at Northeastern Illinois University

July 13-15 and 20-22

Spanish dance has always been full of vivid spectacle and fiery spirit. Flamenco–what most people envision when they think of Spanish dance–has plenty of both, with dramatic, flirtatious, confrontational duets to boot. Even in a solo, the dancer expresses an inner turmoil that seems to bare his or her very soul. Because the outpouring of emotion is so crucial, the older the dancer is the better. It takes a lot of living to not only express the depths of being but do it well.

In two alternating programs, Ensemble Espanol exhibits some spirited dancing in a setting more accessible than flamenco’s native Adalusia. The company, under the direction of Dame Libby Komaiko Fleming (she was awarded her title by King Juan Carlos I in 1982), has been in residence at Northeastern Illinois University since 1976.

The guest artists, many in return engagements, are particularly strong this year. Singer Maria Elena “La Cordobesa” outdoes herself, singing powerfully and with dramatic flair. Singer Paco Alonso joins the dancers in more than bit roles, notably in Alma de Aragon/Jota, which also features the Junior Ensemble Espanol. The three guitarists (Luis Primitivo, Pedro Cortes, and Mateo) provide mellifluous, impassioned musical interludes as well as excellent accompaniment for the dancers.

But the most impressive work comes from guest artist Manolo Rivera, currently a soloist with the New York City Opera (and making appearances on Guiding Light and One Life to Live). His Farruca goes beyond even a tour de force; he is clearly a master, in utter control of all his distinct, precise footwork, even the tiniest tap or click of heel or toe. Throughout his solo, cries of encouragement were shouted out to him. When the audience applauds, he keeps on dancing, adding trickier moves. He plays a cat-and-mouse game with the audience, smiling knowingly before he does something difficult or tellingly as he does it. His Soleares is completely different. After using his hat to great effect in the opening, he tosses it offstage. He uses the footwork as punctuation to his choreography, almost isolating body parts in a succession of small movements that may be quick or slow.

Fleming’s dancing is also strong in these performances; Fleming and Rivera together, in sections of Paseo Andaluz and Memorias de vidas gitanas, make the stage sizzle. In Clavos y canela, Fleming really throws herself into the series of slow, dramatic poses that accent the brewing tumult. In her fiery Sueno do solea she is all dramatic expression, alternately looking down at the stage pensively as if dancing only for herself and looking out at the audience as if we were partnering her. When she and Rivera dance together, they’re so in tune that they seem to melt into each other. When they confront each other with their glances–the Spanish version of Apache dance–it’s fiercely intense theatricality.

Tiempos de Goya has been choreographed by Fleming and first dancer Juan Ramon, who despite an injury heated up the stage throughout both programs. This is another side of Spanish dance: stately court dances full of elegant tableaux and exquisitely beautiful costumes. “Lovely,” a man behind me couldn’t refrain from saying out loud. But Tiempos de Goya does not ignore the dark side of Goya’s vision (slides of his artwork are projected throughout the dance’s various sections): Fleming also provides us with war-torn scenes of violence and death. The final effective image, however, is one of strength and endurance: three women (Irma Suarez Ruiz, Delma Posso, and Maria Cecilia Barriuso) dance their lament. They reach their hands up accusingly to heaven, but bring them down in soft-edged fists against their own faces.

The only dance performed in both programs is the effervescent Alma de Aragon/Jota, and I can understand why. The junior ensemble, in black, white, and brilliant reds, look infectiously happy against a backdrop of mountains. Leaping and turning and wearing big smiles, they make this taxing dance look effortless. But just as in the elaborate dance numbers of the old Busby Berkeley musicals, more is never enough. The senior ensemble members come dancing out in front of them, in floral gold and black lame versions of the others’ costumes (this brilliant conceptualization must be the work of Alonso, who designs and sews most of the ensemble’s costumes in consultation with Fleming). Singer Alonso himself comes out next, crooning to Fleming, who wears a costume even more resplendently sequined than the others. By this time the stage is a mass of movement, though it never looks cluttered–Renaissance man Alonso has also done the choreography. The festive dancing continues, the performers moving in continually smaller and tighter circles, still doing the jota as the curtain closes before them. All that’s missing is the overhead shot.