Ensemble Español’s “Flamenco Passion 2023” lit up the stage of Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts this past weekend, July 16-18, with precision rhythms, full-body flair, and the vibrant colors and sounds of Spain.
Into the mix was a blend of American jazz, blues, and popular music with movement to match, inspiring choreographic forays into a hybrid of flamenco, contemporary, ballet, jazz and modern dance genres that might by dubbed “flamenco re-imagined.”
Subtitled “American Spanish Dance and Music Festival,” the concert featured three guest musicians and two renowned guest dancers from Spain, along with the Ensemble’s Chicago-based company of fifteen, including three apprentices, and three youth company dancers.
The syncopated castanet rhythms of Raquel Gomez’s full company “Sur” (2015) opened act one with a lively folk ballet whose origins date back to the 18th century, in the style of Escuela Bolera. It was danced in character shoes and performed to David Dorantes’ modern Flamenco musical composition, a blend of jazz piano, with Spanish guitar rhythms. Gomez’s yellow, ochre and black costume design added to the spirit of celebration. Fast-paced sautés, soutenue turns, and glissades combined with classic Spanish dance gestures and percussive focus shifts. Chechetti arms partnered with Latin “attitude.” Dustin L. Derry’s lighting design of three triangular spots punctuated the “so there!” effect of repeated stop-action poses. The piece seemed to be making a major statement by bringing the Flamenco idiom “up to date” with 21st century cultural norms. However admirable the concept, the risk of hybrid work is a hodgepodge that has not yet melded into a wholistic form of its own.
Guest artist Isaac Tovar’s solo dancing of his own choreography in “La Vida Breva” (2022) suffered a bit of the same quandary. Set to the unequivocally classic Spanish orchestral music of Manuel DeFalla, the classical flair of Tovar’s castanets, and his complex, “Flamenco-ish" footwork competed with balletic passé-relevés, dévelopés and sautés. A saucy little turned-in side kick added a folksy accent to the entré. Tovar’s upper body carriage felt a bit braced in this piece, but his introductory number, if slightly disjointed choreographically, presented an infectious vitality and a joyful performance personality.
“Fantasia Suite Regional” is a tribute to Juanjo Linares, who created twenty-five works for the full company between 1984 and 2000. Linares, who died in 2009, was Spain’s foremost authority on folklore. In program notes we learn that Ensemble Español “honors his legacy by presenting excerpts from the regions of Galicia, Extremadura, and Valencia.” This sunny folk dance suite delighted with colorful historic costuming, and charming pageantry reminiscent of medieval and baroque dance.
Guest artist Irene “La Chiqui” Lozano’s embodiment of costume designer Enrique Vicent’s traditional Flamenco style dress brought the sphinx to life. The checkerboard motif and a ruffled train seemed to have a mind of its own in Lozano’s world premiere solo, “Mediterraneo (Alegrias).” Her finger articulations alone were enough to mesmerize with fabulous hands that spoke of the past, longing, elation and passion. The rest of her amazingly pliable being gave us more though, with back bends into dark pools of anguish, and torso nuances of exquisite pain, joy, and sensuality. Emotionally nuanced with body slaps, sharply accented gestures, and floating arms, her riveting presence electrified the stage with her Flamenco footwork, all to the live music of on-stage guest musicians, Curro de Maria, guitar, Paco Fonta, Flamenco singer and guitar, and José Moreno, singer, guitar and percussion.
Closing Act I, the sound of rain and thunder, with strobe “lightning” preceded Artistic Director Irma Suarez Ruiz’s full company “Rendición” (2013). David Peña Dorante’s recorded score set a lyrical mood with strings accompanying a love duet, then morphed into a Spanish version of jazz with Flamenco heel rhythms. Here, Suarez accomplished an integrated blend of traditional Flamenco dance and modern idioms.
Act II opened with a full company work, “Pasos Largos,” (2022) by guest artist La Lupi, to music by Curro de Maria. Both men and women sported sparkly black boleros and pants, topped with a Toulouse Lautrec-style black fedora, which doubled as a highly effective prop. This snappy number oozed with attitude, reminiscent of the opening number to the musical, “A Chorus Line.” The Flamenco footwork and complex rhythmic syncopations of the ensemble made a stunning auditory and visual impact.
“La Chiqui” returned in Act II for another stellar solo turn on stage, performing her own “Donde Todo Comienza,” (2022) followed in swift succession by a traditional Flamenco full ensemble work by Wendy Clinard, “Tangos De Granada” (2021).
Isaac Tovar’s Chicago premiere of his solo work, “Desde Chai (Alegrias)” (2019), wowed the audience with his versatility and technical virtuosity. Tovar’s joyous marathon of non-stop energy brought down the house with his superb Flamenco technique, a boyish delight in rhythmic invention, and indefatigable enthusiasm for dance, for the audience, and for life itself. What a treat!
Tovar’s full company finale, “Amangue (Bulerias) (2023), to live music by Curro de Maria, was a showcase for the company, giving individual dancers a solo turn to showcase personal style and virtuosity. The diverse range of talent across the company is testimony to company directors Peres and Suarez Ruiz’s sensitive nurturing of each and every dancer’s unique attributes. This culminates in an ensemble where its many parts are just as great as the sum of the whole.
We are so very fortunate to have Ensemble Español in residence in Chicago, preserving and expanding on the unique traditions of Spanish dance and pioneering a future for Spanish dance that aims to capture the hearts and minds of the next generation of audience members through their formal concerts, outreach educational programming, and school, housed in their home at Northeastern Illinois University. Bravo!
Note: The Festival will continue June 19-24 at the company’s home studios at Northeastern Illinois University with their guest artists and musicians conducting classes in all styles of Spanish dance. For further information, go to SeeChicagoDance.com, and click on “Calendar Events.”
Want to know more? Check out this interview with Ensemble Español’s Executive Director, Jorge Perez, to learn more about the festival, the company’s mission and their process towards the creation of new work by leading Spanish choreographers. Read about it here.