Preview | O Saci: A Magical Tale

A multicultural music-and-dance show for kids crosses the pond, tapping local talent.

Photograph: Ken Wilson-Max
WAIT A SEC Daniel Mutlow, left, as Mauro, with Naomi Reynolds as Cai the Water Sprite in O Saci at Iris Theater at St. Paul's, Covent Garden, London (2009)

It’s 6pm in Vienna, where Alexander Medem sits in his apartment near the Austrian city’s center. The 30-year-old director-choreographer of O Saci: A Magical Tale, [node:15036915 link=which makes its U.S. debut on Friday 9;], describes the sun-bathed courtyard outside his window. Having heard about Chicago winters, he asks if it’s gotten frosty here yet. I tell him to expect nothing less.

Based on a Brazilian folktale of the same name, O Saci follows the Hobbit-like Mauro, who lands in North America after a playful trick goes wrong, and a water sprite, Cai, who joins in his adventures. Despite their differences, the two learn to work together in order to survive. Dancers who play the pair perform in front of projected stop-motion animation that “narrates” the all-ages story in images. “The lessons are timeless,” Medem tells me by phone. “It’s about the value of friendship and tolerance.”

O Saci, which premiered in London in 2009, was conceived as a contemporary music piece for kids; it opened in conjunction with Medem’s production of Maurice Ravel’s one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (1925). Medem, who’s of Peruvian and German descent, was inspired by Brazilian culture and had just met show composer Miguel Kertsman, who’s Brazilian-American.

“The beauty of it is in our collaboration,” says Kertsman, who divides his time mostly between Vienna and Chicago. (When here, he teaches at Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy in the Loop.)

The two worked to create a world onstage that celebrates traditions from around the globe. In a new scene added for the Chicago production, Cai tries to teach Mauro how to dance on ice; what begins as a traditional Austrian waltz becomes a bossa nova as its rhythms change. Local chamber music group Ondas Ensemble will accompany the Chicago shows.

Similarly, Medem’s choreography includes movement taken from capoeira, a graceful martial art from Brazil; ciranda, a celebratory group dance performed in a circle; and traditional children’s games such as hide-and-seek and hopscotch. “It’s a fairy tale, so the dancers have to express a non-naturalistic landscape in a highly energetic and playful way,” Medem says. “But I also want beauty and elegance in every movement.”

Enid Smith, an Evanston-based dancer, dance teacher and choreographer, is one of four local movement artists tapped for Chicago’s O Saci. Dance theater for children strays from her typical repertoire, [node:14903139 link=contemporary dance influenced by her studies with Merce Cunningham;]. “In a children’s show, you’re literally telling a story through dance,” she says. “The exaggerated movements, almost pantomime, can feel a little silly at first, but when kids get it, it’s nice to realize that simple ideas can be so effective. Especially compared to contemporary dance, where things often become so intellectualized.” Smith came to the project through the Musical Offering, an Evanston school where Kertsman workshopped O Saci last year. The cast also includes former [node:165343 link=Hubbard Street Dance Chicago member Benjamin Wardell;].

Smith pitches the show as an alternative to a Goliath of holiday dance. “The Nutcracker can be a little lofty. It’s an expensive ticket,” she says. “O Saci is a free, 45-minute, multicultural performance in a park” (indoors, Medem will be relieved to hear). “I think introducing kids to dance in shorter, more attainable ways is a really great thing.”


O Saci: A Magical Tale warms up Indian Boundary Park Friday 9 through Sunday 11.

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