Art & Culture

Laterna Magika Dances through the Generations

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Wonderful Circus is Czech dance in a time capsule

Two clowns bumble onto the New Stage of the National Theatre. Suddenly, a magician appears and summons a vision of Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, enticing the innocent clowns with her beauty. What follows is a journey through forests, circus tents and across oceans.

The production is Wonderful Circus, produced by the historic Laterna magika. The contemporary dance show has the record for the theatre’s longest running title with 6,300 performances. First premiering in 1977, Wonderful Circus is a multimedia tale of people’s futile quest for the unachievable and has weathered the times, staying true to its original production.

“It’s like going to a museum,” says Alexandr Sadirov, who plays the magician/seducer in the story. “You still have a chance to see the same performance from 40 years ago.”

Like all of Laterna magika’s productions, Wonderful Circus incorporates multimedia film projections as its backdrop and scenery, wanting to blur the lines between reality and illusion. These elements are used in a way that enhances and drives the story.

“The projection is really your dance partner,” Sadirov says.

The projections used in Wonderful Circus are the originals from the 1977 show, adding that much more of a vintage touch. It tells the story of two clowns, stand-ins for the audience, who pursue the Venus, a metaphor for an unattainable ideal. While the clowns are able to periodically possess the Venus, she is forever elusive to them.

The production blends a variety of genres, from vaudeville to ballet to modern dance. With several generations of performances, the show has featured more than 100 dancers. Sadirov is the 25th to play the role of the seducer.

Luckily, he got lots of guidance from the previous generations of dancers, many of whom are still involved with Laterna magika. Some of them are in their 70s and 80s, but they still love to collaborate with the younger cast in order to stay true to the original vision of Josef Svoboda, the show’s co-creator and cofounder of Laterna magika.

“I really appreciate that I got to meet Pavel Veselý [the original seducer] before his death,” Sadirov says. The friendship between the generations of dancers is what makes this dance company so special to him.

As the youngest performer in the role, Sadirov focused on trying to channel a more mature energy while still leaving room for his own interpretation. Veselý and Josef Kotěšovský, who originated the role of the happy clown, both gave Sadirov good feedback.

While performing at 40th anniversary show, he remembers being nervous since many of the original dancers were in the audience. “It was a very intense, exciting and pleasurable feeling,” he says.

Wonderful Circus is not the only historic aspect of Laterna magika. The company’s signature style made its first appearance in 1958 at the World Fair in Brussels. Thanks to funding by the Czech Ministry of Culture, stage director Alfréd Radok and set designer Svoboda were able to afford the impressive film projections that have become a signature of Czech theatre ever since.

Its debut was so popular, Radok and Svoboda developed Laterna magika within a year. The unique mixture of Western and Eastern dance schools earned the company a unique spot in the performance community. They even had two dance companies tour abroad, something usually restricted under the Communist regime.

When Radok emigrated due to political problems, Svoboda took over the company. When the Velvet Revolution began to gain traction, Laterna magika served as a logistical center and headquarters for Civic Forum, the opposition group led by dissident playwright and activist Vaclav Havel.

While the current production team and dancers under the leadership of the dancer and costume designer Pavel Knolle, strive to keep Radok and Svoboda’s artistic vision alive, the lasting legacy of Wonderful Circus is somewhat of a surprise. When it first premiered, many believed it wouldn’t last more than two years. Over time, the show proved easy to renew.

For Sadirov, he enjoys the reactions from the audience, many of whom are international and children. The New Stage provides an intimate setting, placing the theatregoers in close proximity to the performers, allowing them to immerse themselves.

“That is the point. The reality and the illusion is forgotten and you can’t remember if its real or your imagination. Laterna magika has rich history and still its own identity. It is unique connection between traditions and experiments,” Sadirov says. “That’s what’s so special about Laterna magika.”

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