By: Patti Schofler
Following the intermission at Odysseo, thirty-two horses, at liberty, with no tack attached, perform on stage. Behind the scene, several others prepare for the next act, either in the warm up tent or in the backstage.
The liberty horses in fours follow their human counterpart off the stage. That moment, before they are walked back to their spacious stables, the horses in the backstage areas are loose. And all is in order, at peace, and under the direction and supervision of one person, Marie-Pierre Ouellet, the equestrian back stage manager at Odysseo by Cavalia, one of the coolest individuals you will ever find.
Sixty-five horses from 11 different breeds, and 48 riders, acrobats, aerialists, dancers and musicians find their direction backstage as part of the $30 million production Odysseo, the world’s largest tour show, currently in San Jose through October 30, and opening in Irvine November 16.
Double the size of the company’s show Cavalia, Odysseo marries the equestrian arts, stage arts, and high-tech theatrical effects where the moving interactions between human and horse are at the heart of the action. On an enormous stage, layers of mesmerizing decor are combined with live music, gravity-defying acrobatics, entrancing aerial stunts and inspiring HD projections.
Marie-Pierre is the center of what may seem like a complex puzzle, but is in truth complete order, thanks in part to her experience with horses and theatre, and to her dispatch chart which at any time during the show makes clear which groom with which rider with which horse in which tack needs to go to which act at what time.
“What goes on backstage is another show. I am continually grabbing people and moving horses,” says Marie-Pierre, 27, from Quebec. A graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada where she specialized in stage management, she joined the show as a general backstage manager until she wanted to work with horses, “I started as a day groom and they taught me how to bath horses and clean stalls.” With her background, she quickly became a team manager and equestrian backstage manager.
Her knowledge of so many aspects of the show is useful when orchestrating the trick riders. One at a time a horse and rider going at speed cross the stage in a heart stopping trick pose. “One person is in each of the two backstage areas located on the side of the stage, with the horses waiting. We talk to each other over microphones to make sure everyone is ready and no horse is going where another horse is going. We are calling their names so that they go one after another. And the general stage manager can tell me ‘go faster’ or ‘tell the rider to wait’ because there is something happening on stage which we can’t always see because we can’t be in the front of the screen at all time watching the show. The stage manager is our eyes as she is located at the top of the bleachers, where the spectators are seated.
“I’m running around all the time. I’m either backstage in a warm up tent, or in the stables, going around with the grooms, checking on horses that may be tacked up in their stalls or in the warm up area.”
Because of the action off stage, and the fact that everyone is backstage with the horses all the time, everyone, even those who do not work with the horses in the show, learn to be with the horses. Most of the ground based acrobats and several of the aerialists have not previously been with horses. Others have experience with horses, but not the Cavalia horses.
“Everyone has lessons on how to be around the Cavalia horses. We have specific codes so that the horses understand their cues of ‘come here’, “move a bit over here’ or ‘wait here’ from one person to another. We teach the people soft voice commands and body language so the horse understands.
“Each groom has their team of horses that they take care of and check on. They know them by heart, their personalities, their moods. They always groom and tack up their horses.
“We want what is best for the horses. They are only stage for 12 to 15 minutes per show. We will have as many horses in one show so each individual stays fresh.
“We always have a bank of horses that can do many numbers. A veterinary technician, who is always on site, will make sure a horse should do the show, or do this act and not another, even up to the last minute. A horse may do the jumping number and right after the rider feels he has had enough of show time that night and should not go to the next act. So we make a switch. We really pay attention to the mood of the horses, to what they can offer us. That respect is crucial to ensure their well-being.”
Perhaps the switch to beat all switches happens every show. Elise Verdoncq has exactly one minute to change her costume between her act with the eight Arabian liberty horses and the Traveller number in which she rides. There is a changing area behind the stage, but it’s too far from her entrance, so she was to change in one of the garage where the Arabians leave the stage.
Elise describes: “First, I take off my pants and shirt with the help of a costume girl. She puts on my pants for riding as I put on another shirt. I jump on the horse who already has the proper saddle on. A groom holds the horse as I put on the sleeves, and two people are tying my pants to the pad. I have only time to take my reins, give a pat to my horse, and we go on stage. Four people have to help me. Everyone knows what to do and there is an order. If we miss one part, I can’t make it.”
Tickets for Odysseo in San Jose are now on sale for performances running through October 30, Tickets for the show opening in Irvine November 16 are also on sale. Purchase tickets online at www.cavalia.net or by calling 1-866-999-8111.