That is why Ensemble Español’s performance in Dance for Life 2019 is an extra special opportunity to honor and remember her incredible life and work.
Ensemble Español was founded by Dame Libby Komaiko in 1975. Before experiencing Spanish Dance, Libby Komaiko was a young jazz dancer training in Chicago with Gus Giordano. She stumbled upon Spanish Dance by accident while accompanying a friend to an audition. She was unexpectedly invited by Jose Greco to train and perform with his legendary Spanish Dance Company from Madrid. This happy accident fueled a lifelong purpose and passion in Dame Libby. She returned to Chicago as a performing solo artist and Spanish Dance teacher. She found a home for her teaching in the Performing Arts division at Northeastern Illinois University. From here, she was able to share her knowledge of this fascinating culture and art form on a large scale and build her company from the ground up, starting with just seven student dancers to what is now a thriving network of over 40 professional dancers and musicians.
The company is just shy of its 45th Anniversary and boasts 135 original pieces of repertoire. It continues to build on the thousands of lives impacted through Dame Libby’s passion-fueled teachings and community programs. In her lifetime, Dame Libby received several well-deserved awards including the Ruth Page Award (2003), the International Latino Cultural Center Lifetime Achievement Award (2004) and most recently the Legacy Award from Audience Architects (2017). She was even honored by the Spanish government for her commitment to preserving and sharing Spanish culture internationally. Sadly, Dame Libby passed away in February after a long battle with autoimmune disease. Her love for her company and her art kept her going strong in her final years.
Chicago Dancers United became a very important influence on Dame Libby’s passion to help others battle the horrific disease we knew very little of in the 80’s and early 90’s.
The loss of Dame Libby was felt strongly by so many in the Chicago dance community. That is why Ensemble Español’s performance in Dance for Life 2019 is an extra special opportunity to honor and remember her incredible life and work. Dance for Life takes place on August 17, 2019, at the Auditorium Theatre at 6:00 pm. Ensemble Español will be performing an excerpt from Mar de Fuego (2018), choreographed by Carlos Rodriguez — a Madrid based dancer/choreographer and one of the many lives touched by Dame Libby. He choreographed this work as a tribute to her.
DancerMusic needed to know more about Dame Libby’s life, about Ensemble Español’s involvement with Dance for Life and about the inspiration for the work they will perform this weekend at the Auditorium Theatre. To get an inside perspective, DanceMusic writer Crystal Gurrola chatted with Jorge Perez, Executive Director and Associate Artistic Director of Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater. He has been involved with the company since the early 80’s and worked very closely with Dame Libby Komaiko. Here’s what he told us:
Rodriguez is a Madrid based dancer and choreographer and is one of the many lives touched by Dame Libby. He choreographed this work as a tribute to her.
Crystal Gurrola: Ensemble Español has long been connected to the Chicago Dancers United organization. How has the organization impacted Ensemble Español, and what does it mean for the company to be a part of this year’s Dance for Life performance?
Jorge Perez: Chicago Dancers United became a very important influence on Dame Libby’s passion to help others battle the horrific disease we knew very little of in the 80’s and early 90’s. She lost her beloved dance partner, Roberto Lorca in 1987 and her company’s first dancer Juan Ramon in 1997, whom she loved like a son. Both of these men were lost to AIDS. Ever since, our participation with Dance for Life meant a lot to Dame Libby and our company of dancers who were impacted, along with our community, by the tragic loss of life due to AIDS. Chicago Dancers United gave us a platform in finding relief, support, love, compassion and the hope for a cure.
We never thought in our wildest dreams the support of CDU would impact us so close to our hearts, but it did and we could not have been more grateful.
Jorge: This year’s participation is extremely impactful and emotional for all of us here at the Ensemble Español and Northeastern Illinois University because of the recent passing of our founder, Dame Libby, on February 2, 2019. The CDU organization supported our beloved leader for the last two years during her bedridden time. She had been battling Lupus since the early 90’s — an autoimmune disease first diagnosed after a company tour in Puerto Rico. We never thought, in our wildest dreams, the support of CDU would impact us so close to our hearts; but it did and we could not have been more grateful. CDU provided our Wonder Woman with financial support for 24-hour nurse care during the past two seasons of her journey, as well as emotional support. Her spirit of happiness was always visible in her eyes.
