Evoking Spain through dance: The authenticity of Ensemble Espanol and the Royal Ballet’s flamboyant “Don Quixote”

SHARE Evoking Spain through dance: The authenticity of Ensemble Espanol and the Royal Ballet’s flamboyant “Don Quixote”

Two dramatically different dance performances – both rooted in Spanish culture – were on display on Chicago area stages this past weekend. And they offered an intriguing comparison study in the ways a particular cultural heritage can be celebrated. They also were full of magnificent dancing.

On stage at the Auditorium Theatre was Britain’s Royal Ballet in “Don Quixote,” a full-length story ballet loosely based on the Cervantes classic. First choreographed in the Imperial Russia of the 19th century, it has now been re-envisioned by Carlos Acosta, the bravura dancer who trained at the National Ballet of Cuba. And while Acosta’s version remains largely true to tradition, it is more playful in both its dramatic antics and its set design (lavish evocations of the “white towns” of Spain courtesy of designer Tim Hatley, and a raggedy horse for Don Quixote that elicited affectionate applause). And the dance vocabulary he uses showcases both the extraordinary technical prowess of his dancers, and the influence of a freer contemporary style that incorporates everything from floor work and acrobatics to gypsy dancing (somewhat more Hungarian than Spanish).

I was unable to see Acosta dance the role of Basilio on opening night, but I caught the Sunday matinee that featured the Bolshoi-trained dancer Natalia Osipova as Kitri, with Canadian-bred Matthew Golding (a tall dancer for whom the stage seemed almost too small), as her exquisite partner. Osipova is simply beyond breathtaking.

Without question, she is the most brilliant ballet technician I’ve ever seen, but she also is a dancer who brings a buoyant, beguiling personality to the stage. Not only does she move like the wind, but when she leaps she rises vertically and then seems to stay easily suspended in the air before traveling on, all with an energy and lightness that flows seamlessly from one virtuosic moment to the next. Her flawless gyroscopic double fouette turns (whipped out, one after another, until I lost count), were nothing short of astounding. And her feet they seem to have an almost cushioned quality that magically denies their steely strength. There is never a sense of effort in anything she does. Astounding.

Golding has perfected pirouettes that don’t end but rather unspool as if he were an ice skater spinning out of spiral turns. And he invariably lifts the petite Osipova with the greatest of ease. The two are perfectly in tune with each other.

Acosta was something of a wild child as a teenager and his exuberant spirit, earthy spirit and sense of mischievous dramatic play permeate the ballet’s choreography. It would be great to see him create something entirely original, but as it stands, his next work for the Royal Ballet is a one-act take on “Carmen.”

Meanwhile, on stage at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts was Chicago’s Ensemble Espanol Dance Theater, and its fervently performed, ideally paced program was a knockout. In fact, the company has never been more thrilling than it was in this “Flamenco Passion” showcase.

A scene from Dame Libby Komaiko’s “Tiempos de Goya,” performed by Chicago’s Ensemble Espanol. (Photo: Joe Davis)

A scene from Dame Libby Komaiko’s “Tiempos de Goya,” performed by Chicago’s Ensemble Espanol. (Photo: Joe Davis)

There was bravura dancing aplenty – from the most artful and authentic flamenco, to beautifully theatricalized folkloric and classical choreography. The dancers (and both the men and women in the company possess exceptional beauty, individuality and pristinely polished technique and synchrony) also happen to be superb actors. And they bring a blazing sense of drama to everything they do. This is a company that fully deserves its growing international reputation.

The program’s opening work, “Tiempos de Goya,” is artistic director Dame Libby Komaiko’s remarkable four-part exploration of the many subjects and moods dealt with by painter Francisco Goya. It is an astonishing chronicle of life – from its pleasures and sensuality to its most nightmarish violence.

A painter with the instincts of a hedonist-turned-social commentator and front line journalist, Goya captured the idyllic life of aristocrats at play, but he also conjured the most horrific, pitch black visions of war in all its grotesqueness. Komaiko’s piece, stunning at every turn, brought these scenes of savagery and torture to vivid life, with a notably remarkable sequence in which the women hauled wrapped corpses across the stage.

Fiercely danced by the full company – an ensemble of great diversity and impressive discipline – Komaiko’s choreography, which uses a slew of different dance styles, was enhanced by projections of Goya’s iconic paintings and etchings, and the use of music by Granados, Boccherini, Ginastera, Beethoven and a traditional lullaby. Goya’s ever-darkening vision of life felt all too timely in this work that brings to mind Kurt Jooss’ masterwork, “The Green Table.” And there could be no greater compliment than that.

The rest of the wonderfully mood-shifting program was on the same level, with the suave and fiery Jose Greco II, and his sister, Carmela Greco, in both a remarkable duet as well as solo turns; with a fierce solo by Raquel Gomez, who also choreographed “Sur” (“South”), a most impressive group work for the company; with a ferocious duet,”Viviencias” (“Experiences”) choreographed and brilliantly performed by the stunning Claudia Pizarro and Jose Torres. And there was more, often embellished by terrific live musicians, as well as a treasure trove of costumes, and superb sets and lighting.

All in all, two very different evocations of Spain. And the “tourists” on both voyages could not possibly have been disappointed.

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