Moving Dialogs: April 26 Artist Bios

Virginia Johnson returns to Dance Theatre of Harlem as artistic director having been a founding member and principal dancer. Born in Washington, DC, Johnson graduated from the Academy of the Washington School of Ballet. She briefly attended the School of the Arts at New York University as a University Scholar before joining DTH in 1969. During her 28 years with the company she performed most of the repertoire, with principal roles in Concerto BaroccoAllegro BrillanteAgonA Streetcar Named DesireFall River LegendSwan LakeGiselle, Voluntaries, Les Biches among others.

Three DTH productions in which she danced leading roles were recorded for broadcast: A Streetcar Named Desire for Dance in America on PBS, Creole Giselle, which was the first full-length ballet broadcast on NBC, and Fall River Legend, which won a cable ACE award from the Bravo Network. In addition, she was included in two acclaimed television dance series, Margot Fonteyn’s “The Magic of Dance” and Natalia Makarova’s “Ballerina.”

Her choreographic credits include the television film, Ancient Voices of Children  in which she danced and an early, self-produced solo concert for Rae Metzger’s Concert Socials. Later choreographic works include ballets created for Goucher College, Dancers Respond to AIDS, the Second Annual Harlem Festival of the Arts, Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center and Marymount Manhattan College, where she was also an adjunct professor. The latter two projects were an outgrowth of Dancers Making Dances, a collaborative choreographic project with former DTH colleagues, Judy Tyrus and Melanie Person

While still performing, her interest in journalism led her to Fordham University where she continues to pursue a degree in communications. After retiring from performing, she founded POINTE magazine and was editor-in-chief from 2000-2009. The popular publication helps dancers prepare for the professional ballet world developing educational seminars and lectures on health and wellness for dancers, auditions and professional preparation.

Her honors include a Young Achiever Award from the National Council of Women, Outstanding Young Woman of America and the Dance Magazine Award, a Pen and Brush Achievement Award and the Washington Performing Arts Society’s 2008-2009 Pola Nirenska Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2009 Martha Hill Fund Mid-Career Award. Highlights of her guest appearances include a tour of Australia with Stars of World Ballet, several appearances at various International Festivals of Dance in Havana Cuba, and with the Royal Ballet at The Royal Opera House in London. Her commitment to community service is maintained through volunteer assignments with New York Cares.

William Whitener performed worldwide and on Broadway with The Joffrey Ballet, Twyla Tharp Dance, Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, New York City Opera and Martha Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights. He choreographed over sixty dances for Boston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, Ballet Hispanico, Seattle Repertory Theater, Seattle Opera and John Curry’s Ice Theatre. He has also created dances for stage and television for Ann Reinking, Tommy Tune, Bill Irwin and Faith Prince and staged the debut of American Ballroom Theater at The Kennedy Center and BAM. Mr. Whitener has set Twyla Tharp’s ballets in the U.S and France and assisted Mr. Robbins with pre-production for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. He served as Artistic Director for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal and Kansas City Ballet. He was an evaluator for the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, a jury member of Benois de la Danse and has served on a variety of panels including the NEA and Pew Charitable Trust Fund. He has taught ballet, modern dance and composition at Harvard University Summer Dance, Cornish College of the Arts, University of Washington, Pacific Northwest Ballet and was the Director of Dance at Concord Academy.

Dame Libby Komaiko, founder and artistic director of the internationally acclaimed Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, has pioneered the educational significance of Spanish dance and music in the United States. Likewise, her artistic contributions to the art form have been hailed throughout the international dance community as creative works that reach toward the highest levels of artistic excellence and cultural integrity. Consequently, in 1983, Komaiko was awarded the Ribbon of the Dame, or the Lazo de Dama de Isabel la Católica by Juan Carlos I, King of Spain. This extraordinary honor made Komaiko the first American artist to receive the honor, and she remains among only three choreographers to hold the title.

