Review: Ensemble Español brings Andalusian rhythm and soul with flamenco passion

Andalusia, cradle of Flamenco and Federico Garcia Lorca. This is the land where Roma, North African Moors and Sephardic Jews lived in the mountains. These cultures are the origin of flamenco dance and music, which came to life in the performances of the Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theatre. Flamenco Passion. Ensemble Español is in residence at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago under the direction of Artistic Director Irma Suárez Ruíz and Executive Director Jorge Perez. Flamenco Passion gives audiences an undiluted experience of Cante (vocals/music), Baile (dance) Toque (guitar) and Jaleo (unleashed from hell) with a sensual dose of Duende (magnetism) – a blend of mystery and magic.

Federico Garcia Lorca describes duende as being there only when one feels that death is possible. Much like Lorca’s poetry and plays, flamenco was born out of Catholic repression and Eurocentric bigotry against non-whites, gays and artists. The Gypsies (Roma) were particularly persecuted and the Inquisition attempted on a large scale to erase Maghrebi and Muslim influences in Spain. Flamenco was played in Roma encampments, gatherings and during life rituals such as marriage or funerals. The music has the call and response influence of African music and the beautiful singing in Flamenco Passion evoked the otherworldly sounds of Muslim calls to prayer and Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour.

Diego “El Negro” Alvarez, Jose Moreno, Paco Fonta, La Lupi Curro de Maria. Photo by Carol Fox and Associates.

I find it interesting but not surprising that flamenco like Argentine tango was not adopted by any of the governments until it could be used for profit. Places that had this kind of dancing and music were considered vulgar, sinful and associated with the lowest class of people. Flamenco is overtly sexual and dark and Ensemble Español showed a lot of both to the delight of the audience. There were screams from the audience and applause, aka Jaleo or hell. The lighting gave a hazy effect with stark whites and reds in the background for the dancers and musicians. Bright and intricate costumes were saturated with color. The dancers came and went with rhythmic castanets adding to the percussion of stamping feet.

Four special guest dancers and singers were warmly welcomed. Dancer, teacher and choreographer, La Lupi performed the Chicago premiere of Juanaca (Cantiñas). It was first performed in Malaga, Spain, at the Teatro Soho Antonio Banderas – yes, this Antonio Banderas. La Lupi (Susana Lupiañez Pinto) was born in Malaga and is considered a Maestra of the art form. She’s not in her twenties and doesn’t have the body of a typical dancer, but that’s the point of flamenco culture. It is a celebration of earthly pleasures and exorcising pain and sorrow. Ecstasy and pain are closely linked in life. Think of the ecstatic dance in Baptist and Pentecostal churches when the Spirit strikes. The mind takes precedence over reason, shame and inhibitions. The Lupi twisted her luxurious curves and tapped percussive rhythms on her body. Her hands, the ruffles of her bright pink dress, and her beautiful facial expressions exuded passion, lust, pain – duende. Singer Luis Galvez has a magnificent operatic tenor that accompanies a dance and another solo in the first act.

Dancer and percussionist Jose Moreno performed a breathtaking “La Resonancia del Alma” (Solea Soul Resonance), like a call and response with percussionist Diego “El Negro” Alvarez. Moreno is a big boy, like a football player, but his feet were pulsing with the speed of fire. Her performance caused a vigorous roar from the audience with cheers for more. Elisabet Torras is a dancer, choreographer and teacher at the Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theatre. She sizzled in a bright red dress for the finale. In addition to Moreno and Alvarez, the live music was vocalist/guitarist Paco Fonta and flamenco guitarists Curro de Maria and David Chiriboga.

Jose Moreno, Diego “El Negro” Alvarez, Paco Fonta, Curro de Maria. Photo by Carol Fox and Associates.

Flamenco Passion is part of Ensemble Español’s 46th anniversary and the 2022 Chicago Dance Celebration. It was beyond a dance performance. I felt transported to a surreal world where Federico Garcia Lorca lived and considered himself a gypsy soul. The scene depicted the dark taverns and encampments where the outcasts created what has become a symbol of Spanish culture. It’s an acknowledgment of the multicultural influences on art, music and dance that wouldn’t stay hidden, and I’m grateful for that.

Español’s set Flamenco Passion through Sunday, June 19 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts at 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Ticket information can be found at EnsembleSpanish.org. The ensemble will present another flamenco show in August and have just completed a symposium on the black and brown roots of Spanish dance and music. Yet another reason why Chicago is a world-class center for the arts.

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