Thoughts on Luna Negra ?Mujeres!

Luna Negra dancers in "Naked Ape". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday night at the Harris Theater, Luna Negra Dance Theater presented ?Mujeres!, a one night only show celebrating influential Latina women.? Since installing Gustavo Ram?rez Sansano as Artistic Director in 2009, Luna Negra has quickly become one of my favorite companies to watch.? The new artistic vision and technical ability of the dancers are similar to the style of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (It was nice to see many HSDC-ers in the audience!) and is a decidedly different direction from the former Luna.? For the performance, I think I had the best seat in the house (V 106). It was the “center stage” spot in the audience. I normally sit closer and did miss seeing more of the facial expressions (I didn’t have my glasses), but this seat provided the perfect perch to view the complex patterns and minimal sets.? I was excited to see the first piece, Sansano’s world premiere Not Everything, which I’d seen earlier in the month in rehearsals.? It not only did not disappoint, but was the best number in the show.

Not Everything was inspired by a photograph by Graciala Iturbide that caught Sansano’s attention at an exhibit in Spain.? Opening with a powerful female duet by Ren?e Adams (in all black) and M?nica Cervantes (in all white), he sets the mood and stage by having Adams intermittently carry a large bucket across and upstage following the path of white linoleum strips laid in an L shape.? The weight of the bucket, which we find out at the end of the duet, is loaded with red paint alludes to the heavy internal burden the woman in white (Cervantes) is carrying.? Adams pours the paint onto the white strip in a big puddle, unburdening herself before she leaves the stage.? The second section, much faster and frenetic, adds in the rest of the company dressed all in black.? The dark costumes and dark lighten sometimes made it difficult to see all of the movement.? This energetic section personified the flux the woman in white is feeling.? The choreography seemed to be controlled chaos with an underlying back and forth swaying that carries over into the final section.? That subtle, lulling, repetitive movement assures that the chaos will come to an end.? The dancing is so unique and interesting, you barely notice the white panel being slowly lifted to the left, causing the paint to run.? The third section is performed in a vertical line moving from stage left to stage right.? Cervantes, second from the front, slowly walks undeterred across the front white panel.? All the other dancers, in black, dance in front of and behind her pace in a continuous cannon reminding us of the chaos in her mind as she slowly and steadily walks forward.? The final image has Cervantes walking in front of the white panel that is now fully vertical with the paint running down recreating the picture that inspired the work.? The music, sets and dancing were all beautiful.? The final image – stunning.? Congrats to Sansano for achieving another remarkable choreographic feat.? I, for one, look forward to watching his work for many years.

The second piece, another world premiere, is inspired by the first queen of pre-modern Spain.? Asun Noales’ Juana is another dramatic, black and white dance showing the female lead’s decent into insanity.? White fabric pieces hanging from the ceiling move up and down ultimately creating the tower in which the queen is locked in by her people.? Veronica Guadalupe‘s interpretation of the mad queen was dramatic, strong and heartfelt.? Even though she doesn’t leave the stage for the entire piece, it is ther final solo that drives and haunts.? The other dancers almost seemed a distraction.? The look and feel of the work was too similar to the first piece, that my companions and I questioned whether they should’ve been back to back.? The consensus of the group I was with during the second intermission was that the two pieces were so much alike that it almost seemed as if Juana was part two of Not Everything.

The third work was a restaging of work by Michelle Mazanales about the life of Frida Kahlo.? Paloma Querida was a big hit with the Luna Negra audience when it premiered in 2010 and the work holds up.? Splashes of red and vibrant music lightened the mood created by the first two works, but there was plenty of drama and strong female dancing.? Compared to the other pieces that had a more European contemporary feel, Paloma stylistically felt like old Luna.? The company is strong and focused and heading in a really interesting, new direction.? I’m all for keeping your roots and acknowledging where you came from, but maybe it’s time for Sansano to forge ahead with his own vision.? I think the company and the audience is ready.

I want to note a few problems I had with the show. ? 1.? With a one-night-only show, you can’t go back to see it again and this program warrants a second viewing.? I want to see it again (especially Sansano’s work).? 2.? Dedicating the season to women naturally tends to highlight the spectacular women in the company – and that is all of them! – but, the men, who are just as fascinating to watch seemed to be overlooked.? Aside from a sassy little solo by Eduardo Zu?iga in the final piece (where he literally almost danced out of his pants), the men didn’t stand out.? That’s a shame.

