By Sharon Hoyer
Choreographer Ron De Jesus returns to his roots in a collaboration with Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, the company that introduced him to a career he never planned on. Ensemble Español, lead by Dame Libby Komaiko, is the resident company at Northeastern Illinois University, and Chicago’s steward of flamenco dance. De Jesus’ piece, entitled “Mil Clavos” (1,000 Nails), is a fiery, dynamic blend of the modern/contemporary shapes and staging that are now his forte, and the rapid-fire footwork and passionate character of flamenco. De Jesus spoke with me about the creation of the piece and his own personal history.
What were the challenges of interweaving contemporary and flamenco vocabularies?
Well, I hadn’t put on flamenco shoes in, oh…let’s be nice, thirty-five years. I was surprised how much was still there. But the next day my toes were black and blue. Two of my toenails fell off. You’ll see photos of me in rehearsal in socks from then on.
We knew we wanted to bring this piece into another realm; people know the Ensemble as classical flamenco. We wanted to be true to the technique and introduce fresh conceptual approaches. I was working with many different levels of dancers and I was incorporating a new language for them. But that’s true with anyone; if I do something with a ballet company in Germany I still have to find what those instruments offer. You have to dig and find a way to make dancers feel comfortable enough to be themselves.
How did you select the music for the piece?
When I started with the company, I had no dance experience whatever; Libby yanked me out of the neighborhood and put some structure in my life. Her mother is a pianist—and at the time she was on the border of decline. Libby danced a piece, playing castanets like a machine gun, accompanied by her mother; the beauty of that relationship forever stuck in my head. That was the starting point. I wanted piano in the piece.
The opening section we call “New Passage.” For me it was about discovering the seductiveness and masculinity of dance: the drive. So I found a piece of music that included beautiful string overlay and piano undercurrent that created a tension that’s outside the norm.
Is “Mil Clavos” then about your personal entry into the world of dance?
I was a high-school dropout. I met Libby by fluke. The girl I was dating transferred from the Columbia College dance department to Northeastern. She was taking flamenco classes and was incorporated in the company. I would go three times a week just to watch and one day Libby came up to me and asked, “what are you doing with your life?” She suggested I get my GED and get in school. From there I joined the company. Part of my education was to experience auditions and write about them. Lo and behold I got into Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre and from there Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble, which lead me to Ruth Page Foundation, which ultimately led me to Hubbard Street for eighteen years and as a faculty member for twenty-five years. It all started with that little ripple. There is an homage in this piece to her as an individual who gave back; and I see she continues to do that in these communities. I was from the Hispanic Bermuda Triangle—Humboldt Park, Bucktown and Wicker Park—that’s where I grew up. It was a really dangerous area at the time and she really influenced me in her beautiful and organic way; she enlightened me of possibilities of another kind of life. Not a lot of people will take that kind of responsibility; they want something ready to go—all the training and experience under the belt. She was willing to take a chance on raw clay. When you get a book about great cathedrals in Europe, it never describes who did the daily work to build it. That’s what Libby has done, keeping the passion alive.
At the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, (847)673-6300. Friday and Saturday, June 20 & 21 at 7:30pm, Sunday, June 22 at 3pm. $26-$46.