Treats aplenty in Ensemble Espanol’s ‘Zafiro Flamenco’ at North Shore Center

Kicking off the North Shore Center’s Out Back Summer Series—a street-fest style concert set running through August 7 in the venue’s parking lot—Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theatre returned to live performances last weekend for the first time in over a year with a life-affirming all-Flamenco program. Titled “Zafiro Flamenco,” the concert celebrates Ensemble’s 45th anniversary season.

The rain forced the company inside on Sunday, making for a more conventional, but no less festive, experience. Company leadership (artistic director Irma Suarez Ruiz, executive and associate artistic director Jorge Perez, development manager Kim Grigsby and new board chair Daniel Contreras) warmed up the crowd after a traditional Sevillana and palmas tutorial by the Youth Company.

“Zafiro Flamenco” began in earnest with “Tangos de Granada,” a world premiere by Chicago’s resident Flamenco expert, Wendy Clinard. While EE’s rehearsal home at Northeastern Illinois University was closed during the pandemic, Clinard loaned her studio space to the company and worked to refine their Flamenco technique. It’s not necessary to know the ins and outs of this intricate form to see the difference; Clinard’s is a tenacious, hot-blooded style. She often performs solo and imparted her individuality and deep connection to the music to the nine dancers on stage—music, in this case, by guitarist David Chiriboga, guitarist and singer Paco Fonta, vocalist Patricia Ortega and Jose Moreno, whose unforgettable vocals are made that much more memorable by his extraordinary rhythm-keeping on the cajon. (In fact, I could easily spend the rest of this review on him.)

While Ensemble Espanol excels in all three styles of Spanish dance (classical, folkloric and Flamenco), this focused attention to the third paid off in spades, evident not only in “Tangos de Granada,” which is teeming with a sensuality and self-confidence that exceeded expectations—even for them.

There is, of course, the burst of emotion and energy that inevitably accompanies the return to performance after this long hibernation. Even the oft-performed “Zapateado,” Dame Libby Komaiko’s stiff-backed, a capella tribute to Jose Greco that came after “Granada,” felt particularly tight and inspired. Not to mention, Ensemble Espanol carries a few angels on their backs. It’s just two years since their founder, Komaiko, died. Friend of the company and frequent guest artist Jose Barrios died unexpectedly in 2020—his “Algazara,” celebrating the Flamenco Bulerias style, was part of this program—and the evening was also dedicated to Irma Suarez Ruiz’s father, who died about three month ago.

It is perhaps with these elders in mind that Ruiz and Perez were inclined to return to the stage for a rendition of their 1998 duet “Entre Dos Almas,” last performed 10 years ago on the same stage. Dame Libby’s influence on the pair is crystal clear; Perez, in particular, emulates her iconoclastic style and Ruiz, as elegant as ever, shows she is still one of the best castanetists around, managing a flurry of footwork with a long train. The whole thing ends in a tongue and cheek exhale of exhaustion—the only sign that any time has passed since the last time we saw this piece.

But “Zafiro Flamenco” is as much about the present as the past. A highlight of the exhaustive (nearly 2.5 hours!) program is the introduction of a new guest artist, Nino de los Reyes. Reyes, who hails from Madrid, began the rehearsal process virtually, resulting in two previews scheduled to get their full due at the Auditorium Theatre this fall. “Ritmo de la Tierra” is the more formed of the two: The dancers encircle the musicians, who are moved from their stations at the back of the stage to stand at center-center, using only their voices and the scrapes and stomps of the dancers' Flamenco shoes against the Masonite and, later, incorporating canes striking the floor as a defacto percussion instrument. The whole thing crescendos and accelerates to an inevitable scream—literally. It’s a release of all the tension, stress and heartache of the past year as the whole cast yells into the rafters of the North Shore Center.

The biggest treat of the evening might be Reyes himself, who gives two solos that, like “Ritmo,” develop slowly—it’s all presentational walking and posing at first—then boil over with fervor and fiery feet. But the delectable dessert for this critic was the lot circling up to improvise an encore, organized by Reyes. Welcome back, Ensemble Espanol.