Review: Ensemble Español Brings Andalusian Rhythm and Soul with Flamenco Passion

Andalusia—the birthplace of Flamenco and Federico Garcia Lorca. It is the land where the Romany, North African Moors, and Sephardic Jews lived in the mountains. These cultures form the roots of flamenco dance and music, which was brought to life in performance by Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater’s 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 the audience an undiluted experience of Cante (singing/music), Baile (dancing) Toque (guitar) and Jaleo (hell-raising) with a sensuous dose of Duende (magnetism)—a mix of the mysterious and magical.

Federico Garcia Lorca described duende as only being there when one senses that death is possible. Much like Lorca’s poetry and plays, flamenco was born of Catholic repression and Eurocentric bigotry against non-white people, homosexuals and artists. Gypsies (Roma) were particularly persecuted and the Inquisition brought a full-scale attempt at erasing the North African and Muslim influences in Spain. Flamenco was performed in Roma encampments, gatherings, and at rituals of life 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 other-worldly sounds of Muslim calls to prayer and of Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour.

Diego “El Negro” Alvarez, Jose Moreno, Paco Fonta, La Lupi, Curro de Maria. Photo by Dean Paul

I find it interesting but not surprising that flamenco like Argentine tango was not embraced by either government until it could be used for profit. Places that had these kinds of dancing and music were considered to be tawdry, sinful, and associated with the lowest class of people. Flamenco is overtly sexual and dark and Ensemble Español displayed plenty of both to the delight of the audience. There were shouts from the audience and hand-clapping along—aka Jaleo or hell-raising. The lighting gave a misty effect with stark whites and reds as background to the dancers and musicians. The vivid and intricate costumes were saturated in color. Dancers entered and exited with rhythmic castanets adding to the percussion of stamping feet.

Four special guest dancers and singers were given a rousing welcome. Dancer, teacher, and choreographer, La Lupi performed the Chicago premiere of Juanaca (Cantiñas). It was first performed in Malaga, Spain, at Teatro Soho Antonio Banderas- yes, that Antonio Banderas. La Lupi (Susana Lupiañez Pinto) was born in Malaga and is considered a Maestra of the art form. She is not in her 20s nor possessed of a typical dancer’s body, but that is the point of flamenco culture. This is a celebration of the earthly pleasures and exorcising pain and grief. Ecstasy and pain are closely intertwined in life. Think of the ecstatic dancing in Baptist and Pentecostal churches when the Spirit hits. Spirit takes over reason, shame, and inhibitions. La Lupi writhed her luxurious curves and tapped out percussion rhythms on her body. Her hands, the ruffles on her bright pink dress, and her magnificent facial expressions exuded passion, lust, pain—duende. Singer Luis Galvez possesses a gorgeous operatic tenor that accompanies a dance and another solo in act one.

Dancer and percussionist Jose Moreno performed a showstopping “La Resonancia del Alma” (Resonance of the Soul Solea), as a call and response with percussionist Diego “El Negro” Alvarez. Moreno is a large fellow—like a football player, but his feet pulsated at the speed of fire. His performance brought a lusty roar from the audience with shouts of encouragement for more. Elisabet Torras is a dancer, choreographer, and teacher at Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater. She sizzled in a bright red gown for the finale. In addition to Moreno and Alvarez, the live music was singer/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 Dean Paul

Flamenco Passion is a part of Ensemble Español’s 46th anniversary and Chicago dance celebration 2022. This was beyond a dance performance. I felt transported to a surreal world where Federico Garcia Lorca lived and considered himself a gypsy soul. The stage represented the dark taverns and encampments where the excluded people created what has become a symbol of Spanish culture. It is an acknowledgement of the multicultural influences on art, music, and dance that would not remain hidden, and for that I am grateful.

Ensemble Español’s Flamenco Passion runs through Sunday, June 19, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts at 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., in Skokie. Information on tickets can be found at EnsembleEspanol.org. The ensemble will present another flamenco performance in August and just completed a symposium on the Black and Brown Roots of Spanish Dance and Music. Yet another reason Chicago is a world class center of the arts.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.