By Sharon Hoyer
One of the great pleasures of living in a major metropolis is easy access to cultural treasures like Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater. Tucked away in their home base at Northeastern Illinois University and founded by Dame Libby Komaiko, the first American artist to receive “Lazo de Dama” from the King of Spain, the ensemble is the keeper of the flame for Spanish performance arts in the American Midwest. Ensemble Español celebrates over forty years this season with their annual International American and Spanish Dance and Music Festival June 7-24—the centerpiece of which is a weekend of performances at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie June 16-18. I spoke with Jorge Perez, Ensemble Español’s irrepressible executive director about the program as well as the bright future of this Chicago cultural institution.
Would you tell us a little about some of the highlights on the program at North Shore Center?
It encompasses what we do under one roof: classical, flamenco and folklore dance. Our theme is raíces or roots. We’re opening the program with the beautiful Madrileño from the 1800s, looking to transport folks back in time, and we’re ending the show with the contemporary “Iroko” ballet, set on us last year, in honor of our fortieth anniversary. We’re closing the first act with a world premiere by guest artist Angel Rojas. Angel used music originally commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes. Angel wanted to show the audience that there is a dancer behind the costume, shedding the elaborate costumes and sets to show the essence of the dancer. We also have a world premiere by Carlos Rodriguez and we asked if he would set a new piece in the bulerias style as well, traditional with a contemporary twist. It’s an exciting program honoring the past while preserving the present.
And many pieces are accompanied by live music?
Yes, we have Patricia Ortega, a singer of Cuban/Mexican descent, guitarist David Chiriboga from Ecuador, guitarist and singer Paco Fonta from Spain and percussionist Javier Saume-Mazzei from Venezuela. We have a dance of the shoes, Flamenco Zapateado, set by founder Dame Libby Komaiko on her first company in 1976. They’ll also be performing “Mi Deseo” which premiered at the Auditorium Theatre last year. It’s exciting to be accompanied by the live musicians.
You mentioned that Angel Rojas and Carlos Rodriguez are guest artists from Madrid. How did that relationship blossom?
We’ve been admirers of them for years. We had a survey with our senior dancers of who they would like to see. Irma [artistic director, Suárez Ruíz] and I and some of our dancers had seen them in the Miami Flamenco Festival years ago and we were taken with the beautiful choreography they had set on the National Ballet of Spain. We met them backstage and got their contact information. This was a year or two before our fortieth anniversary. When their name came up in our survey to our dancers we decided to reach out to them and they were excited to work with us. We reached out to two foundations and were able to have them come and set the piece, as well as help with costume design and original music. Their idea was to show how the roots of Spanish tradition are grounded to the future, the branches of the tree, which are the dancers. It has fantastic original music in the flamenco style—you have tangos, fandangos—it’s a gorgeous, fifteen-minute ballet. We were able to take it to Spain and the audience loved it.
Carlos has more ideas and was so excited to find this gem of a company in the US that’s preserving this art form on this kind of a stage. We’ve performed in China, in Poland, in Mexico, Puerto Rico; our First Dancer has taught in Australia, in Canada. We’re also working on an exchange program with a Spanish dance company in Cuba. Here are two non-Spanish companies, preserving this art form and now exchanging ideas. This is what art does!—talk about uniting people. That’s the beauty and magic of what Ensemble Español has been doing for forty years.
And this weekend is part of a larger, month-long festival.
Correct. We do a kickoff at the Old Town School of Folk Music in the flamenco style. It’s a smaller stage and smaller ensemble. It’s all live music. Then we teach for one week, morning to night, all three styles of Spanish dance—folklore, flamenco and classical—10am to 9:45pm. We’re keeping some of the musicians for the classes to give the students the experience they would get if they were in Madrid or the southern part of Spain taking classes. Classes are for all levels.
Is there anything else about the program or the company you’d like to speak about?
This past season we’re honored to receive a matching grant from the Caerus Foundation to raise $1.5 million dollars. It’s not the norm for a culturally specific organization to receive this opportunity. Sure, for the Lyric Opera, American Ballet Theatre maybe, but for a culturally specific organization to receive a grant like this is exciting and unusual. We’ve put three of our dancers on minimum wage and our goal is to have a core of six to seven dancers paid to expand our outreach program in the community… and to tour more as we continue our dream of having a full time company. We have to secure the future of this art form to go on for generations.
“Raíces” takes place at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, (847)673-6300. June 16-18. $30-$50. Duende Flamenco Music & Dance Concert takes place at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 North Lincoln, (773)728-6000. Wednesday, June 7 at 8:30pm. Free. For more info, visit ensembleespanol.org.