No, those massive white tents you see overlooking the Port Lands from the Gardiner aren’t some spring fever dream. They’re the set for Cavalia’s new show, Odysseo (think Cirque du Soleil, plus 61 horses), which makes its Toronto debut next week. With the show’s equine stars freshly arrived from a three-week “holiday” in Kentucky, we talked with Cavalia’s Equestrian Choreographer Benjamin Aillaud to learn what it takes to pull off carefully-orchestrated stunts with a multitude of four-legged beasts.
Torontoist: How long have you been working with these horses?
Benjamin Aillaud: These horses? Two-and-a-half years.
How long have you been working with horses in general?
B.A.: My whole life. I’m 36, and I bought my first horse at the age of 6. I was in show culture as a kid—not with horses, but more acrobatics, juggling, mime, dance. And with that I got a little money, and I bought my own horse. I was crazy about it. I don’t know why, because my family wasn’t into horses.
I started learning [how to train horses] with a big master, and went into the competition world. Then I started building shows, mixing acrobatic stuff with horses.
What is the most challenging part about working with these particular horses in this show?
B.A.: What is challenging—but also fantastic—with horses is that if you give them the freedom to perform, you will learn very fast if the relationship you have with them is strong or not. Our whole day is about keeping the relationship going, and keeping it interesting for the horses [and for the riders].
If you push too much in training, your horses will not be happy; it will become work. If you don’t [condition their bodies to be] fit enough to be able to do what you ask them, it will be tough and they will not enjoy it. So you have to find the balance between what the horse is able to give you, and how you will be able to keep him interested in the relationship.
The horses just spent a few weeks not working. Was it difficult to get them back to where they were before, pre-holiday?
B.A.: When we first brought [the horses] back from holiday, and brought them onstage, they were crazy about it. It’s amazing. I feel like I need to say, “Hey guys — slow down a bit!” I’m amazed by the way they want to jump on the stage and go, go, go!
For us, it’s about patience. I wake up at four in the morning thinking about what’s going to happen with the horses, and how we’re going to make the relationship better. It’s all about that.