It’s May 23 and it’s got to be one of the hottest days of the year so far. I’m on foot, on campus at Northeastern Illinois University. And I’m lost, trying to find a low-rise building adjacent to Bohemian National Cemetery. I think I spot it, then I’m certain: Its front door bears the logo of Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater.
In the performing company and school’s half of the building — shared with NEIU’s maintenance staff, carpenters and electricians — there are two practice studios and open office space. A hallway dividing the low-rise down its center is lined on Ensemble Español’s side with ten tall, wooden doors.
Irma Suarez Ruíz, associate artistic director, and Jorge Pérez, administrative director, open the first pair of these doors for me, to reveal a huge closet filled with brightly colored costumes and props. There are racks of full skirts, trimmed and ruffled to the utmost; and a plastic bin labeled Embrujada (“bewitched” or “haunted”) Shoes. There are collapsible fans, lots of them, bin after bin of show fans; short vests and gossamer blouses, jewel-toned velvet gowns, and accessories galore: sashes, shawls, belts, headpieces and hats. I notice more high-heeled shoes of various types, both for men and for women. Still toasty from my walk from the bus stop, I can’t keep my eyes off the fans, even though there’s so much more to take in.
“Each fan has a history,” Pérez says. “I know who used it, who danced with it.” He describes repairing them after particularly zealous performances, and admits that sometimes, a fan becomes too worn and torn to be worth the effort. “So you throw it out. But it hurts, always, to throw one out.”
He estimates at least 2,000 total garments, costumes for 125 unique choreographies in the company’s repertoire, hang behind these ten doors. Suarez Ruíz locks up the closet and we step into one of the studios.
With us is a young man, neatly dressed in a turquoise shirt, grey slacks and dress loafers. He smiles broadly and often but doesn’t say a word.
As with any dance company, the history of Ensemble Español is fascinating. Founded in 1976 by Dame Libby Komaiko and seven students, a lot has happened in its 36 years. Many dance artists and musicians have blossomed alongside Komaiko, Pérez and Suarez Ruíz; many have thrived, retired, left, visited, stayed, transitioned, created, discovered, taught, learned, tried, failed and succeeded. Suarez Ruíz is in her 33rd year with the company; Pérez is going on 28. I lose myself in their stories about memorable tours and world premieres.
But even when it comes to classical and folkloric forms, dance only exists in the here and now; each day, it’s recreated out of the body, music and nothing else. I asked to visit Ensemble Español, which I see perform at least twice a year, to hear the story of this quiet, young man who’s carrying those traditions into the future.
• • •
Leonard Perez, 18, caught my eye during last summer’s American Spanish Dance and Music Festival and again in April at Instituto Cervantes, when he performed at a Chicago Latino Film Festival event. Highly musical and self-assured, with that balance of gentlemanly bearing and ferocity that’s so key to Spanish dances, Leonard has come into his own onstage, although you wouldn’t guess it by his shy demeanor. This weekend, he performs with Ensemble Español as its newest apprentice during the American Spanish Dance and Music Festival. Three gala concerts featuring the company, guest artists and the youth ensemble from which Leonard was just promoted, run June 22 through 24 at at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.
In 2007, Leonard moved with family to Chicago from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He had no formal dance training when he entered Kelvyn Park High School in Belmont Gardens, but enrolled in an Argentine tango class it offers, and participated in After School Matters programs. Kelvyn Park’s bilingual coordinator, Andrea Leighton, let him know a professional dance company would soon visit the school; Leonard attended and met Suarez Ruíz and fellow dancer Juan Castellon.
Leonard practiced twice a week until graduating from KPHS in 2010, at the age of 16. He enrolled at NEIU that fall with a major in Communications. Heading into his junior year, he’s up to 20 hours per week of work with the troupe’s 16 senior company members, on top of the variety-pack of techniques he studies (ballet, contemporary, jazz) for his minor in Dance. Leonard’s twice represented NEIU at the American College Dance Festival and joined the main company for Spring to Dance in St. Louis.
After our interview, he shows me two short dances he’s rehearsing: solo El Pescador, which Edgar Serna choreographed for Ensemble Español dancer Edwin Suarez around the time Leonard was born; and Despedida (Farewell), a duet he choreographed and performs with another young star-in-the-making, Abigail Ventura. Leonard’s percussive footwork is loud and crisp, his face placid, yet open and responsive. A few times, he seems to completely lose himself in what he’s doing.
Afterward, I ask him a regular question of mine when interviewing dancers: “Name a discomfort zone. Is there a technique that feels awkward or just plain ‘wrong’?”
“No.” He leans forward in his chair and laughs hard, the only time during our interview that he raises his voice. “I feel comfortable doing anything.”
Leonard Perez and Abigail Ventura perform June 22 through 24 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Three “Flamenco Passion” gala concerts to close the 36th American Spanish Dance and Music Festival feature Dame Libby Komaiko, Irma Suarez Ruíz and Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater; and numerous guest artists including Jose Barrios, David Coria, Paloma Gómez, Carmela Greco, along with notable flamenco musicians and vocalists.
This post was updated from its original version for clarity at 1pm on June 20.