Director Gustavo Ramirez Sansano's risks pay off for Luna Negra

If you're going to mount a dance inspired by the opera "Carmen," naturally you people it with a heroine in gypsy garb and colorful toreadors, right?

Well, no, not if you're Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, whose highly original "Carmen.maquia" looked more like a Picasso painting come to life amid a stark, stately Art Deco playground.

"Whenever I compose, I look for ingredients I think the piece needs, and while 'Carmen' is a story, what it seemed to need was a nonliteral medium," he said. "We set out not to tell Carmen's story, but to reveal what she feels."

Both ambitious and risky, "Carmen.maquia," the title of Sansano's version last spring, proved a major accomplishment, a complex, expressionistic dance that evoked the tale by means of geometrically stylized dance and a scenic counterfoil to the great Georges Bizet score, a counterfoil that wound up paradoxically reinvigorating the story's deep emotions. Sansano is an unabashedly abstract choreographer, to be sure. "I don't really like acting," he admitted. "Those moments where we had to rely on acting were the most difficult."

"Carmen.maquia" also provided Sansano the chance to create great roles for two of Luna Negra Dance Theater's best talents: Monica Cervantes, steely and seductive as Carmen, and rubbery Eduardo Zuniga, a speedy, elusive Don Jose. "It's almost weird as a choreographer to find two people who can take what you give them and make it newer and better," he said of his stars.

In the two years since he took over the artistic direction of Luna Negra from founder Eduardo Vilaro, Sansano, 34, has introduced Chicago audiences both to his consistently fine work and to that of others, including such innovative voices as Brazilian-born Fernando Melo. He has bolstered the troupe's credentials as one of the more adventuresome — and sometimes challenging — in our city. Earlier this year, he inaugurated a program of gutsy new works, performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art and returning with new offerings this June. "This year, there will be both live dance and a movie," he said, with Zuniga down for an original dance film.

At the more family-oriented end of the spectrum, he has also boosted Luna Negra's calendar with the "Moniquilla" children's series, about the trials of a trio of friends, which enjoyed its second installment Nov. 30-Dec. 2 and promises to be a new holiday staple.

Now the trick is to reach more audiences. With only two concerts annually at the Harris Theater, fall and spring, Luna Negra may well be the best dance company you're not seeing. "Reaction from people who come to see our company is really good," he said. "We've put a lot of money and energy into our art, and that's always important. Now we need to put a little more of that toward marketing. If we don't sell our one single night each Harris engagement, it's over, and people miss it."

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