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Luna Negra Dance Theater takes ‘Carmen’ by the horns

MonicCervantes dances seductive Carmen alongside Eduardo Zuniga’s DJose “Carmen.Maquia.” | Cheryl Mann

Monica Cervantes dances a seductive Carmen alongside Eduardo Zuniga’s Don Jose in “Carmen.Maquia.” | Cheryl Mann

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Updated: April 27, 2012 8:08AM

Be advised, this is not hyperbole: A masterpiece was born Saturday night as Luna Negra Dance Theater, Chicago’s immensely accomplished and sophisticated Latino-infused company, presented the world premiere of choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano’s “Carmen.Maquia” at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Sansano’s emotionally fierce, intensely sensual, brilliantly danced and stunningly designed 75-minute work is riveting from start to finish. A gorgeous, almost ritualistic evocation of love as the same sort of highly theatrical blood sport one finds in a bullfighting ring, it is an audaciously modern reimagining of the iconic story of the fiery, death-destined gypsy. And not only does it steer clear of every cliche as it spins this tale of passion, obsession, jealousy, erotic manipulation and doom, but it makes you hear Bizet’s familiar yet bravura score in a new way, and see Picasso’s emblematic bullfighting paintings in a fresh light.

Sansano’s choreography is highly original, starkly expressionistic and full of difficult, elaborately intertwined partnering. You might think of him as the Spanish equivalent of Russia’s Boris Eifman in his ability to create characters and relationships through movement, but he is more disciplined and incisive. And his audacious, meaningful use of the theater’s aisles and orchestra pit in this piece resulted in several surprising and dramatic moments.

Sansano also is blessed with an astonishing muse: Monica Cervantes, a tiny, dazzling dancer of staggering technical ability and megawatt theatrical power who deserves international stardom. Her Carmen is a marvel — a sharp-beaked hummingbird figure with so much confidence, so many sexual wiles and such a steely will that you can see men disintegrate under her spell, and watch as her seductive female competitors wither.

Eduardo Zuniga, a splendid dancer and actor, is ideal as Don Jose, the naive, desperately lovesick soldier wholly undone by Carmen, and Stacey Aung beautifully captures the warmth and womanliness of his fiance, Micaela. But even the arrogant bullfighter, Escamillo — captured by powerhouse dancer Nigel Campbell — can’t elude her spell.

Luis Crespo’s set (exquisitely lit by Jared B. Moore) is a defining element here, with movable white crenelated walls forming the landscape of the bullring and beyond, and fragments of Picasso’s wide-eyed bulls lowered into place at crucial moments. David Delfin’s glorious costumes — sculptural and bright white, and counterpointed by a stunning black gown for Carmen — are a dance unto themselves.

The ensemble — Renee Adams, Christopher Bordenave, Joseph Kudra, Veronica Guadalupe, Sayiga Eugene Peabody, Kirsten Shelton, Audrey Karim, Noelle Kayser and Sebastian Mersch — all are soloists in their own right and move like a dream.

Watching Sansano’s piece called to mind an afternoon I spent at bullfights in Valencia, Spain, a couple of years ago. While I do not regret going, I would not go again, but I will see Sansano’s ferocious “Carmen” again at every possible opportunity. The work is destined to become an instant classic, and its return to a stage here cannot come a second too soon.

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