Q&A with Luna Negra’s Veronica Guadalupe

Guadalupe in "Danzon". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday marks the first performance of her 10th season with Luna Negra and Veronica Guadalupe is ready. After two major injuries during her career, she’s at the top of her game and excited about the upcoming performance ?Mujeres! at the Harris Theater. The program celebrates Latina women with three pieces: a restaging of a work Paloma Querida, inspired by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; a premiere about the first pre-modern queen of Spain; ?and another premiere inspired by a photo by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide.

Guadalupe has been dancing since she was 2 1/2 years old and studied at the Virginia School for the Arts, danced in the second company with Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago and was an apprentice with River North Dance Chicago before joining Luna Negra in 2002. ?She’s now also co-rehearsal director, was one of the dancers to stay with the company after founder Eduardo Vilaro left in 2009 to run Ballet Hispanico in New York and current Artistic Director Gustavo Ram?rez Sansano took over. I spoke with her two weeks ago about the transition, the company and her career.

How did you end up at Luna Negra?

I apprenticed with River North for a year and I sustained a really terrible injury when I was there.? I fractured my tibia almost all of the way through and I have a titanium rod in there now.? They think that I probably had a stress fracture that I danced on for at least three months.? I was out for six months.? After that, my leg was a noodle.? I?d been on crutches for 12 weeks and in a cast for another 10 weeks?it was terrible.? I was barely taking barre again when my friend wanted us to go and audition for Luna Negra.? Are you kidding me?? When we got to rep, luckily, everything was on the other leg!? He (Vilaro) offered me a contract and I had to tell him I hadn?t danced in six months, but he was willing to give me a try. That was July 2002.

Tell me about the transition.? When Eduardo left, you were one of the only people who stayed…

I?d left for a brief period of time, while the transition was happening.? When Eduardo announced he was leaving, almost immediately Michelle Manzanales and another board member contacted me and wanted me to come back. I did a fall season as a guest artist and I was part of the search for the new Artistic Director.? I was the only one to have worked with all of the candidates.? I could tell the dancers what it was like to work with them and tell the board and search committee what my experiences had been with these people.? I told them flat out there was only one person I would come back for. Gustavo choreographed on us in 2002 and he worked with us two other times. ?I said, he’s the only person who can take the company to the next place.? He was my choice.? I told the board that this is what the company needs.? It worked out perfectly.

The company looks completely different now.? How was the transition?

The transition was really smooth, because we did have a change over with dancers too, so we had a lot of new people starting over.? I think that was really important.? When we signed him, he couldn?t come here for a few months and I think a lot of dancers were thinking selfishly about what they would do in the meantime, instead of what would be good for the company as a whole.? I think it was important to have a group of dancers that could begin new with this new era.?

How do you like the difference in style of dancing?

I love it.? I think it?s fresh and new and exciting.? I think it?s shaking up the Chicago dance community. It?s something they haven?t seen before and no one else is doing it.? It?s incredible.

Let’s talk about your dancing.? Are you in all three pieces in !Mujeres!?

Yes.? I?m resetting “Paloma Querida”.? Michelle (Manzanales) came in for a weekend and worked with us.? She made a lot of changes.? It?s almost like a new piece now.? The heart of it is still there, but she did a lot of structural changes that I think made a big difference.? She was very respectful that these weren?t the same group of dancers that I worked with before and let?s utilize what we have now.? She made some really great changes.?

Tell me about the two world premieres.

“Juana” ? oh, I?m Juana! ? she was the first queen of modern Spain.? Her story is she fell in love with this guy Phillipe.? They called her Juana Loca and he was Phillipe Hermosa.? Phillip the beautiful and Juana the crazy.? She was crazy in love with him and he cheated on her left and right.? When he died, she went totally crazy and was obsessed with him even though he was dead.? It drove her mad.? Her family left her.? The country wouldn?t entrust her with the power of being queen, so they locked her in a tower to die.

Do you get a crazy Spanish Giselle mad scene?

Kind of. It?s a hard balance.? At first, I was focusing more on the emotional and dramatic aspect of it and then she (Asul Noales) threw a whole bunch of dance in.? I don?t leave the stage for 21 minutes.? It?s intense.