A native of Evanston, Illinois, Komaiko’s artistic training began in her childhood, when she studied classical ballet and character dance with Elisa Stigler at the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University. In her teenage years, she studied and performed jazz, modern and musical theater with Chicago’s famed Gus Giordano. It was at the young age of 18, however, that dance’s rich possibilities were further opened to Komaiko, as it was then that she happened to audition for the legendary Jose Greco, long recognized as one of the world’s masters in Spanish dance. Awarded with a scholarship, Komaiko trained and performed with his company. As a professional dancer, Komaiko honed a keen insight into the cross-cultural connections of Spanish dance, and understood its importance to other dance traditions. Through this, she also performed with the company of Lola Montes, and subsequently worked in musical theater, opera, television, film and orchestra, including guest performances with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, repeated performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, and many others. She studied in Spain and the United States with such master dancers as Maria Alba, Nana Lorca, Edo, Manolo Vargas, Paul Haakon, Maria Magdalena, Pedro Azorin, Ciro, Pacita Tomas, and Roberto Lorca, with whom she partnered for several years.

In 1975, Komaiko founded the Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, and built an arts residency program with Northeastern Illinois University, forming the premier Spanish dance and music center in the United States. Incorporated in 1976, Komaiko then led the fledgling company of seven dancers through decades of growth, change and exciting opportunities. Today, the Company is a critically-acclaimed performance ensemble that tours national and internationally, and provides educational outreach that spans kindergarten to college-level students. Indeed, for nearly forty years, the Company has continued its mission to present, promote and preserve the Flamenco, folkloric, classical and contemporary dance and music traditions of Spain. With an ensemble of 40 dancers and musicians, a training program for young dancers, and an ongoing academic program with Northeastern Illinois University, Komaiko is recognized as one of the country’s leaders in artistic distinction and arts education.

Komaiko’s other contributions include the choreography of half of the Company’s 125 original works, including its major Flamenco ballets and dramas, folkloric suites and classical pieces. She has collaborated with such individuals as Juan Mata and Ana Gonzales, founders of the National Ballet of Spain; William Carter, Manolete, Paco Alonso, and Juanjo Linares.

She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Ruth Page Award in 2003, the International Latino Cultural Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, and she received City of Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Outstanding Partnership Award in 2008.

In recent years, Komaiko produced the documentary, Ensemble Español: The First 20 Years 1976-1996, as well as “Dama Libby and Friends,” an audio cd that benefits the Ensemble Español’s Scholarship, Heritage and Endowment Funds. Similarly, Komaiko maintains her artistic director leadership of the Company, as she became professor emerita of Northeastern Illinois University’s Department of Music and Dance Program in 2011.

Irma Suarez Ruiz of Mexican – Puerto Rican descent was born in Chicago. Her formal dance training in classical ballet and Spanish dance began with Dame Libby Komaiko in 1979 at Northeastern Illinois University. During that year she received a scholarship apprenticeship to the E.E.S.D.T. In 1980 she became a company dancer and in 1986 was promoted to First Dancer. She has also studied with important Spanish dancers/choreographers Maria Alba, Edo, Paco Alonso, Victorio Korjhan, Juanjo Linares, Roberto Lorca, Timo Lozano, Manolete, Carmela Greco, ballet with Ana Czajun, and Juan Mata & Ana González, founding members of the National Ballet of Spain. In Spain she has studied with Cristian Almodovar, Aida Gomez, Rafaela Carrasco, Belen Maya, La China, El Guito, Paco Romero and Candela Soto at the Amor de Dios Spanish/Flamenco dance studios.

Irma Suarez Ruiz performs annually for the American Spanish Dance & Music Festival, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and on the international dance series of the Auditorium Theater. This series hosts international artists and companies such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and the Kirov Ballet to mention a few. Ms. Ruiz continues to perform in starring roles in Dame Libby Komaiko’s Bolero (Maurice Ravel), and has starred in Memorias de Vidas Gitanas, Pasión Sevillana (Joaquin Turina) as well as EESDT’s production of El Amor Brujo (Manuel de Falla) in the role of Candela choreographed by Juan Mata and Ana Gonzalez (founding members and former first dancers of the National Ballet of Spain ). Other starring roles include Dame Libby’s “Romance de Triana” and “Leyenda” (Isaac Albeniz), La Boda de Luis Alonso (Geronimo Gimenez) from the zarzuela (spain’s light opera) La Noche del Encierro,” and “Ecos de Espana”, (Rimksy Korsakov).

