Gustavo Ramírez Sansano on a Luna Negra set
Seeing red: Sansano on a Luna Negra set

Four sweaty dancers led by an equally sweaty Gustavo Ramírez Sansano, 33, traverse a practice studio in giant strides, brandishing imaginary swords—and fumbling them. So goes the clowning in Georges Bizet’s 1875 comic opera Carmen, the source material for Sansano’s latest piece of choreography. When it premieres at the Harris Theater in March, Carmen.maquia will be the first evening-length work from the Chicago company he now leads, Luna Negra Dance Theater. It’s a bright spotlight for a relatively unknown choreographer, but those unfamiliar with Sansano’s frantic antics can get a primer in February, when Luna Negra remounts his first commission, 2001’s Flabbergast, at North Shore Center. After back-to-back performances spanning his career to date, Chicagoans won’t be asking, “Who is Sansano?” but rather “Where has he been?”

When Luna Negra began courting Sansano in 2010 as a replacement for its departing Cuban American founder, Eduardo Vilaro, the troupe was known for playing to Latin American tastes, especially in music. By contrast, Sansano, a native of Spain, was steeped in European contemporary dance. The melding of aesthetics hasn’t been without bumps: Sansano has challenged—and sometimes mystified—audiences and critics alike with his provocative choices in guest artists, as well as with his own choreography. But he has a natural gift for staging humor alongside violent tragedy, and his first work as Luna Negra’s artistic director, fall 2010’s Toda Una Vida, unveiled a streak of terrifying passion.

Sansano started dancing young in his hometown of San Fulgencio, near Spain’s southeastern coast. From the age of three or four, he performed every year at a village festival. “My mom would do a little choreography that she copied from the TV for my cousins and myself,” he says. At eight, he began attending a regional dance school in nearby Almoradi, and by 16 he was studying contemporary dance and flamenco at Barcelona’s Institut del Teatre.

Although he hasn’t performed onstage since 2002 (credits include stints with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Nederlands Dans Theater), Sansano continues to think like a dancer: Dance first. His version of Carmen, one of the world’s best-known operas, features no vocal music. “Dance is its own story, and I didn’t want to take away from that,” he says. Instead, he searched for offbeat interpretations of the score: “You hear the melody, but it’s on a violin that’s broken. That already gives you a smell, a scene.”

Equally evocative is the work’s title, Carmen.maquia, from the bullfighting term tauromaquia, or “the art of the bull.” No surprise, Carmen attracted Sansano in part for its brutal confrontations: “Don José is capable of such a big love he’ll do anything, even kill the person he loves the most.” Poking his belly, Sansano adds, “Dance gets to where words don’t.” Chicago, prepare for a punch in the gut.

GO Luna Negra shares a bill with Thodos Dance Chicago Feb. 11 and 12 at North Shore Center; for info, Carmen.maquia debuts March 24 at Harris Theater; for info,


Photograph: Erika DuFour; Photo Assistant: Christopher Semel; Hair and Makeup: Lauren Frenden/Artists by Timothy Priano