Driving up Interstate 55 on my way to visit Ensemble Espaol Spanish Dance Theater last month, my GPS flashed a notification: Tornado warning. Like an on/off switch, torrential storms battered my car for a few minutes until the sun peeked out, that pattern repeating a few times until I pulled safely into the parking lot.
Believe it or not, this was my second near-tornado encounter with Ensemble Espaol. And the energy inside their dance studios at Northeastern Illinois University on this late spring evening was, characteristically, as charged as the air outside. They are preparing for “Flamenco Passion,” part of the week-long Spanish dance and music festival Ensemble Espaol has hosted annually for more than 40 years.
Three “Flamenco Passion” performances at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts on June 17-19 form the cornerstone of this festival, which also includes workshops and, new this year, a lecture symposium.
Ensemble Espaol is among the world’s leading Spanish dance companies, noted for its holistic approach to presenting all styles of Spanish dance: classical, folkloric, flamenco and contemporary.
When college campuses closed and sent students home in 2020, Ensemble was left without a rehearsal space. In a typical lemons-to-lemonade scenario, the 46-year-old dance company sought partnerships with neighboring studios, including veteran local flamenco expert Wendy Clinard’s space in Pilsen. Clinard and others worked with the company to refine their flamenco technique, which has remained a key focus of their work for the past two years.
Among the special guests creating dances for the 2022 “Flamenco Passion” is award-winning flamenco phenom Susana Lupiañez Pinto, better known as “La Lupi.” The program also includes works by Elisabet Torras Aguilera and Ensemble Espaol artistic director Irma Suárez Ruiz, plus special performances by several symposium speakers, La Lupi among them.
Flamenco’s origins in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia are the middle of the story, not the beginning. The Moorish invasion in 711 AD left an indelible cultural mark on the area, lending Arabic rhythmic and tonal influences to music and dance that would ultimately combine North African, Roma, Jewish, Catholic and Indian traditions.
“There’s a lot of diversity in the Flamenco styles,” La Lupi said (translated from Spanish to English by Ensemble executive director Jorge Pérez). “Some transmit happiness, others sadness, others sensuality, others love. It came out of the villages, out of necessity.”
Thus, the dance so closely associated with Spain’s national identity today (and touted by the Ballet Nacional de Espaa, no less) wasn’t always seen that way. Rather, flamenco evolved as regional dances of defiance culled by marginalized people, with a history that looks more similar to jazz or hip-hop than other European forms like ballet.
“There’s a misconception as to what this thing called flamenco is,” said Ensemble associate executive director Kim Grigsby. “It has relationships to specific communities. Whatever those particular communities were going through, you’ll see in their dance. You’ll hear it in their music.”
For example, Grigsby explained how the metallic “tings” in music from Grenada evolved from the propensity of steel workers in that region. Percussive footwork and upper body ornamentation, signature to flamenco, come second to the pulse, meter, rhythm and lyrics of the music, which form a code that prescribes everything that happens in the dance.
“Flamenco belongs to everyone who has a voice,” Grigsby said. “It doesn’t matter what community you come from or what you’re fighting. Use your feet. Stomp it out. Use your voice. That’s what we do over here.”
To this, one must add an important distinction between concert flamenco, intended to be danced on proscenium stages, and the tablao, a highly improvisational, salon-style form. Think jazz at Lincoln Center versus a hole-in-the-wall listening room, as a comparison.
La Lupi’s world premiere, “Pasos Largos” (“Long Steps”), is based on a bandolero who steals from the rich and gives to the poor — a Robin Hood-type figure with a distinctive gait. She combines aspects of both tablao and concert-style flamenco using the caa style. Guitarist (and La Lupi’s husband) Curro de María layered stylistic nuances onto the traditional song as La Lupi developed her choreography for “Pasos Largos.”
La Lupi says it’s nearly impossible to fully appreciate flamenco’s complexity without deep study. Like most things, it gets richer the more you learn — scholars spend entire careers on one style, from a single ethnic region. For that reason, this year the festival includes an inaugural four-day symposium on “The Black and Brown Roots to Spanish Dance & Music.” (Full disclosure: I am a volunteer moderator for one of the panels). But you needn’t write a dissertation to appreciate flamenco. La Lupi focused that novices can easily feel the passionate defiance imbued within this remarkable form. And Ensemble Espaol’s keen handling of it.
“To do this work in Chicago is incredible” said La Lupi. “People in Spain, like people in Chicago, really have to be enamored to do and see what this company has been doing for so many years.”
“Flamenco Passion” runs June 17-19 at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie; tickets are $20-$50 at 847-673-6300 and northshorecenter.org
Details about other festival events, including “The Black and Brown Roots to Spanish Dance & Music,” are available at ensembleespanol.org