Fiery Flamenco Star

Choreographer balances classic style with innovation

MARIA BENITEZ projects the persona of a supremely confident woman with a passion big enough to command center stage.

As the founder and artistic director of "Teatro Flamenco," this American-born dancer is an intensely focused proponent of Spain's oldest and most renowned performing art.

"I'm no hidebound traditionalist, and I'm not your typical flamenco dancer," Ms. Benitez says. "To me, flamenco consists of many series of lovely steps, of control and precision that has to translate into artistic statements. The freedom with which you dance has to be innate. Onstage I'm not predictable, nor do I want to be. Mystery is very, very important."

Like other performing artists who contemporize traditional art forms, Benitez dances a fine line: Too many steps taken in a modern direction would risk upsetting the American audiences that she has developed over nearly two decades of coast-to-coast touring.

"I could never get away with the types of flamenco innovation that audiences in Spain expect from professional dancers. When I auditioned talent in Madrid earlier this year, I saw flamenco performers use roller skates and rap music. Unfortunately, American audiences are 20 years behind the times when it comes to this sort of thing," she says.

Instead, when Benitez and her flamenco troupe arrive at New York City's Joyce Theater for a 15-performance engagement April 20 to May 2, audiences will see several subtle interpretations that this flamenco star says will earn approval from even the strictest traditionalist.

"Spanish dance goes far beyond the limits of flamenco," explains Benitez, who was classically trained in Spain.

"My performances slip in elements of everything from modern Spanish dance to escuela bolera [combining castanets and ballet], but what we do best is flamenco, which I feel presents all sorts of opportunities for different rhythms and new approaches."

Her company consists of four flamenco dancers, two guitarists, a singer, a percussionist, and, of course, the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Benitez. An evening with these performers includes a ballet piece inspired by a Garcia Lorca poem followed by more typically flamenco dance, and musical numbers such as "El Muro," a piece by Spanish choreographer Ciro.

The dancers wear costumes from the trademark bolero outfits to the fringed, elegantly flowing fabrics of the bata de cola - starched and pressed ruffled dresses. Their foot-stomping performances are so compelling that audiences invariably join in the rhythmic clapping anOSd shouting that make flamenco one of the ultimate audience-participation art forms.

Benitez has joined with both the Dallas Opera and Miami Opera in these companies' presentations of the Manuel de Falla works, "La Vida Breve" and "El Amor Brujo." The Dallas production won Benitez critical acclaim last January for Teatro Flamenco's contributions to the complex staging of de Falla's passionate masterpieces. The Miami presentation of these works takes place next January.

During the summer months, Benitez and her flamenco company take up a 10-week residency at Santa Fe's Pichaco Plaza Hotel. Along with the Santa Fe Opera and the city's Chamber Music Festival, this nightclub-like presentation ranks as one of Santa Fe's premier performance events.

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