SOMERVILLE — James Richardson is ushering a visitor around a noisy construction site on the Mystic River here. Workers in hard hats interrupt him frequently, speaking rapidly in French. A crew unloads steel rigging, and Bobcats rumble by. But Richardson, a lean man with piercing slate blue eyes, is nonplussed by the commotion. He stops suddenly and says, “We are standing at the base of the mountain.”
But there’s nothing here, just flat, muddy ground.
Richardson points to an enormous pile of dirt in the distance. “That’s the sand that will make the mountain.”
It takes a leap of faith to imagine a mountain on this barren stretch of land adjacent to the city’s Assembly Row development project, once the site of a proposed IKEA superstore until the deal fell through. But just three days later, back at the site, Richardson gleefully shows off this work in progress. The sand is now a three-story mountain. The shell of what is touted as the world’s largest touring big top is in place, with an enormous grid hanging from its ceiling. Bleachers for 2,000 spectators are set up.
After 12 days of round-the-clock work, this scene is being transformed into the set of “Odysseo,” a spectacle that blends equestrian arts and acrobatics. It begins its New England premiere here on Wednesday.
As the show’s technical director, Richardson, 31, juggles a myriad of tasks, from making sure the air-conditioned stables are ready for the show’s equine stars to ensuring that the valves work for the 80,000-gallon lake that floods the stage in the finale. He supervises 80 to 100 fly-in employees who come from Cavalia, the show’s production company in Montreal, as well as 200 temporary local workers. He works nonstop and has the calluses on his hands to prove it.
And then there’s the sand. Horses climb up and down the mountain, which requires a particular mix of materials to carry the horses’ weight. “I have learned more about sand than anyone should ever know,” says Richardson, a 2003 graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada. Did he study sand? “Absolutely not,’’ he says, emphatically. “I learned proper theater work. Theaters are clear and simple. This is like an outdoor festival.”
It’s an understatement to say that the $35 million show is huge. “We do things that don’t make sense financially,’’ he says. “No one is here to make a million dollars. We do it, we say, for the love of the horses.” With its mix of 63 horses and 47 human performers, plus a projection backdrop three times the size of an IMAX screen and a full-size carousel that descends from the ceiling like something out of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the show defies categorization. Richardson describes it as heavy on the “ooh and gasp” factor.
And that is precisely what creator and artistic director Normand Latourelle, a cofounder of Cirque du Soleil, envisioned. After he left Cirque, Latourelle produced a summer spectacle in Quebec called “Legendes Fantastiques,” which was set in a pastoral 19th-century village. It featured one horse, which stole the show.
“The director said ‘Get rid of the horse,’ and I said, ‘I want more horses,’ ’’ he recalls. “I was not a horse person. I didn’t know anything about them.’’ But he immersed himself in the equestrian world, and in 2003, he launched “Cavalia,” a smaller show featuring horses and humans that played Boston in 2005 and continues to tour.
One night about eight years ago, he and Richardson and other members of the creative team brainstormed after a performance of “Cavalia.” With a mop of unruly curls and a wardrobe of well-worn denim and Converse low-top sneakers, Latourelle, 57, does not dress the part of the impresario. But he talks like one. He imagined a show that was bigger, bolder, beyond compare. He drew his plan — including the mountain, the lake, and a lifelike forest — on a tiny scrap of paper. That design, almost exactly as originally conceived, came to fruition in October 2011, when “Odysseo” opened outside of Montreal.
Unlike many folks who work on “Odysseo,” Latourelle does not ride horses. So what’s the attraction? “A horse is very powerful, very big, very noble, but he is not a predator,’’ he says. “He is not looking for a fight. He is looking for peace.”
“Odysseo,” Latourelle insists, is not simply about the “wow” factor of the stunts and technology. Instead, it represents a journey of horses and humans co-inhabiting the natural world. “The ‘ta-dum’ goes to the horses, not the trainer,’’ he says. “During the first rehearsals, we had a team of acrobats, and five or six of them quit,’’ he says. “They didn’t feel they could be a part of that world.”
In fact, the animals are the stars of the show. When it travels abroad, the horses fly on their own private plane. They live in air-conditioned stables and have a team of 20 grooms, a vet tech, and a nutritionist to manage their various diets. They vacation at a farm in Sutton, Quebec, bordering Vermont. The US Department of Agriculture inspects the horses when the company enters the country. And while the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals opposes circuses that use wild animals like lions and tigers, it does not object to the way the troupe treats its horses, “In general, people feel pretty good about this particular company,’’ says Rob Halpin, director of public relations for the MSPCA. “They have that wonderful farm, and they have a really good reputation. Horses are domesticated animals, and it is much easier to meet their needs than to meet the needs of a wild animal like a zebra or an elephant.”
The team has a very particular philosophy when it comes to training. Equestrian director Benjamin Aillaud says he sets a peaceful tone. No humans are allowed to bring attitude or anger into the training ring. No whips are used to train the horses, just verbal commands and physical gestures. Spurs are forbidden, and the trainers use soft bits and single bridles. Aillaud casts his horses carefully, through natural instinct. “When I see a horse, I want to understand who he is, so I look in his eyes,’’ Aillaud says. “I try to understand if I am going to be able to trust him.”
Aillaud, 37, has always had an affinity for horses. He grew up on a farm in the Pyrenees, as part of a family of traveling acrobats. At 6, he spent the money he earned performing to buy a horse named Apache. “I spent the first two years just being free, playing, playing, playing.’’
That joyful spirit, Aillaud and others say, defines the essence of “Odysseo.” “As a kid, I had the experience of playing with horses in a field, just being free,’’ he says. “That is ‘Odysseo.’ The show is about a feeling, not a story. It is a bit like if you are in your kitchen and you look through the window and see your kids playing. It’s a little dream for you.”
Rider Elise Verdoncq, who joined the team shortly after receiving her law degree, performs haute ecole dressage, a classical form of riding, but she is also alone onstage with nine or 10 horses at liberty — that is, running completely free without reins. “Horses are kids, and it is so easy for them to play all the time and be crazy onstage,’’ she says. “My job is to be able to make them play together and play with me.”
The horses, though meticulously trained, sometimes follow their whims — and that is OK with the creative team. “Sometimes they don’t want to cooperate,’’ Verdoncq, 27, says. “For the audience, it is better to see they can stay horses and not be machines.’’
There is always a Plan B. The show is not run on a clock, where the cues are automatic. Everything is live. The five-piece band and the technical team follow the horses. If a number takes a few minutes longer because a horse does its own thing, so be it. “We don’t ask the horses to be perfect,” Latourelle says. “Perfection in nature does not exist. They are not perfect, and that is why they are beautiful.”
That also describes the way the parent company, Cavalia, operates. The touring schedule is a bit loose, subject to how the show is received in each city. The Somerville performance was postponed because the show was selling well in Laval, outside of Montreal. That liberal timetable may drive local partners crazy, but it works for the troupe, especially since it takes so long to set up the whole shebang. “We don’t want to leave early,’’ says Richardson. “We want everyone to see it.”
The production team doesn’t focus on the bottom line, either. With a $40 million annual operating budget, the show breaks even, says Latourelle, who describes himself as “a happiness merchant.”
For Latourelle, the quintessential “ooh” moment occurs when four performers fly over the horses, doing acrobatic tricks. “It is almost hypnotic,’’ he says. “You get to a world where you just fly. You’ve heard of Pegasus. Our horses don’t fly. It is the spirit that flies.”