Cerqua Rivera + Ensemble Español at the Auditorium: a compelling night of Spanish and Latin American culture through dance

Two companies: one rooted in Spanish tradition and movement, the other in Latin melody and American contemporary work. Two vibrant stories: of history, heritage and how these concepts resonate today. One compelling night of dance.

In a dynamic split-bill performance that received two standing ovations Friday, Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre (CRDT) and Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater captivated a robust Auditorium Theatre audience with an investigation and celebration of immigration and the cultures who have established homes in the United States. 

The evening opened to an image of Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre dancers under dim light, artfully huddled around a violinist and flutist with a simple photo of an island village projected onto the backdrop.  The musicians began playing, and CRDT immediately drew the audience’s interest as the huddle went through a series of simple, sharp gestures to the beats and drops of the Latin music—shoulder pops, shifting levels and head turns amplified by the unity of the group and the intense expressions of the dancers. The dancers proceeded to burst out and peel away from the huddle, highlighting the musicians for a moment before bursting into the rigorous phrase work that would continue throughout the duration of the piece. 

“American Catracho,” the culmination of three years of research and exploration, relied on the dynamic collaboration between choreographer Wilfredo Rivera and composer Joe Cerqua that is integral to the company’s work to investigate immigration to the United States. Rooted in Rivera’s own experiences as someone born in Honduras, the piece transported the audience through time, from the memories of his own and others’ immigration toward Rivera’s hopes for the future of the American dream. Each song ushered in a new tone, each one a vignette illustrating themes of displacement, journey, assimilation, revitalization and hope. 

The significance of these vignettes were strengthened by the use of strong unison, with large groups executing with intensity Rivera’s blend of sharp, gestural movements and full-bodied, athletic phrases—often juxtaposing solos and duets happening at the same time.  

The piece culminated in a final ensemble celebration, with the powerful and jubilant movement of the cast the perfect transition into Ensemble Español’s program. Ensemble Español celebrated the life and legacy of founder Dame Libby Komaiko (who passed away earlier this year) with a mixed repertoire including one premiere, other more recent more recent works and a piece dating back to 1983.

The pieces brought a blend of classical Spanish dance and flamenco with contemporary flamenco, with the ferocity of the performer’s expressions and the rhythms of the flying footwork and live accompaniment keeping the audience engaged and excited as the entire evening neared two-and-a-half hours long.

Each work used stunning imagery to infuse the stage with drama and energy, sharing with the audience the elation of experiencing the Spanish artform and what the movement means for the American dancers innovating the techniques. In the opening work choreographed by Komaiko, the company swirled in a circle on stage, jumping seemingly six feet in the air while playing castanets in perfect rhythm. In another work, the men of the company walked into stark lighting to give a sharp performance to the dramatic “Requiem for a Tower” by Escala. In yet another, Claudia Pizarro was alone on stage except for the live musicians, her large red dress gathered into her arms, ruffles overflowing, to reveal the furious footwork battling and sharing in the fierce rhythms of the music. 

As Ensemble Español rounded out the night with the full company and group of musicians onstage, basked in bright music, colorful lighting and celebratory movement, the communal energy of the evening shone through. This one-night-only performance brought two very different companies together to share a similar stage presence and a blend of cultures—while fusing a preservation of heritage, social statement and a pure love of dance in one night. If I could, I would see Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre and Ensemble Español perform this program again in a heartbeat.