#OdysseoTO: the Golden Age of The Circus

I saw Cavalia’s show Odysseo today at their big tent on the waterfront, in the company of my Mom & a rapturous grand-child.  The world has certainly changed.

I’m reminded of the Commedia dell’Arte that was featured in the Barber of Seville that I saw Friday.  Theatre and circus have a history as a marginal life-choice, starving actors & acrobats who were treated as vagabonds & criminals.  At one time people ran away to join the circus even though you’d never get rich.

Now?  One goes to circus school, and one doesn’t have to run away to do so.

The Cirque du Soleil was in the news this week as there was talk of a billion dollar buyout of the mega-corporation, one of Quebec’s great cultural assets.  While there have been movies portraying the circus business as fraught with risk, that’s only for those who don’t understand how to do it right.

Flash forward to the 21st Century.  Cavalia are circus 2.0, keeping the good parts while jettisoning the negatives:

  • While you still have animals in this modern circus, they’re not treated cruelly or demeaned, the way European circuses were wont to do. These animals are put on a pedestal.
  • While there is fun, the old-fashioned clown is nowhere in evidence. Instead we’re in a spectacle that’s mostly serious, even operatic.
  • The music is modernized
  • Promotion is over-the top. Go anywhere in Toronto and you’re likely to see a Cavalia poster, hear an ad on TV, or see a flyer.
  • The opportunities for revenue generation are everywhere. I brought home a stuffed toy –in the hands of the aforementioned moppet—as well as a couple of DVDs.  Where the magic of the circus used to be evanescent as a momentary thrill and then forgotten, those moments are now captured in media permitting extra $ to be generated.

This isn’t the circus tent of yore.  

Nope, times have changed.  The circus tent is different….

Before one even gets inside the big-top on the waterfront to see Odysseo one is already in a magical place.  The shapes are larger than life.  We’re south of the Gardiner Expressway, in a liminal space between city & lake, sky and water, as if we were on the edge of the world.

And what’s inside is different too.  Modern music, CGI projections, and a sophisticated understanding of the audience.  No wonder we’re seduced so effortlessly.

Moments of great virtuosity & skill are alternated with moments of repose, opportunities to simply breathe, to reflect upon the stunning spectacle.

Cavalia's Odysseo (photo: Lynne Glazer)

Cavalia’s Odysseo with acrobats Ismaël Bangoura and Balla Moussa Bangoura, plus stilter Lucas Mendoça. (photo: Lynne Glazer)

Let me answer the key questions.  I sat in the absolute back row with my aged mother.

  • The view was good even there at the very back (row U as in UP!). There are no bad seats
  • My mom and I clambered to that top row. She gave me a look at first, but the stairs are amazingly solid for a theatre that was built on vacant land.
  • The seats were comfortable for the entire show: an opening act of one hour, a thirty minute intermission and then another hour to the end
  • The washrooms are more than adequate
  • There are lots of souvenirs of course… if you’re coming with children that’s a must

I’d suggest arriving early if at all possible.  You get inside, and then you can hang out, have a beer, get comfortable before the show.

The television ads emphasize the equine element. I’m not a horse freak although I have to confess I was blown away by what I saw. There’s an aura of love around the show, the animals and their riders seeming to be in such harmony that it’s almost an insult to speak of this as “circus”, when I think of what that word usually implies.  This is more like art, a spectacle of dance, music, movement, and yes, horses.

Finale of Odysseo with rider Ramon Gonzalez (photo: Lynne Glazer)

Finale of Odysseo (photo: Lynne Glazer)

It’s like the Circus Maximus minus the cruelty.  Remember the scenes in Gladiator, where we see a pitched battle between two armies in front of roaring crowds?  At the heart of that spectacle is the magic of seeing humans and horses racing full tilt around an enclosed space in front of a crowd.  The power of the muscles being flexed –human or equine—make for a visceral experience that can’t adequately be captured on a camera.  Live is best.

I didn’t realize it wasn’t all horses.  My favourite performances are the aerials, sometimes including horses, to truly mess with you.  I find it hard enough to imagine hanging upside down above a sandy floor, without adding a cantering animal to the mix.

There are several intangibles.  Alongside the flexing muscles, the stunning physiques, the CGI conjuring exotic locales, or the pond through which creatures run on two or four legs, add a musical score that’s a funny mix that I’d call New Age Quebecois, at times jazzy, at times like an ethnic version of Philip Glass.  I’m not sure if I would demean them to say no expense has been spared, when this might simply be the result of excellent taste and artistry.  The multi-cultural look of the cast –riders, aerialists, acrobats and others—is nicely reflected in a score of many colours & styles, including interludes that hold their own on purely musical terms.

The first hour vanished like that first glass of champagne you drank as a teen, which is to say gone before you realized, leaving you high and giggly.  I did not expect to enjoy myself so much.

The Circus is no longer the scruffy marginal life we recall from long ago.  It’s a classy entertainment approaching art, aspiring to something magnificent.  You’ll never know if you don’t go.  

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5 Responses to #OdysseoTO: the Golden Age of The Circus

  1. ” in a liminal space between city & lake, sky and water, as if we were on the edge of the world.”

    You mean that parking lot between the cement factory and the disused silos I can see from my apartment window?

  2. barczablog says:

    Aha another context… From the highway, the tents suggest magic to those in their cars, from squeegie land below, they’re unreachable. Maybe you should venture down and have a look? For me this has always been one of the more interesting parts of town since i was young, but of course everyone’s different.

    • I walk or cycle past it several times per week. It is interesting though static in a way the lands to the west and northeast of it aren’t. I’ve been documenting the changes along the waterfront for all of the 16 years we have lived down here.

  3. Pingback: #Odysseo in Mississauga: Celebrating what it is to be Canadian | barczablog

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