She felt taken care of by the community she had devoted her life’s work to, and whom she loved wholeheartedly. She called her life’s work in dance and education a ‘gift’: “To be gifted with a love of the art, and able to do what you love, what you’re passionate about, for a lifetime, is a gift. It’s just a gift.” — Dame Libby Komaiko
“To be gifted with a love of the art, and able to do what you love, what you’re passionate about, for a lifetime, is a gift. It’s just a gift.” — Dame Libby Komaiko
Crystal: You worked very closely with Dame Libby as a performer. She also groomed you for your current role as Executive Director of Ensemble Español. Tell us about your journey and the most important lessons Dame Libby had to share with you along the way.
Jorge: Meeting Dame Libby here at Northeastern was a transformation of a lifetime, both personally and artistically. I tell all of our dancers and teachers that every concert and every class is the golden platform. With this art form, you never know who you might transform in those encounters.
I had seen firsthand how Dame Libby fulfilled dreams for so many before me …
Jorge: I was seeking office employment at the university as a student aide in Dame Libby’s department. On her invitation, I attended one of her company’s performances. After that, I had a newfound dream of performing, and with Dame Libby’s mentorship, I was able to accomplish this dream on some of the grandest international stages. Having had a love for the theater since the 5th grade, my introduction to her world of Spanish dance became addicting in every sense and resonated with my theater background. The music, the dances, the stage, the drama, the culture — it all became an exciting world I wanted more of every second.
I evolved from a young college student looking for employment as her office aide to becoming her Spanish dance student, then a company apprentice, later a first lead dancer, then choreographer, teaching assistant, orator to some of her critically acclaimed Flamenco ballets and later to leading my own Spanish dance classes. Dame Libby shared her world, having me appear in film documentaries and as the television spokesman for the company, as well as teaching me the business side of the company. She emphasized the importance of our higher education partnership with Northeastern and partnerships with other arts and culture institutions, as well as our sponsors. I was honored to be a part of her life’s work and journey. I thought “what a big responsibility she has given me” – yet, I never questioned or looked back.
Watching her enter that community with such conviction to teach so many children, was the most generous act of teaching I had ever witnessed by an educator.
Jorge: I saw firsthand how Dame Libby fulfilled dreams for so many before me including Juan Ramon (her former first dancer), Ron De Jesus (former principal of Hubbard Street), Vida Peral, Karen Stelling and of course Irma Suarez Ruiz, who is my partner in crime, Artistic Director, and dance partner. Dame Libby did this by sharing her incredible talents with all those around her – myself included as a young Puerto Rican Latino American finding my path on this remarkable journey. I remember touring Mexico on the company’s first international tour in 1986 as part of the Cervantino Festival. Upon my return, I told my parents that I wanted to become a professional Spanish dancer for the rest of my life. My parents thought this was just a phase, as I had signed up for the U.S. Air Force to become a pilot earlier that year. Those plans changed the moment Dame Libby entered my life, or as fate would have it, I was lucky enough to enter hers.
She provided me with such an enormous platform in understanding the business, the art form, the educational importance of keeping this art form alive for others to learn, the importance of higher education and fulfilling the ‘gift’ that is your life’s journey.
I was by her side in 1985 when she created the Youth Company at the Frederick Funston School in the Humboldt Park community where I grew up. Watching her enter that community with such a conviction to teach so many children was the most generous act of teaching I had ever witnessed by an educator. These classes were after her full-time teaching workload at the university, teaching the adult company, community workshops and mentoring her students as an adviser. Dame Libby somehow found the time and passion to work with these youngsters twice a week.
Jorge: My life’s biggest learning curve came from seeing her passion for her students and her art firsthand. I learned early on she was mentoring me for so much more: to help keep the company, her family, moving forward. She continuously set a higher and higher bar of excellence in her productions and teachings with the wonderful artists she would bring in from Spain and across the U.S.
Gracias Dama Libby de todo corazon.
This piece serves so well in celebrating her life. It honors the ability of one person, like Dame Libby, to impact so many lives from across our oceans, across generations, and even across planes of existence.
Crystal: It is my understanding that Mar de Fuego, the piece from which an excerpt will be presented at Dance for Life, is conceptually based on an ancient Asian legend. What is this legend and the spiritual significance of it? How is it connected to the dancers of Ensemble Español?
