the second number in the first half of the show; it’s the first time Jordan will be onstage for the night.

The music pumped into the tent is loud with a solid dance beat — another pre-show ritual — as horses and riders begin to fill the sand-floored area. It’s not long before the large space starts feeling cramped, with 20 massive horses doing laps and exercises guided by their handlers.

Jordan, now standing with one foot on each saddle, smiles as she flies around the room, though other riders are having to do a bit more work to convince their horses it’s time for work. They eventually get there, though, and as the 10-minutes-to-showtime announcement rings through the PA system, everyone is ready to go.

The show is just over two hours with a 30-minute intermission. It goes off without a hitch; all jumps are completed (including a new one tackled by Utah), the acrobatics are awe-inspiring, the audience gives a standing ovation.

As the finale number with the majority of cast wraps up, cheers continue to roar from the crowd, the vibrations from which can be felt all the way back to the warm-up tent, where crew members and other staff wait to dole out high-fives as the performers make their way offstage, as they do every night.

Echoes of “Woohoo!” and “Bravo!” greet each athlete, most of whom are still vibrating with energy as they head off to get changed and go home for the night.

But for the riders, the job is not quite done. They must take their horses to get cleaned up before bed.

It’s an equine traffic jam, with dozens of the large animals waiting patiently in line in the stables for their turn in what looks like a horse version of a car wash. Utah, clearly still amped from the show, gives Jordan a couple of swift headbutts, encouraging her to give him yet another scratch on the nose; she happily obliges after his job well done.

The post-show wash, Jordan says, is to get all the sand off their legs from the finale number; it also helps cool them down. One horse is nearly asleep as his groom follows the bath with a soothing neck massage, his big eyes barely able to stay open as she gently rubs the sides of his face.

After many kisses and cuddles and a few treats, each horse is put back in its individual stall. The grooms will now spend time braiding manes, which takes about five minutes for each horse, the exception being new horse Habil, who has a very thick mane on both sides of his neck — a very uncommon trait — which results in a 45-minute braiding process.

Overnight, one or two people work on site, passing through the stable every hour to make sure everything is as it should be. Veterinary staff is also on call in case of an emergency, including some local vets.

And in just 10 hours, the whole crew will literally be back in the saddle to do it all again.

After spending a significant amount of time on site, it’s easy pinpoint what exactly makes Odysseo such a successful production — yes, of course, the show itself has many admirable and extraordinary aspects, but really, it’s the passion of the team behind it that seeps through in every performance and keeps the whole machine running as smoothly as it does.

“I remember when I first saw the show when I was 14 years old — I saw the first Cavalia — I was so enchanted by the whole thing… just how much everyone seemed to love what they do. I never dreamed that I would get to be a part of it and now it’s happened, so I really want to keep that energy alive,” says Jordan.

“Everyone here is so passionate and you just feed off of that. Like, yes, we work long hours but it really isn’t all work. We’re a big family and are doing this really unique experience together. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”


Twitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

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Event preview

Cavalia Odysseo
White Big Top (corner of Kenaston Boulevard and Sterling Lyon Parkway)
Until July 8
Schedule and ticket information available at Cavalia.com/winnipeg

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