at Northeastern Illinois University

July 10-12 and 17-19

The American Spanish Dance Festival is an annual event sponsored by the Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, in residence at Northeastern Illinois University. This year the festival, which has been seminal in introducing Chicago audiences to many of the most important national and international artists in the field of Spanish dance, not only brought in solo guest choreographers and dancers but added whole companies to its roster.

The Ensemble Espanol, whose mission has been to educate as well as entertain, consistently stresses the influence of many dance styles on Spanish dance in general and flamenco in particular: the Arabic, Hebraic, and Moorish influences that are often ignored or underestimated in historical synopses. Seeking to demystify the origins of Spanish dance–and to turn theory into concrete performance–at last Sunday’s concert it intro- duced a Minneapolis-based company, Voices of Sepharad. Founded in 1986, this four-member company is concerned with reconstructing and preserving the traditional song and dance of the Sephardic Jews, who were exiled from Spain 500 years ago. They resettled throughout the Mediterranean area, continuing their heritage through the songs they sang, in an archaic Judeo-Spanish dialect.

This small company turned a potential weakness into strength by making this performance seem a personal exchange between itself and the audience. David Harris, the company’s musical director and vocalist, narrates and translates the texts in a comfortable, natural tone. He doesn’t overintellectualize the historical narrative or pontificate on the songs’ translations but gives them an accurate yet contemporary cast. When talking about a woman’s dilemma choosing between two lovers in a song, “Dos amantes tengo mama,” he quips, “It’s the same old problem.” The woman’s choice is between the man she loves, who is poor, and a wealthy man she doesn’t like. Harris even joins the dancer (Judith Brin Ingber, also the choreographer) when necessary: he’s the groom to her bride in Moroccan Wedding Suite.

The Middle Eastern influence is very evident in this dance, in both the choreography and the costuming. Dressed in a long black dress glistening with golden highlights, Ingber is resplendent as the bride-to-be, wearing part of her gold-coin dowry. Her expressive face glowing, sitting with her robe spread magnificently around her, she bends her torso back and forth or to either side. Her hands make little half circles, or flatten against the air, or draw things in toward her, or mime playing the drums. She brings them to a pause, crossed under her chin, framing her face demurely but proudly. Later she crosses them down toward the ground in front of her. Once she rises to a standing position, the music takes on a livelier beat and she shakes seductively in a sedate belly dance.

Moroccan Wedding Suite also makes use of a typical flamenco prop, the shawl. When Ingber kneels in front of Harris, he places his white shawl over her face, folds it up over her head like a hat, then holds it over both their heads like a canopy once she stands. Eventually it’s held between them while they dance joyfully together. At one point, in a manner very characteristic of flamenco, he holds the shawl possessively over her hips and buttocks while she faces him and they sway together. Even the two musicians (Scott “Mateo” Davies and Mick LaBriola) pass under the shawl held over the happy couple, who end the dance with a tiny bow toward each other, smiling, as if acquiescing in their union.

The solo dance that accompanies “Dos amantes tengo mama” is also very Middle Eastern in tone. Dressed in a multicolored dress with a coin belt that jangles percussively, Ingber is the epitome of the belly dancer, hips thrusting high from side to side as she “walks” across the stage. It’s a happy, upbeat dance. Her hands held up or out, with the palms always brought in toward her in circling gestures, she’s living proof of the Sephardic influence on flamenco and other Spanish dance, which employs the same curling hand gestures.

The opening solo to a Greek song, “La serena” from Salonica, is full of a quaint coquettish charm. Dressed in white, Ingber brings a soft emotion to this piece, which she dances with gentleness and gentility. Her graceful movements soften the dance’s harsh angularity into smoother, more rounded lines. Written into every move are the love and respect she has for this traditional dance (as they are in the other dances as well). “La serena” has a slight swaying quality throughout, an almost constant flow of slight flirtatious movement like a soft enticing sigh.

The most contemporary amalgam here–the dance is modern, the songs Sephardic–was Endechas, a piece inspired by a visit to Auschwitz when the group was on tour in Europe. They describe this searing experience–seeing piles and piles of “artifacts,” the suitcases and eyeglasses the Germans had confiscated from gas-chamber victims, and finally and most horrifyingly, a hoard of baby pacifiers. Relating this experience, which led to the dance, Ingber’s and Harris’s voices tremble.

Ingber portrays the mother’s loss–cradling her bundled infant with a fond protectiveness, spitting out the pacifier with fiery defiance at an imaginary Nazi. The bundle, while obviously meant to be a baby, also oddly and poignantly recalls the uprooted victim’s bundle of prized possessions. And when Ingber struggles with her invisible Nazi adversary, the bundle comes apart and releases a torrent of pacifiers onto the stage. Countless artifacts, countless victims. As she spreads the cloth of the bundle over the pacifiers, it becomes both baby blanket and shroud. When she lifts it up and ties it around her waist, its other side is blood red.

Ingber also mimes an old lady–perhaps the grandmother–begging for mercy. Wrapping the blanket round her as she tumbles on the floor, she goes through a series of poses and characters, everywoman and everyman at the camp. She tells a horrible tale of victimization and pain in a few bold strokes. Standing, she arches back so her torso is almost flat and puts two pacifiers over her breasts, but no baby comes to suckle.

The same fervor runs in Petenera, choreographed by the late Roberto Lorca, performed by both Voices of Sepharad and Ensemble Espanol, their musicians mingling to bring to the stage this tale of vengeful love: in the Gypsy legend, La Petenera was killed by one of her jealous lovers. (Even telling the tale is considered bad luck, and many refuse even to be in the room when the song is played. “Needless to say,” Davies notes, “it was hard to find good recordings of it to learn from.”)

The lead Ensemble Espanol couple (Irma Suarez Ruiz and Juan Ramon) enter somberly, their movements always in sync or parallel. All flamenco fire under their sober exteriors, they gaze intently as their feet beat out a constant patter of staccato sound. In a brief impassioned “solo,” Ruiz’s feet pound out an even harder beat, her hands up and out in a wide second, Ramon’s above her in tighter circling palm gestures. It’s as if each of her actions impels him to move too. The intense moment of doom is lifted when the partnering turns into the more usual flamenco apache dancing, and the couple exits in a swirl of ruffles and fringe.

Maria Alba, who died on June 24, was one of the foremost Spanish dancers in the country and a frequent guest with the Ensemble Espanol as both performer and teacher, especially in the festival’s early years. Alba was the quintessential Spanish dancer, always striking a picture-perfect pose in the classroom as a model for aspiring students. Like Billie Holiday singing the blues, she knew how to ache her way through a dance so that you felt that same ache yourself, but she also knew how to bring the audience around–with an earthy bat of her dark eyelashes–to the lighter side of things. Characteristically, her fiery spirit did battle till the end with the cancer that finally overcame her: in May, she’d performed in a butoh-flamenco adaptation of Jean Genet’s Balcon at La Mama in New York.