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Zafiro Flamenco Festival celebrates 45 years of Ensemble Espanol’s love of the dance: ‘We are warriors’

The company will perform in person on an outdoor stage in the parking lot of Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts this weekend.

Ensemble Espanol Company Dancers perform “Algazara,” choreographed by Jose Barrios.
Ensemble Espanol company dancers perform “Algazara,” choreographed by Jose Barrios.
Dean Paul

It hasn’t been an easy year for any dance company, but for Chicago’s Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, COVID-19 hit with particularly cruel timing. When the lockdown went into effect last year, it was barely 13 months after the death of Dame Libby Komaiko, the revered, founding artistic director of the thriving, 45-year-old troupe dedicated to the art of flamenco dance.

But the ensemble’s inarguable perseverance the in the face of seismic change is evident in the upcoming Zafiro Flamenco 45th Anniversary Festival this weekend. The company will perform in person on an outdoor stage in the parking lot of Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.

The dancers have been rehearsing and learning their choreography via Zoom for months. They’re primed for the moment when they can dance on stage, backed by live musicians. Defined by sultry, percussive movements and unabashed sensuality, flamenco relies on chemistry as well as technique. Capturing the former on Zoom can be tough.

“The process has been a hard one. It can be frustrating. We’ve done so much Zooming. It’s exhausting and I know I’m not alone in feeling that,” said Irma Suarez-Ruiz, who became Ensemble Espanol’s artistic director after Komaiko’s passing.

“But we push through because we’re warriors and because this is what we live for, the love of the art. It’s explosive. It’s passionate. It’s sensual and emotional and exciting,” she said of flamenco. “I remember when I saw Ensemble Espanol for the very first time. Watching it, it felt like a trance,” she said.

Ruiz’ ensemble is smaller than usual as it prepares to dance the world premiere of “Tangos de Granada,” choreographed by Wendy Clinard, founder and artistic director of her Chicago-based namesake, Clinard Dance. Usually, Ensemble Espanol has 18 dancers in its adult company.

Contemporary flamenco choreographer and Grammy Award winner Nino de los Reyes (center) has four works scheduled at the Zafiro Flamenco Festival this weekend.
Contemporary flamenco choreographer and Grammy Award winner Nino de los Reyes (center) has four works scheduled at the Zafiro Flamenco Festival this weekend.
Photo courtesy of the artist

“I have nine right now, and the musicians,” Ruiz said. Among the latter that will be performing with the dance ensemble: Singer/guitarist Paco Fonta; dancer, singer, percussionist and guitarist José Mareno; singer Patricia Ortega and guitarist David Chiriboga.

Rehearsing virtually — in isolated rooms, everyone reduced to a square on a screen — has indeed been challenging, said choreographer Nino de los Reyes, who worked virtually with the dancers in Chicago from his home in Mexico until he flew in for a week of in-person rehearsals before the opening. De los Reyes became the only dancer to win a 2020 Grammy Award for dancing, his footwork a creating a percussive, rhythmic current driving Chick Corea’s album “Antidote. ” He has four works on the flamenco festival program: “Farruca,’” “Martinete,” “Jaleos,” and “Solea.”

“We had just won that Grammy — and had all these expectations of touring — before everything shut down,” de los Reyes recalled. “I have a studio at home here in Mexico, so I tried to practice a lot, learn new technology and make the best of it. I’ve been able to teach people from Japan, China, the U.S., South America — so that’s been very cool,” he said.

Over lockdown, Clinard set to researching the history and endless forms flamenco can take.

Ensemble Espanol are pictured in “No Me Olvides (Do Not Forget Me) Romeros.”
Ensemble Espanol are pictured performing “No Me Olvides (Do Not Forget Me) Romeros.”
Dean Paul

“There are over 100 forms of flamenco, each one kind of embodies a certain human experience. There’s this beautiful division at the waistline — you’re rooted deep in the ground below it, reaching for the heavens above it,” Clinard said. “You go back and look at traditions, the history and the geography and you can find out where each gesture came from, how they talked with their bodies. Now flamenco is a national treasure for Spain, but it started as the dance of the outcast,” she said.

Clinard described her piece for the festival as “very positive, very joyful.”

“I really hope a vibe of community and togetherness comes through. Like a party,” she said.

In Mexico, de los Reyes echoed that sentiment.

“My goal is for the audience to feel what I’m feeling, the same joy and love for the art. If I can express that, I’ll be happy,” he said.

Editor’s note: According to Jorge Perez, the company’s executive and associate artistic director, who was asked about the wearing of masks in an email following the lifting of statewide COVID restrictions by Gov. Pritzker, the dancers and musicians “were given the choice of wearing masks or not. At this time it appears all performers will not be wearing masks when performing but will don them when they are off stage.

“As for the audience: with the governor’s reopening as of last Friday, audience members will not be required to wear masks when viewing the performance. However if they need to enter the North Shore Center building for any reason, a mask will be required.”