Jorge: Inspired by the legend of The Red Thread of Fate, choreographer Carlos Rodriguez (Madrid) transcends this inspiration with Ensemble Español dancers in the creation of the flamenco contemporary ballet, Mar de Fuego, with visionary lighting designer Luis Perdiguero. According to this East Asian legend, we are destined to connect with one another via this magical red cord from the lunar gods. We are connected regardless of place, time or circumstances. This magical cord may stretch or tangle, but never breaks. Carlos Rodriguez dedicated this ballet to Dame Libby Komaiko for her love, passion and dedication to the art form of Spanish dance, music, arts, culture and education. The success of the work was, in grand part, due to all of the dancers from different generations who clearly demonstrate the impact of one person, one art form, uniting us all with our art, audiences and transformations. The ballet premiered last year at our American Spanish Dance and Music Festival 2018 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts to critical success.
Lauren Warnecke of the Chicago Tribune called it “cutting-edge feel… timeless … Rodriguez is comfortably pushing Spanish dance into the 21st century, evolving the form in innovative and fascinating ways through his creative movement invention and beautiful imagery. And I think Rodriguez is hoping audience members take a more literal interpretation of the red thread’s meaning about romantic partners finding one another. They should — this piece is hot.”
More importantly, Dame Libby gave the work a high two thumbs up. She loved it. This piece serves so well in celebrating her life. It honors the ability of one person, like Dame Libby, to impact so many lives from across our oceans, across generations and even across planes of existence.
To the dancers she would say: I am so proud of each and every one of you. Be sure to stay as one with the music. This is a very special night for our community in this wonderful theater. Give the audience mucho arte. Todo que tienen — all that you have to give.
Crystal: Imagine it is five minutes before showtime at Dance for Life. I’m sure Dame Libby’s presence will be strongly felt throughout the entire Auditorium Theater. At that moment, if she could, what words do you think she’d share with her dancers and with the Chicago dance community?
Jorge: To the dancers she would say: I am so proud of each and every one of you. Be sure to stay as one with the music. This is a very special night for our community in this wonderful theater. Give the audience mucho arte. Todo que tienen — all that you have to give. The work is at 100% now. Enjoy your beautiful dancing. Don’t forget to color in your red dots on the inside part of your eyes and remember to look up at the audience. Gracias y Ole!
Jorge: To the community she would say: Thank you so very much for embracing my love of dance, music, art and theater here this evening with my dancers. Tonight, we celebrate with each other our power to help each other. Tonight, we come together as one in sharing our gifts as a community. Tonight we continue to make a difference in supporting each other, and more importantly those most in need of our support. I am forever grateful for your love, support, guidance and mentorship all of these years. I am truly honored to be a part of such a very special community.
Crystal: Ensemble Español is a shining example of the Dance for Life mission to see a healthy and thriving dance community – one in which we support and lift each other up through good times and hard times. How will Ensemble Español continue to thrive and live on the legacy of Dame Libby in the years to come?
Jorge: The Ensemble Español will carry on Dame Libby’s legacy in its true essence and various forms thanks to her creations and preservations of the art form of Spanish dance and music, and through the many programs she established 44 years ago. That preservation, which enriches our communities, is passed on via our arts and education programs alongside our partner, Northeastern Illinois University.
To the community she would say: Thank you so very much for embracing my love of dance, music, art and theater here this evening with my dancers. Tonight we celebrate with each other our power to help each other.
Jorge: The creation of the Dame Libby Legacy Fund will secure those programs from our repertoire (with over 135 pieces in the archive) to curriculums and training programs (currently serving over 30,000 students) both academically and community-based, for generations to come. Established endowments — currently four of them — are a testament to that preservation.
The Legacy Fund will support the same initiatives that meant so much to Dame Libby and will ensure that her wish for the Ensemble to continue to bring the passion of Spanish dance to all, from traditional to contemporary forms, will be honored. These are some of the initiatives which the Legacy Fund seeks to support:
- Establishing the company as a full-time professional performance company
- Supporting the Youth Company, apprentices, scholarship and endowment programs
- The American Spanish Dance and Music Festival, featuring world-renowned artists and musicians
- Production of the annual Holiday Family Concerts at Northeastern Illinois University
- Increasing the educational programming of the company
- Academic Spanish dance classes and programs at Northeastern Illinois University
- Community classes for children and adults
- and much more!
Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater performs at Dance for Life 2019 on Saturday, August 17 at 6pm at the Auditorium Theatre (50 E Ida B Wells Dr. Chicago, 60605). Tickets are available online at tickets.auditoriumtheatre.org.
For more information, visit chicagodancersunited.org.
For more information on upcoming Ensemble Español events and classes, visit www.ensembleespanol.org/events.