Horsing Around

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

The horses are spectacular. There are eight of them: no bridles, no tack. They're beautiful white Arabians running free, circling a woman with flowing, curly blonde hair -- in the background green meadows. Suddenly like a group of dancers they fall into formation -- the horses. They form perfect lines, then circles, then all begin trotting together. The woman at the center kneels and the horses respond nuzzling up to her. You feel as if you're watching something enchanted and oddly natural. Then you notice what you hadn't up till then, this woman is holding a thin lunge whip. Suddenly, the fourth wall is broken. What seemed so natural feels more like a trick -- but what a glorious trick!

This is Cavalia's Odysseo -- the big top horse circus you've seen the billboards for or passed on the way to Ikea in Burbank.

Horse circus doesn't quite do it justice. Think Cirque du Soleil meets equestrian event. Artistic Director Nourmand Latourelle was one of Cirque du Soliel's founders before founding Cavalia -- hence the strong influence.

The score, performed live, could be lifted directly from a Cirque show and has that vaguely new-age, ethnically inspired, heavy on the strings and percussion vibe. The setting feels surprisingly stage-like despite its immense size. Under that big top they've fit what amounts to a gigantic end-stage with a 2,000 seat house. The stage, or riding ring, is a massive sand circle with two gently undulating hills that abut a massive semi-circular screen. Projected are a series of computer generated nature scenes: a forest, the Grand Canyon, an ice cave, a star scape. This is a show whose currency is spectacle and scale both in setting and performance. When it works it's immersive and thrilling.

The 'it' of it is really the horses -- sixty-seven of them in all. There is no plot or story; no characters we follow. If you're an equestrian you recognize a little dressage, some jumping, a lot of vaulting. If that means nothing to you don't worry -- you'll be wowed. Interspersed with the horses are acrobats and aerialists who are just as remarkable. At its most inspired the show combines the three resulting in that 'gosh, I don't know where to look' wonder.

The tension in the two and a half hour show, beyond the thrill of acrobatics on and off horses, is the tug between the natural and the artificial. Shakespeare's advice "to hold a mirror up to nature" sits oddly in a circus tent. The goal of the show, from the fake trees that greet you as you enter to the 80,000 gallons of water that flood the stage in act two, seems to be to have us commune with nature: with man and his horse. I'm not sure which is more shocking -- how close it gets or how jarring it is when the spell is broken. Because after all, you're in the middle of Burbank a stone's throw from an eight-lane freeway.

Odysseo plays just off the 5 in Burbank through March 24.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 2 1/2 hours with a 30 minute intermission