At one point during the high-tech performance, the stage floods with water creating a makeshift lake.
If you drive past National Harbor in the next couple of weeks, you might notice three peaks of a large white tent. That's the site of a show called Odysseo by the circus group Cavalia, which marries equestrian and performance art with high-tech multimedia and special effects.
Odysseo is the world's largest touring big top, with a stage that, at 17,500 square feet, is larger than the average hockey rink. But that space is necessary to house the 49 artists and 64 horses in the travelling show.
Cavalia's Founder and Artistic Director Normand Latourelle was a pioneering member of Cirque du Soleil — the world-renowned circus arts entertainment company. He says he wanted to challenge himself and create something audiences hadn't seen before.
"As much as we did reinvent the circus when we created Cirque Du Soleil, bringing animals to a show, I knew it was going to be very different and this is how I came up with the idea of doing acrobatic, multimedia, a lot of special effects and spectacular horses," he says.
Bringing together man and horse
Odysseo explores the age-old relationship between man and horse as it takes audiences on a trip around the world and through the four seasons.
"We bring nature to stage, so the audience is going to witness real nature," Latourelle says. "A real forest, a real mountain on stage, and a real lake that is filling with 80,000 gallons of water in one minute thirty."
Latourelle says the history of the horse and humanity is the same.
"We always been with horses," he says. "It's only the last 100 years where we all replace the horses with horsepower. But horses have been next to man for 5,000 years."
Elise Verdoncq has been riding since she was six years old. The only solo performer in Odysseo, her connection with her four-legged cast mates becomes clear in a scene called Liberty. Facing a perimeter or life-like trees and an Easter Island-inspired background, Verdoncq sits on her knees, bathed in a pool of purple light as nearly a dozen Arabians enter from stage right. In this tranquil scene, the horses walk and trot freely in a circle around the blonde beauty. Occasionally a horse will break off from the group or a pair will stop to nuzzle one another. It's not perfect, but Verdoncq says that's part of the fun.
"Sometimes they just don't want to listen or they just, 'Okay, today I'm in a mood of running around and just play'," she says. "You cannot be bored because every day is different."
Learning relationship goes both ways
In the show, acrobat Lucas Mendonca jumps and flips across the stage on fiberglass stilts. He isn't a rider, but says he's learned a lot from the horses.
"You learn that they're just like us," he says, "because they have their own thoughts. They do kind of whatever they feel like and you've got to remember they're much stronger than us so if they want to do something they're going to do what they want."
In fact, the horses are so important to the show that everybody who works on Odysseo has to sign a contract promising to put the horses' needs first.
"Whatever we do when we work, when we move, when we do a show, the health and the good spirit of the horse is the most important thing," Latourelle says.
The equine performers also enjoy socializing with their buddies and receiving daily massages.
Odysseo will be on stage under the Big White Top at National Harbor through Oct. 27.