"I had not been in flamenco heels in 20-some years," says choreographer Ron De Jesus. "I was terrified of being exposed, like I was a phony because I hadn't committed to the technique the dancers had devoted their lives to."
For De Jesus, creating "Mil Clavos" — or "One Thousand Nails," named for all the studs pounded into flamenco soles — with the performers of Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater proved a bruising experience. Black-and-blue toes after his first day in the studio forced him to wear sneakers every day thereafter. "I'd forgotten the demands on the feet," he says. "But it made me appreciate the dancers more. They were strong like bulls, and generous."
Though De Jesus started his professional career with Ensemble Espanol, he went on to dance for 17 years with Hubbard Street, then worked with Twyla Tharp as a dancer and repetiteur in New York. In recent years — especially with the inaugural full-length program of Ron De Jesus Dance — he's re-established a contemporary-dance presence here. But he's wanted to set a piece on Ensemble Espanol, which specializes in folk, classical and flamenco dance, for years.
"Eventually they surrendered to my nagging," De Jesus laughs. The Northeastern Illinois University-based company will perform the commissioned flamenco-contemporary fusion "Mil Clavos," along with several other world and U.S. premieres, during the 38th annual American Spanish Dance & Music Festival, June 20-22 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.
Hailing from what he calls "the Puerto Rican 'Bermuda Triangle' of Wicker Park, Uptown and Humboldt Park," De Jesus says he was a "roaming" high school dropout when he met Ensemble Espanol founder Dame Libby Komaiko. "She helped me get my G.E.D., get a scholarship [at Northeastern]. I studied with them at night, then became a company member."
But the seed that launched the new piece, De Jesus says, was his first memory of Komaiko dancing, accompanied by her concert-pianist mother. "I'd never been to a theater and didn't understand how dance could be transferred to a stage," he says. "And here was this dynamic of mother to daughter, artist to artist, transferring the art form."
As usual, Komaiko was coloring outside the lines of traditional flamenco performance too.
"We all know flamenco's wailing singers, the guitarists and the artillery of the footwork," De Jesus says. "This was elegant, Renaissance classical dancing." He wanted to re-create that revelatory moment, among others, and offer "an homage to Libby, to her commitment to keeping her art form alive here, in the States."
To that end, De Jesus chose three contemporary-classical piano compositions — not at all traditional in flamenco — for "Mil Clavos." The middle section, evoking female energy, uses a "very simple, soft and delicate piano piece" occasionally overlaid with castanets. Violin and piano music creates tension in the first section, devoted to male energy: the "driving force, sensuality, control, power" that first inspired De Jesus to study dance.
And the third section? "Chaos," he says. Or, perhaps more accurately: an homage to chaos, as he and the dancers worked outside their comfort zones with the introduction of contemporary partnering and innovative port de bras.
Though apprehensive about the entire collaboration, De Jesus says, "I knew there could be a beautiful fusion. I just said to the dancers, 'You teach me, or remind me, and I'll educate you in the things I know.' I wanted it to look natural, but we had to find that through trial and error and a lot of editing."
Under trying circumstances, too: Chicago's brutal winter cut short an already tight creative process. In what De Jesus calls "a nightmare come true," they lost two of their five scheduled days last December because De Jesus, who divides his time between Chicago and New York, had his flights here canceled, twice.
Near the end of their last day together, "Mil Clavos" still wasn't done despite the "beautiful synergy" they'd achieved.
"I thought, 'I've lost 48 hours, I'll stay an extra hour tonight,'" says De Jesus. They finished the piece at 2 a.m. "I was so impressed!" the choreographer says. "It was definitely teamwork, an incredible journey for all of us."
Also worth catching
Kristina Isabelle Dance Company: Isabelle's new dance-on-stilts, "Levels & Lines: The Moving Target," debuts at the Pivot Arts Festival. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Loyola University's Mundelein Center, 1020 W. Sheridan, $15 at 773-609-0782 and pivotarts.org
Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, June 20-22
Where: North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $26-$46 at 847-673-6300 or northshorecenter.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun