Luna Negra Dance Theater enters its next phase.
The last time Gustavo Ramírez Sansano moved to Chicago, it didn’t quite take. Following three years with the junior company of Nederlands Dans Theater in the Hague, the then 23-year-old dancer joined Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in the summer of 2001. “I knew I was leaving within months—before Christmas,” the tall, thin, thickly accented Spaniard tells me as the 17 members of Luna Negra Dance Theater prepare for their first hometown performance under his direction Saturday 16. Within a year, he returned to Europe.
But a bit of moonlighting Ramírez Sansano did nine years ago has brought him back. Eduardo Vilaro, the founding artistic director of Luna Negra Dance Theater, invited the budding choreographer to make a premiere for his fledgling company. Although it was Ramírez Sansano’s first professional commission, Flabbergast, a fast-paced, prop-heavy comedy with Spanish text, proved enduring: It’s been active in Luna’s repertory ever since. During that time, Ramírez Sansano built a reputation in Europe and the U.S. as a fresh, smart dance maker, and Vilaro established Luna Negra as a Chicago success story and one of the city’s hottest dance tickets.
When Vilaro announced he’d leave Luna Negra to head New York’s Ballet Hispanico in April 2009, there was “quite a big crowd in response,” says Joanna Naftali, the company’s executive director, “but we weren’t really satisfied with who was coming forward. We started looking at choreographers, saying, ‘Well, who did Eduardo bring in?’” Board member Jennifer Edgcomb had always loved Flabbergast and volunteered to contact Ramírez Sansano; her e-mail found him in Ibiza, where he was relishing his first vacation in almost a decade.
“At first I thought, No,” he recalls. “I hadn’t thought about coming back to the U.S. In Spain, I had invested so much. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted it.” It took almost a year to tie up loose ends in Valencia, where Ramírez Sansano had launched his own company. He flew to Chicago in April and hoped the dancers he selected by audition would work well, personally and professionally, with the few he wanted to bring from Europe and three of Vilaro’s hires chosen to stay on. (“You buy pants here, a shirt there and a hat somewhere else,” Ramírez Sansano says. “You think it’s going to fit, but you never know.”)
Fully produced shows and domestic touring will continue under the Luna Negra banner. Based on programs he initiated in Valencia, Ramírez Sansano will add intimate, avant-garde concerts called Luna Nueva as well as custom-designed outreach concerts for kids branded Luna Niños. A condition of some grants, companies’ shows for students often “take fragments from other things and just put them together,” Ramírez Sansano says, “and I don’t think that’s fair. I want to give kids what they deserve, something special, dedicated.”
Naturally, Ramírez Sansano’s slick, theatrical, European-school choreography will replace Vilaro’s as the company’s signature voice, although Vilaro’s 2008 Deshár Alhát was one of two works chosen by Ramírez Sansano to complement his Saturday 16 premiere, Toda una Vida. I call Vilaro in New York to ask if he thinks the passionate fan base he built from scratch will be tested by the shift.
“Transitions are bumpy. They’re clunky. It’s the same for me here: I’m bringing a different perspective, and my audience here is accustomed to something else.
“I have full confidence in Gustavo,” he adds, “and I think there’s a lot of room to grow. There always is.”
See the new Luna Negra Dance Theater at the Harris Theater Saturday 16. Ballet Hispanico follows suit November 5.