“Zafiro Flamenco” swaps drama and steamy sensuality for celebratory light-heartedness in Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater's first live, in-person concert since COVID-19 restrictions shut down all public performances a year and a half ago. The festival launches the Ensemble’s postponed 45th anniversary season in a hybrid program June 18-20 at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The Saturday night concert will be both live and live-streamed.
Recreating the joyous atmosphere of a market festival in Seville, an outdoor stage in the parking lot behind NSCPA will be surrounded by open-air market stalls, a sangria stand, vendors, restaurants, classrooms for sample classes, refreshment booths and pre-show entertainment from 5 p.m. to curtain time at 7:30 p.m.
The pared-down ensemble of 17 adult dancers, youth company, a vocalist and trio of musicians will present an all-Flamenco program for the first time ever. World premieres by guest artists Wendy Clinard and Nino de los Reyes, plus Flamenco favorites from past company repertory, embody the joy and excitement of bringing the community together again after the long and challenging period of isolation.
“We’ve been taking it day by day,” said executive director Jorge Perez. It was difficult for everyone to face the reality of cancelling last year’s annual performance after 44 consecutive years of the annual Festival of Spanish Dance. Perez and artistic director Irma Ruiz Suàrez persevered, teaching from home with virtual rehearsals, classes, outreach programming and very limited in-person classes at their long-time home, Northeastern Illinois University.
“There are struggles, but we’re warriors,” said Ruiz Suàrez, “because we love what we do. Most important is to follow Libby’s legacy.” Founding director Dame Libby Komaiko, who died in 2019, stressed teamwork. “It takes many of us working together to get the job done,” Ruiz Suàrez said.
“Zafiro Flamenco” is a more intimate program than previous festivals, with capacity limited to 200 seats per performance.
Ensemble Español’s unique role as cultural ambassadors and artist/educators unites a wide-ranging audience from the Latino and Hispano-American communities as well as dance lovers from every corner of Chicago’s diverse population. Their mission is to connect American communities with the culture of Spain. They are the only company in the United States to present all three forms of Spanish music and dance: classical, folkloric and Flamenco.
Ruiz Suàrez wanted to make productive use of their extended performing hiatus to work on Flamenco technique with the company. To that end, she engaged local specialist Wendy Clinard. Clinard’s virtual work with the dancers emphasized one particular form of Flamenco, Tango de Granada. “We worked on a lot of mechanics, subdividing beats and finding gestures,” Clinard said. “We had to slow down the process,” she said, dissecting the mechanics of moving through the joints. Clinard relied on the dancers’ biofeedback, using the images of grabbing a rope, alternating energies of soft and hard, and paying attention to how each movement is weighted. “Do less,” she said, “and collaborate with gravity.”
Clinard’s work, which combines a fusion of Flamenco, theater and modern vocabulary, led gradually to a collaborative creative process with the company. “It was an antidote to the heaviness (of the pandemic),” she said. Clinard asked the dancers to create their own celebratory segments based on the techniques they were learning, and gradually, “little pieces of a bigger jigsaw puzzle” began to coalesce into a piece. “Let’s dance and sing together,” she told the dancers. “You go, now I’ll go,” and before they knew it, two new performance pieces emerged from their work together.
“It’s like a party,” she said, with each of the nine dancers taking turns in solo, duet, trio and full ensemble sequences.
Guest artist Nino de los Reyes, the first-ever dancer to win a Grammy Award, has also set two new, collaborative pieces on the company.
“The working process was very exciting,” he said in a phone call. Initially, Reyes worked with the dancers virtually. “It was a useful tool,” he said, that helped him to meet and get to know the dancers, “but (online) it’s hard to get other people to feel the sensations.”
Reyes had performed in a previous festival as a guest soloist but had never choreographed for the company before. Being back in person for two weeks prior to the concerts “is incredible,” he said. The nicest moments, he said, are “working out the puzzle of creation.” He was impressed by how deeply the dancers value and respect Spanish dance.
The first piece, “Rhythm of the Earth,” has no instruments other than the percussive accents of the dancers’ canes and their singing. “Our bodies and internal rhythms make all of us part of the music. It’s the purest Flamenco tradition,” he said. “There are no boundaries, but first, you must know the tradition.” He incorporates modern, ballet and tap, bringing a lot of freedom to the dancing.
His second piece, “La Fiesta,” comes from the southwest region of Spain. The rhythm is a Baleria, expressive solos in phrasings of six beats. Reyes’ focus is on tradition, but he encouraged the dancers to make it their own. He told them to make it joyful — "the opposite of steamy.”
Ensemble Español’s resilience throughout the pandemic is testimony to the legacy of fierce determination, discipline and inspiration founding artistic director Libby Komaiko continues to exert upon the company. “Zafiro Flamenco” is also dedicated to the memory of Ruiz Suàrez’s father, who passed away during the pandemic. “The festival is the light at the end of the tunnel,” Ruiz Suàrez said. (She and Perez will additionally reprise their duet, “Alegrias,” from 1998.)
“Zafiro Flamenco” celebrates freedom, the joy of dancing together again for live audiences and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. With the open-air pre-show market square festivities, it promises to be an Ensemble Español concert like no other and serves as the preview for the full company’s opener for Auditorium Theatre’s “Made in Chicago Series” on October 16.
Ensemble Espanol's "Zafiro Flamenco" runs Friday through Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. Tickets are $20-$32, available by clicking the event page below.