Global Rhythms

By: Laura Molzahn

Flamenco and stepping moved out of the Spanish cabaret and the African American fraternity and onto the concert stage at “Global Rhythms,” the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s seventh annual international percussive dance showcase. Though past shows have reached out to Brazil, Spain, and Israel, this year CHRP founder Lane Alexander stuck closer to home. On opening night, two high-energy troupes—Chicago’s Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater and Washington DC’s Step Afrika!—proved there’s no need to travel far and wide to show off the ever-widening world of percussive dance.

Under the direction of Dame Libby Komaiko, Ensemble Español has been translating a chamber form to the concert hall for 35 years. The company specializes in large-scale, precision-engineered works delivering a big bang—literally. Zapateado, choreographed by Komaiko and Paco Alonso, opened the bill with a dozen men and women in gaucho outfits pounding out intricate rhythms, often in impressive unison, without the benefit of music. Historically a Latin-American dance for the cowboy, zapateado takes the audience too on a wild ride.

Savvy stagecraft also marked Ensemble Español’s finale, Bolero. Set to Maurice Ravel’s famously escalating composition, this visual feast includes projections of Picasso drawings and paintings, flamboyantly tossed skirts and capes in red and black, and a shifting lighting design that picks out the elements of Komaiko’s sensuous choreography. Feria Andaluz—traditional sevillanas performed by the youth ensemble—presented a similar, if paler, riot of color and motion.

Sentimiento y Soledad (Sentiments & Solitude) was the exception that proved the rule—if there is a rule that bigger is better on the concert stage. To live music by a singer, a cajón player, and two guitarists, dancer/choreographers Claudia Pizarro and Jose Torres served up the traditional forms of siguiriya and martinete in a slice of pure heaven for die-hard flamenco fans, a blend of wrenching music and blazing dance.

In the second half, frequent CHRP guest Step Afrika!, directed by Jakari Sherman, presented Jason Nious’s Ke Nako plus three retro-feeling pieces new to Chicago. Two of those pieces came from the 16-year-old company’s most recent experiment, a 2011 suite inspired by painter Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series.” My Man’s Gone Now, set to Nina Simone’s version of that song, features three anguished women in housedresses performing tap, contemporary dance, and the splits. Sherman’s ingenious all-male Off the Train follows, percussive effects eerily capturing the clacking sound of the rails and the whoosh of a steam engine. These men are “gone” in search of a better life in the North.

Nxt/Step added a few twists to stepping’s usual a cappella body percussion: layers of recorded and live jazz, composed and performed by sax player Will E. Smith, and canes slamming into the floor. Precision turns of the head, whooping, and rhythms in counterpoint with the music provided an explosive finish to the final half of the concert.

Not every experiment works, of course; the women of My Man’s Gone Now didn’t look at home in the jointly created choreography. And not all of Step Afrika!’s works translated well to a big house. More important, though, is that the beat goes on—and evolves.