(Gustavo’s piece) “Not Everything” is inspired by a female photographer.? It?s just so beautiful.? The music?it a very intense piece musically.? There?s a really soft beginning with just M?nica (Cervantes) and Ren?e (Adams) that lays the groundwork from the picture.? The group section is?it?s the hardest thing I?ve ever done in my life.? It?s so fast.? We were watching rehearsal footage the other day and someone said it looked like it was in fast forward.? It feels like it?s in fast forward!? This is the test, the challenge?he?s throwing the hardest thing at us right now, because we have to get it.? We?re performing it in a couple of weeks.? The third section is the most beautiful music and it totally changes directions.?

Luna Negra – ?Mujeres!, Saturday, October 1, 2011 @ 630pm

Harris Theater, 205 E Randolph, 312.334.7777

Preview: Luna Negra ?Mujeres!

"Los Pollos, Juchitan, Qaxaca" (1979) by Mexican photographer Graciela Itrubide.

Luna Negra Dance Theater?presents ?Mujeres! this Saturday, October 1st at the Harris Theater. ?Mujeres, or woman, is the driving force of an evening showcasing the Latina woman in various forms: ?a premiere by a female Spanish choreographer about the first queen of pre-modern Spain, a reworking by a Mexican-American female choreographer about a Mexican female painter, and a premiere of a new work inspired by a female Mexican photographer.? Touted as “a celebration of globally influential Latinas”, the one-night-only show kicking off Luna’s 2011-2012 season, comes in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month.? Featuring choreography from Artistic Director of Otra Danza, Asun Noales, former Luna dancer and Rehearsal Director of Ballet Hispanico, Michelle Manzanales as well as a world premiere from Luna Negra Artistic Director Gustavo Ram?rez Sansano, the seasons opens with a bang!

Earlier this month, I sat in on rehearsal for Sansano’s new work inspired by the photograph Los Pollos, Juchitan, Qaxaca (1979) – or The Chickens – by Graciela Iturbide (shown above).? The picture captured his attention because it is her only photo in which the subject is blurred, like she’s running or trying to get somewhere.? He wanted to know why.? In Not Everything, set to music by Arvo P?rt, Sansano recreates the picture and adds context for the mood or actions that happen in the five seconds before she runs.? An ambitious goal.? “It’s like everything is good, then you get bad information and it goes from your head or brain to your heart and then your gut, then you decide to do something about it,” he explains from their State Street rehearsal studio.?? “I want it to have the quality of taking you on a trip.”? It’s the moment the picture is taken that closes the dance.? Add in linoleum set pieces that will be raised to frame the stage with liquid running down in patterns and you literally have art imitating art on the stage.

Sansano is ambitious with his choreography too. ?At the beginning of rehearsal, he’s cleaning a section that has at least one gesture for every count. ?”More legatto…a softer moment”, he says, working the nuance of every detail, squeezing emphasis into a phrase that seems to have no more room. ?With verbal counts, the movements seem quick and hard to place together. ?Run with music, it’s faster, but flows together organically. ?The dancers seem to take it in stride. ?Now on to the fast section, which dancer and co-rehearsal director ?(she shares duties with M?nica Cervantes)?Veronica Guadalupe says is “the hardest think I’ve ever done before”. ?She nods to indicate that this is it. ?Complex patterns, high energy movement, split-second drops to the floor with seemingly effortless recoveries, singular moments of pause only to join back into the group a few seconds later like nothing happened all to driving, dramatic music. ?With the music off, you can hear the heavy breathing and almost forget how easy they made it look. ?Almost. ?My response was “holy s*^t!”

And that’s just the opener. ?Asun Noales, in her Luna Negra debut, created a full company piece inspired by Juana la Loca (Juana the Mad). ?The dramatic story of the first queen of pre-modern Spain, danced by Guadalupe, incorporates intense love, grief, richness and madness to a score by Tom?s San Miguel. ?Rounding out the show is a revamped version of Paloma Querida (Beloved Dove), which Luna performed right before Sansano took over directorial control from Eduardo Vilaro. ?Michelle Manzanales came back to set her piece based on the work of painter Frida Kahlo on the new Luna dancers. ?The was a huge hit with the audience back in 2010. ?I’m curious to see it set on a different group of dancers.

I’ve been telling pretty much anyone who will listen that they need to go see Luna Negra since Sansano’s debut last fall (his Toda Una Vida was simply stunning). ?Nothing against the former company, but this group of dancers under his direction is fresh, unique, surprising and super talented. ?Get your tickets for Saturday’s performance before they are sold out. ?I promise, it will be worth it.

?Mujeres! – Luna Negra Dance Theater, Saturday, October 1 at 6:30 pm, Harris Theater, 205 E Randolph, $25-$65, 312.334.7777