Ensemble Español is touted as “the premiere Spanish dance company and center in the U.S.” A title like that is a lot to live up to; fortunately, they’ve got a rich history of performance to back it up.
Case in point, Ensemble Español celebrates their forty-seventh anniversary with “Flamenco Passion 2023,” their annual festival that hosts over forty classes taught by world-renowned dancers and musicians and performances featuring the award-winning ensemble and some of the brightest stars of Spanish dance. From June 16-24, the public is invited to take part in learning and experiencing everything wonderful about traditional and contemporary Flamenco and classical and folkloric Spanish dance styles.
See Chicago Dance sat down with Executive and Associate Artistic Director Jorge Perez, who started as a company dancer thirty-seven years ago under the direction of Founder Dame Libby Komaiko. We held Jorge’s feet to fire, and asked “What makes the company ‘the premiere Spanish dance company and center in the U.S.?’” Visibly swelling up with pride, Perez answered without missing a beat.
“Outside of the National Ballet of Spain, it looks like we are it in presenting, preserving and promoting all styles of Spanish dance,” said Perez,” “which are the Escuela Bolera, ballet español, the classical dances, the folkloric dances and the flamenco dances both in traditional and contemporary genres. There are a lot of flamenco companies in the United States and the entire world, but we’ve not found any that preserve and present all the styles that we do and are in residence and partnership with a university.”
With a repertoire of over 135 dances created by more than ninety artists, roughly two-thousand costume pieces designed especially for the company and endorsement by both President Barack Obama in 2011 and in 1983 by the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, they’ve certainly got the chops to back up their press.
The festival kicks off with three performances on Father’s Day weekend, Friday and Saturday from 7:30-9:30pm, and a matinee on Sunday at 3pm at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The event features work from guest artists from Spain: Isaac Tovar, Irene “La Chiqui” Lozano, La Lupi, Juanjo Linares, Raquel Gomez, Cristian Lozano, Paloma Gomez, to name a few. Some of the guest artists stick around to teach forty-four classes from Monday-Saturday at the dance studios of Northeastern Illinois University, geared towards dancers of all levels of skill and some with live music accompaniment. There are even guitar lessons taught by Paco Fonta and lessons in cante (singing) by Jose Moreno, adding variety to the lineup.
“Once a year,” said Perez, “we bring Spain here to the community, and we have students coming from all across the country to come study with these amazing, top-notch artists.”
See Chicago Dance was allowed to attend a preview of a new work by guest artist Isaac Tovar, titled “Amangue,” a world premiere set to the music of composer and guitarist Curro de Maria. Tovar is a giant in the Spanish dance world, having spent time as a principal dancer and soloist with some of the most well-known Spanish dance companies in the world, like the National Ballet of Spain, Flamenco Vivo (New York) and Flamenco Roots (Switzerland).
“The concept of the choreography and the name of it has to do with the participation of all the dancers and musicians performing the piece,” said Tovar in an interview. “Amangue means us in the language of Caló, which is a Gypsy language.”
The work courses through different vignettes of life. Dancers march in soldier-like stark formations, stomping out polyrhythmic foot percussion. The finale of the twelve-minute piece is a firestorm of rhythm, accents and pure flamenco technique (I couldn’t help but emit a “wow” when they finished, eliciting a few chuckles from the dancers). Moments of delicacy and joy abound, too, as in a breakout section like a good-natured dance jam at a party in a town square on a hot summer day in Seville, Spain.
“All of a sudden they break out into a jam!” exclaims Tovar. “Same with the ending; just when you think it is over, there is more to come. Then you’ll see the explosion and the strength of force with the rhythm, lighting design, costumes…” The suggestion from the creative team at Ensemble Español suggested to Tovar to make the work “theatrical,” and to that degree he did not disappoint!
Tovar not only choreographs for the company, but performs as well in two solos of his own composition: “La Vida Breve/The Brief Life” (2022) and the Chicago premiere of “Desde Cai” (2019) danced in the Alegrias style. Other performances include “Mediterraneo” and “Donde Todo Comienza” by guest artist Irene “La Chiqui” Lozano.
Also scheduled are popular repertoire from Ensemble Español. “Rendicion / Rendition” (2013), is a flamenco contemporary company work by Ensemble Español Artistic Director Irma Suarez Ruiz, performed to the music of David Peña Dorantes. “Sur / South” (2015) is a full company ballet in the Escuela Bolera-Flamenco contemporary style by Raquel Gomez, former principal of the National Ballet of Spain, with music by David Peña Dorantes and percussionist Javier Saume-Mazzei. “Pasos Largos / Long Steps” (2022) by “award-winning Flamenco phenom” (Chicago Tribune) La Lupi, is set to the music of composer and guitarist, Curro de Maria in the Flamenco Caña style. “Fantasia Regional” (2010) is a Folklore Suite (four excerpts from the provinces of Valencia, Extremeno, Galicia) with choreography by Folklorist expert Juanjo Linares, Ensemble Español founder Dame Libby Komaiko, and former principals of the National Ballet of Spain, Paloma Gomez and Cristian Lozano, performed by Ensemble Español Company dancers and members of the Youth Company. Wendy Clinard, Founder and Artistic Director of Chicago-based Clinard Dance choreographed “Tangos De Granada” (2021).
Ensemble Español dancers are treated like rock stars, performing to standing ovations in China, Poland, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain and across the U.S. But for this upcoming weekend they unequivocally belong to Chicago, bringing the joys and delights of Andalusia to the city and surrounding communities in an event like none other.
Performances for “Flamenco Passion 2023” run June 16-18 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie. Spanish dance classes will run from June 19-24 at Northeastern Illinois University, 5500 N Saint Louis Ave, in the J-Building and Fine Arts Dance Studios. For info on class registration and tickets for performances, please check out the event listing below or visit ensembleflamencopassion.org.