With 63 horses and an international cast of 47 equestrians, acrobats, and musicians, “Odysseo,” Cavalia’s new theatrical spectacular being performed in Somerville, is a tribute to the partnership between horse and human over centuries and across cultures. One of the two-legged stars of the show is Elise Verdoncq, who performs the finale’s advanced dressage solo and works with up to 10 free-ranging horses at one time in the “liberty” routine. She turned down a career as an attorney to join Cavalia 4½ years ago for its first show and now is a vital component of the company’s new production.
Q. You started riding in France at age 6. Did you have your own horse?
A. No, my family didn’t have enough money. My parents paid for some lessons, but it was expensive, so I started to clean stables in exchange for riding. I always enjoyed riding. It was like I can be free and be in nature.
Q. When did you get serious about dressage, which demands extraordinary discipline and control?
A. About 16, I met a girl who had horses and was looking for people to help with the training and care. We were a bunch of young riders helping her build a farm, and she was giving some lessons for free, so I started to really get into dressage.
Q. Your dressage routine on Omerio looks effortless but is quite complicated, involving very subtle cues by the rider. Is the routine tightly choreographed?
A. No, I can do different things all the time. That’s good for the horse. I can feel him and do what he feels like doing in the moment, which is awesome. This horse is trained to answer all my body weight movements, and leg and rein pressure. I basically don’t move a lot, and he knows where I want to go. What I have to do is so light, some people think it’s easy, but I don’t have much room for mistakes. Sometimes I don’t even think about what I’m doing, we’re just doing it together.
Q. Can you talk about the importance of mutual respect and trust between horse and rider?
A. The horse has to trust me. I’m taking him to some place that might be scary for him with the music, the lights, the audience, the water — everything is not natural for him. He knows if I’m asking him to do it, it’s safe.
Q. You used to do vaulting, a kind of dancing standing on the horse’s rump, but not any more? And no trick riding?
A. [Laughs.] I leave that to the young people. I like the dressage. You have to be one with the horse rather than to just do crazy things.
Q. In one of the most touching sections, you’re on foot using only your voice and body language to put a herd of Arabians through various paces and patterns. Precision is not the goal, is it?
A. Sometimes they are biting and kicking each other to play, and sometimes they don’t want to listen to me, but that’s part of the game. We don’t want them to be machines, that we hit the play button and they just do it. If it’s not perfect, that’s OK. We just wait. And the audience kind of prefers not perfect. Then when they come in line, they get a big reaction.
Q. What’s the most challenging part of the show?
A. The “liberty” with 32 horses free onstage. We are mixing stallions with geldings, and each of us runs with four horses behind us, and sometimes they break ranks. If it’s one or two, it’s fine, but it could get very chaotic.
Q. What’s a typical show day like for you?
A. I’m at the stables from 9 in the morning until the end of the show at night. I work with Omerio every day, spend a lot of time with the liberty horses, building relationships. It’s different every day because the horses are always giving me feedback. That keeps it fresh.
Q. What made you decide to pursue a role in Cavalia rather than a career as an attorney?
A. I was looking for a job when I heard they were looking for people to ride in Cavalia. I was thinking maybe just do it for one year, just to do something else. But I just get so much out of this. I think it’s the dream job of a lot of people.
Q. How long do you see doing this?
A. As long as I can. I don’t think I’ll ever be a lawyer.This interview was edited, condensed and partly paraphrased to allow for language differences. Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.