The last time Olissio Zoppe was in Montana, he was a child and on a horse. That’s a common experience for visitors, but Zoppe’s horse ride was a tad more involved than your typical half-day trail ride clip-clop.
“I don’t think I’ve performed in Montana since the early ‘80s. We were with the circus that was touring through there,” Zoppe said in an interview from the East Coast. “I was 7 years old, and I was in my family’s bareback riding act.”
Zoppe’s familial history with circus work goes back 200 years, and he’s coming back to Montana, specifically the Flathead, with a show that honors those deep personal roots while also presenting a contemporary circus idea.
Cirque Ma’Ceo, an acrobatic show full of horses and equestrian skills, will run at the Majestic Valley Arena Aug. 9-11. Zoppe, the show’s owner and creative director, said the show is like if Cirque du Soleil had an equine slant.
The show, from Cavallo Equestrian Arts, features many types of traditional riding cultures and brings them to the stage. Performers will use Cossack trick riding, Roman riding, dressage, and bareback skills during the show, set to traditional Spanish Gypsy music. There are also aerial silks and stunts to go along with nine breeds of horses shown throughout the performance, including quarter horses and Friesians.
One of those horses is the rare and endangered French draft horse, the Boulonnais, also known as “the marble horse of France.” There are fewer than 1,000 left in the world, and the stallion in the show is one of only 52 approved breeding Boulonnais stallions left.
“If you’re a horse lover, you really get a chance to see a parade of breeds,” Zoppe said.
It’s this type of detail that Zoppe thrives on. His love of the circus actually flows through his veins — he’s an eighth-generation Italian circus performer on his father’s side, and ninth generation of the same on his mother’s side. Circus acts, especially those with horses, are his family’s lifework.
Growing up, he performed with his immediate family in their bareback riding act, and absorbed the circus troupe mentality that everyone performing under the tent was a type of family as well. This translated to his work as an adult and in building Cirque Ma’Ceo.
It started when he got to take part in an unofficial Cirque du Soleil production and watch from behind the scenes as it came to life.
“I witnessed this whole creative process, this contemporary circus creation,” Zoppe said. “It enlightened me and changed my whole idea on performing arts and circus arts and horse arts. I took my traditional background and added contemporary aspects.”
When it all came together, Zoppe was pleased not only with the visual effect, but also with the troupe feeling generated among the performers.
“The show is so original, it’s so different, it just has this organic feel — it’s very rooted but it’s full of surprises and it has this very artistic perspective,” Zoppe said. “We have a lot of artists from the biggest productions in the world that perform with us. It’s a very international cast. It’s a great group of people — it’s a troupe, it’s a family.”
He used to be the main acrobat in the show, but he’s now focused more on directing. There isn’t a ringmaster, but it is a seamless blend of acts that allow for little downtime for the audience in the 90-minute performance.
The troupe loves to connect with the audience, and Zoppe said speaking with folks after the shows has been one of the highlights.
“We thrive off of making the audience happy and the applause and the reaction,” Zoppe said. “Just the enjoyment, excitement — it’s an experience that they’re not going to forget, they’re going to take home with them.”
As for coming back to Montana, where horses are a huge part of the culture, Zoppe said he’s thrilled to perform for such a knowledgeable crowd.
“I’m so excited about it; I love Montana,” Zoppe said. “I think it’s going to be a great fit.”
For more information, visit www.cirquemaceo.com.