Ensemble Espanol

at Northeastern Illinois University, October 15 and 16

What makes Spanish dance in general and flamenco in particular so popular is the fact that they’re sexy. The men are usually rail-thin, the women all curves, and their passionate duets steam up the stage. Dame Libby Komaiko, artistic director of Ensemble Espanol, took full advantage of this fact in her programming for the Chicago troupe’s most recent concert. From her opening Bolero, which like its Ravel music builds to a red-hot climax, to the flamenco finale that constituted the entire second half of the program, “Spanish Dance in Concert” was full of a fiery sensuality.

Bolero, which premiered this summer at the American Spanish Dance Festival, was danced by the full company, including the All City “Jr.” Ensemble Espanol. Set against a backdrop of Picasso slides, it begins almost as a three-dimensional abstract visualization of some of the shapes in Picasso’s artwork. But in the dim opening scene what at first appears to be a line of red blobs turns out to be a row of women hunched over, their backs to us, their red dresses spread out in wide circles around them. As a pool of light brightens on the first, she begins to raise her back slowly, bringing her arms up slowly too, her wrists turning constantly. Eventually she brings the twisting palms to her side, then behind her at almost floor level. The pattern is picked up by the second and third dancer. But before it can become predictable, the rest of the women–still on the floor with their torsos perpendicular–vary the patterns and their timing, so that their movements are not all identical. As the mood and the movement intensify, the first dancer uncurls into standing position and is joined by the others.

Then the men come onstage, and as the music continues to swell the dancing does too. Whether performing as a group or facing one another in pairs, the dancers seem always in erotic confrontation, always conscious of their partners. In one particularly effective sequence the men, standing behind the women, rock their partners from side to side in a sort of cradling hug. Throughout the progressively more frenzied movement, the dancers stamp out a rhythmic, hard-edged beat.

With the stage full of swirling red dresses, counterpointed by the men’s black and red costumes, a trio of women enter with black lace shawls lifted high. It’s a magnetic moment, but the crescendo in the music is further enhanced as the dancers’ accessories multiply. A group of women enter with fans, their rotating patterns paralleling the twisting swirls of the dresses. Not to be outdone, the men enter with long satin capes, twirling them in wide circles around their waists and over their heads. By this point the stage has become an orgy of movement.

The second dance on the program, Clavos y Canela, a solo choreographed by the late Maria Alba, was performed by Komaiko in a more understated but equally intense way. This dance stresses the mournfulness–and wild passion–of the Gypsy soul. Komaiko wears a dark net dress with a long ruffled train whose innermost layer of ruffles is bright red. The occasional flash of red seems a glimpse of “forbidden fruit,” as she kicks at her skirt to turn or lifts it in front of or behind her. Komaiko’s impassioned expression heightens the dance’s drama. The plaintive strains of the guitar and vocal music are augmented by the songs’ laments in this version of the traditional “Siguiriyas” dance. Singer Maria Elena “La Cordobesa” delivered the lyrics with an intense, deep-throated verve in the manner known as cante jondo, or “deep song”–a form that inspired Federico Garcia Lorca to write his Poema del cante jondo.

The second half of the program, “Aire de Andalucia” (“Andalusian Air”), began with the unaccompanied footwork of Zapateado. Traditionally this form of dance–inspired by horsemen herding bulls to the field–contrasts slow and fast footwork, testing the performer’s ability to “sing” with the feet. The more musical the footwork, the more intense the dance. In this version, choreographed by Komaiko and Paco Alonso, the dancers line up at the front of the stage in their gaucho pants and bolero hats, making a stark, dramatic statement as they pound out a rhythmic pattern.

The solo dance that followed, Tangos de Malaga (choreographed by Rafael Negro), is all wild emotion. Delma Pozzo gives it the exotic passion of the Gypsy, her long hair as wild and loose as her dancing. Irma Suarez Ruiz brings a more mature, controlled fire to her Gypsy solo, Soleares. Ruiz has what the Spaniards call ire, a word that has many implications but whose basic meaning is a sort of fire or soulfulness. And like what is called “stage presence,” you either have it or you don’t.

Two other solos–Romeras, choreographed by Edo and danced by Maria Cecilia Barriuso, and Komaiko’s Farruca, danced by Jorge Perez–also highlight performance styles and personalities. Barriuso dances with a sweet innocence, a big smile irradiating her face. But her coy charm is marked every so often by a telltale smile, perhaps from behind the crook of an arm, as if to signal that she knows full well, no matter what her shyness might indicate, the effect of her swaying hips.

Perez brings an intense gracefulness to the hard line of his Farruca; the lyricism he brings to the dance is in tense contrast to its strong vertical lines (inspired by the image of the bullfighter). Flamenco dance is often most effective when, as in Perez’s case, it expresses a deeply felt struggle of emotion: part of the thrill of flamenco is watching the inner drama realized in the dancer’s face. The fancy footwork adds to the intensity, as the dancer pounds a soft or hard rhythm into the floor, bringing his inner turmoil to these patterns as well. Especially impressive, and creating a perfect contrast to the harder edge of the rest of the dance, is a feat in which Perez crosses his heels, balancing on the sides of his shoes and swaying his knees in a seemingly impossible tangle of legs and feet, done so fast you can barely follow it and rocking him softly from side to side.

In this performance Perez had a newfound authority. I’ve seen him slowly develop over the years, from his first tentative performances when he was thrust into lead roles for which he wasn’t quite prepared because a number of the company’s male dancers had left abruptly. But now his technical expertise is matched by a stormy emotion that’s exciting to watch. Fortunately he’s blossomed sufficiently to fill the shoes of Juan Ramon, Ensemble Espanol’s ever-fiery, ever-popular lead dancer, now on leave.

After all this angst, Perez and Komaiko in a lively, playful duet come as a breath of fresh air. Their Alegrias is a joyful dance spiced with flirtation. Komaiko is all coquettish girlishness, and at the end Perez responds as all men do in Spanish dance: he gallantly wraps her shawl around her before he escorts her offstage. But there’s also a macho air of possession to the gallantry. Male flamenco dancers may be polite, but an earthier motivation for their pleasantries is always suggested. It’s that tension that gives flamenco its characteristic confrontational tone, its moody, charged eroticism. In the duets it often translates into a contest of wills onstage.

The singing that accompanies much of the dancing, apart from its immediacy–the singer often salutes the dancer by name–has a more traditional side. In the final number, Bulerias, La Cordobesa sings one set of lyrics to the men and a different set to the women. To the women she sings as if she were a man, perhaps something that translates: “Beauty, beauty, what do you wash your face with? It smells like rose petals of the morning. Give me some.” Somehow you know it’s not just rose petals the man’s asking for. In flamenco dance this sexual innuendo is transmitted by the dancers’ bodies, and it’s that wistful sexual lament that makes the dance so attractive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Don Bulucos.