Ms. Ruiz has received critical acclaim for her own choreographies from the Chicago Sun-Times arts critic Hedy Weiss who said:

“The company’s ‘first dancers,’ Irma Suarez Ruiz and Jorge Perez, in ‘Amor Eterno,’ their powerful duet of love, rage, abandonment and passion, danced with such scorching intensity that visions of a gypsy campsite came to mind. Talk about burning up the stage.” Auditorium Theatre 2007

As Artistic Director for the company, she has contributed to the company’s choreographies for national and international engagements to critical acclaim. Irma is a professor of dance at NEIU and on the faculty of the E.E.S.D.T. Flamenco dance workshops open to the community. She has appeared as a guest artist with Ballet Español’s production of Espiritu Flamenco at the Bomhard Theater of the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville, Kentucky; Dances of Spain with the St. Louis Cultural Flamenco Society and Gitana Productions in St. Louis, Missouri; the Chicago Human Rhythm’s Project World Festival of Tap and Percussive Dance, and for Bacchus Group Production’s Ashe of the Americas in Maui, Hawaii; San José, Costa Rica; and Walt-Disney Productions in Orlando, Florida. Her international engagements with the Ensemble Español include the Festival Internacional Cervantino Mexico where she toured 6 cities- Mexico D.F., Acapulco, Guadalajara, St. Luis Potosi, Cuernavaca and Guanajuato. In honor of the 82nd anniversary of the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico she toured 5 cities, San Juan, Ponce, Lajas, San German, and Arecibo. Irma along with members of the Ensemble Español toured Poland as American and NEIU ambassadors in honor of Warsaw Universities 190th anniversary. This cultural artistic exchange tour presented two sold out performances at the Polski & Collegium Nobillium Theaters and three Flamenco dance & music workshops at Giedroyc College of Communication & Media, Collegium Nobilium Arts Center & Isadora Duncan Dance Academy. She has also performed in China in 2008 following the Olympics in the cities of Shenyang, Anshan & Quinhuandao.

She graduated with honors from Northeastern Illinois University in April 1983 with a B.A. in Foreign Languages and Literature and a minor in Dance. Irma has received numerous awards throughout her career, including a Neighborhood Arts Project Grant from the Chicago Council on Fine Arts, and the 1993 Viva Latina Dance Master Award from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Ms. Suarez Ruiz was honored with an Artistic Ambassador Award from the Ruth Page Foundation and Northeastern Illinois University in recognition of her international artistic achievements and contributions to dance. On October 16, 2004, Irma Suarez Ruiz, along with dance partner Jorge Pérez were honored with the Twentieth Anniversary Award from the St. Louis Cultural Flamenco Society. In 2006 Irma joined the dance faculty of Northeastern Illinois University teaching Spanish dance in the department of Music/Dance.

In October of 2007 Ms. Suarez Ruiz was presented with the Northeastern Illinois University Excellence Fine Arts award. In the Spring of 2008 Ms. Ruiz was invited to choreograph a suite of Spanish dances for the Civic Ballet of the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. Performances were presented at the Ruth Page Center & Northeastern Illinois University Fine Arts Auditorium.

Irma is married to Antonio Ruiz and the proud mother of Crystal and Tiffany as well as parents of Brandon, Tyler, and Collin.

 Stephanie Martinez is an award-winning Chicago dance artist with over 30 years professional performing experience on stage, film and television. During her 17 year stint with River North Dance Chicago, she worked with guest choreographers Ashley Roland, Kevin Iega Jeff, Daniel Ezralow, Frank Chaves, Sherry Zunker and Ron De Jesus, among others, and was merited the Ruth Page Award for Outstanding Performance.  Her eclectic performance resume also includes guesting with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Luna Negra Dance Theater, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance, Ron De Jesus Dance, and as a featured dancer for The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the 2006 World Cup opening ceremonies with Diana Ross.

Upon leaving RNDT, she made her 2009 choreographic debut, AviMar, for Luna Negra Dance Theatre’s 10th anniversary season, instantly securing her status as a sought-after dance-maker. Since then, she has been traveling across the country setting works on professional companies and universities. She is one of the 2015 3Arts Awards Recipients in Chicago, which recognizes women in the arts, and completed a residency at the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago as a 2014 “Winning Works: Choreographers of Color” award winner. Most recently she set a piece on the Kansas City Ballet for their New Works program. Forthcoming commissions include Ballet Hispanico, Eugene Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, Neos Dance Theatre, Dance St. Louis and Dance Kaleidoscope.