Dance experiences a Spanish influx

November 7, 2010
Chicago Tribune
Sid Smith


Performers from Latin America, Spain merge strong training, style

Like so many before them, they come for opportunity.

"I think you find so many Spanish dancers here in Chicago and all over the world because there's so little dance in Spain," suggests Alejandro Cerrudo, a Spanish-born dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and in recent years one of the city's top resident choreographers. "We have to pursue what we do in life in other countries."

"Things are better in Cuba than years ago, but it's still much more closed off than here, where there are so many more chances to work with many different choreographers," the Joffrey Ballet's Miguel Angel Blanco notes. "And more to see. In Cuba, American Ballet Theatre is about to visit for the first time in decades."

"I grew up watching videos of Mikhail Baryshnikov and American Ballet Theatre," says the Joffrey's Yumelia Garcia, who left Venezuela for the U.S. 15 years ago. "It was my life dream to dance with him. At 18, I told my mother, 'I'm of age, you can't stop me now, I want to see what's up there."

Up here, in Chicago, more and more each year, the excitement of our dance scene sparkles with an unspoken Spanish accent. The backgrounds constitute a virtual United Nations of the Hispanic diaspora: Argentina, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Guatemala and Mexico, along with Spain itself. Five Joffrey dancers and four at Hubbard Street — 25 percent of that troupe — were born in Spanish-language countries. Cuban-born Frank Chaves co-founded River North Chicago Dance Company and now heads it, while Luna Negra Theater, now under the artistic leadership of recent Spanish emigre Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, is a troupe in fact devoted to the work of Hispanic artists.

"Yes," says Hubbard's Pablo Piantino, a native of Argentina, "we joke about it and sometimes even call it the Spanish mafia."

The Spanish invasion, evoking the renowned British one in pop music in the 1960s, says it better. It's not new or limited to Chicago. A wave of similar talents — Julio Bocca, Angel Corella, Paloma Herrera, Marcelo Gomes and Jose Manuel Carreno — have helped define stardom at American Ballet since the 1990s. "I joined the San Francisco Ballet after graduation from the Juilliard School in 1999, and there were maybe eight dancers there with Spanish backgrounds," Piantino recalls. "They liked the Spanish flair."

Not to mention the talent. These dancers typically combine a background of strong training with individual pizazz. New York City Ballet's Joaquin de Luz, born in Madrid, is one of the more exciting dancers in the field today. Training back in the home country is one reason. Cerrudo says there are terrific teachers in Spain, Blanco trained in Cuba with the legendary Alicia Alonso, and Garcia, at only 15, joined the National Ballet of Caracas, led at the time by Vicente Nebrada, who co-founded the Harkness Ballet during his earlier U.S. days.

There's also that cultural spark — however vague and elusive. "I could fall back on the old cliche and say we have passion," says Hubbard's Alejandro Piris-Nino, from Madrid. "But I think it's the training, the fact that there are too few dance jobs back home and a matter of coincidence."

But others see more deep-seated affinity. "I think it's part of the Latino culture, there's just something in you that makes you move," Chaves says. "Even in tough times, families come together at night, make music and dance. It's our lifeline."

"I think we're more exaggerated than other cultures in just about every aspect," Piantino says. "My grandmother's visiting, she left her keys behind in the apartment one day, and it was this whole big deal, this big scene. Over keys she didn't need here. When I talk, I constantly wave my hands. We put exclamation points to everything we do."

"I could say the same thing about exaggerated gestures among Cubans," agrees Eduardo Vilaro, who launched Luna Negra here and now runs New York's Ballet Hispanico, which plays Friday at the Harris Theater. "There are these tendrils, these roots, that go out from Spain and reach into the rest of the world."

"Spanish dance is expressive," Irma Suarez Ruiz, dancer and newly named associate artistic director of Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, the Chicago troupe devoted to Spanish dance created and run by founder Libby Komaiko. Ruiz, the Chicago-born daughter of a Mexican father and Puerto Rican mother, adds, "We feel what we call the duende, the spirit, the soul, whenever we listen to music, and it comes out when we dance."

It's not always easy. "When you grow up in Chile, you have this idea, 'If I just make it to the states, I'll be set,'" says Eduardo Zuniga, who spent time with Hubbard II and just joined Luna Negra. "In a way, it's not true. It's a better dance economy here, but there's less competition back home. I came here to find things in dance, but when I go home now, I find them there."

"There are some choreographers who have reservations," Garcia says. "They're just not used to working with us. But this is a subjective art form, anyway, and you have to get used to it. Some love you, some don't. If they're looking for a blonde, so be it."

American art, that ever-changing mosaic, is acquiring some new colors, just as those who bring them are changed, too.

"Sure, I watch Spanish colleagues to pick up dancing tips," Cerrudo says. "But I watch all of my colleagues, wherever they're from. You learn from everybody."

"My favorite choreographer is probably Jiri Kylian," Piris-Nino says. "And he's from Prague."