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Maria Benitez dancer and co-founder, with her husband Cecilio, of the Maria Benitez Teatro Flamenco.
By Valerie Rangel
Sponsored by the Paul C. S. Carpenter History Project and funded by the King/Carpenter Charitable Trust
A native New Mexican, María Benítez is best known for the company co-founded with her husband Cecilio: María Benítez Teatro Flamenco. Since the early 1970s, she has performed in approximately 1600 venues including festivals and concert halls in every state, as well as in countries around the world. She has become an internationally recognized choreographer, dancer, and director of Spanish dance, receiving Spain’s most prestigious honor: La Cruz de Isabel la Católica Award. For the past 38 years, María Benítez has preserved Spanish heritage through visual art forms, music, and dance; teaching, and dancing in Santa Fe at the Institute for Spanish Arts (ISA).
María was born in the town of Taos, located in northern New Mexico. Her mother, Geraldine Harvey and father Josue Diaz met at a small college in South Dakota, shortly after her father’s arrival there from Puerto Rico. Geraldine Harvey, a descendant of the Chippewa, Ojibwe, and Oneida Nations became an accomplished educator and was the first Native American to earn a Masters Degree in Education from the University of Wisconsin. When María was just a young girl, her parents separated and she was raised by her mother on various Indian reservations where her mother taught.
Geraldine encouraged María to study ballet when she was young, hoping that María would develop poise and grace. When her ballet teacher, the only dance instructor in the small town of Taos moved, her friend from ballet class, Cecilia Torres, went to California to study flamenco, with the famous Cansino family. When Cecilia returned to Taos, María, now fifteen, took private lessons in flamenco with her.
Feeling drawn to the dramatic and creative energy of the flamenco art form, María left home at the age of 18 to pursue further dance study in Spain. She studied with some of the best Spanish dance instructors of the time. At the Spanish school of dance, Amor de Dios, Maria studied classical arms, castanets, and placement of body movement under instructor Victoria Eugenia who was later appointed one of three directors of the Ballet Nacional de España. María also trained with Pedro Azorín for jota dance, Mercedes and Albano for flamenco dance, and years later she studied with Ciro, Trini de España, and Mario Maya in Madrid.
She joined the María Rosa Spanish Dance Company, one of the most prominent dance companies in Madrid, and began touring throughout Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and South America. María’s dance experience, exceptional style, and elegance led her to musical theater where she was a featured soloist with the Paquita Rico Company led by Spanish singer Paquita Rico. While in Spain, María also performed numerous times on Spanish television, and worked with some of Spain’s most highly respected choreographers including Alberto Lorca and Victoria Eugenia. During this time she met Cecilio Benítez who worked in the technical side of the performing arts. In 1966, the couple married and relocated to Taos, New Mexico where their son Francisco was born in 1967.
In 1969, the Benítez family left northern New Mexico to teach at the Verde Valley School in Sedona, Arizona for four years. In the early 1970s María and Cecilio established a nonprofit corporation, the Maria Benitez Spanish Dance Company, later changing the name to the Institute for Spanish Arts (ISA) to reflect a broader commitment. Under the artistic direction of Maria and Cecilio Benitez, the dance company, still in operation, is comprised of professional dancers and musicians from the U.S. and Spain.
The company is renowned for its technical excellence and exquisite artistry; presenting diverse music and dance rhythms of flamenco to theatre audiences around the world. Over the years, the company has featured dancers and choreographers such as Ciro (El Muro), Joaquín Ruiz (Aires de Silencio), Mario Maya (Flamencos de la Trinia and other works by Hector Zaraspe), José Greco (two tours with Maria’s company), José Molina, Luis and Juan Ortega, Antonio Granjero, Ángel Muñoz, La Tania, Adela Clara, Roberto Lorca, Manolo Rivera, Orlando Romero, Rosita Segovia, Eduardo Montero, Alejandro Granados, Victorio Korjhan, and many others.
From the1960s to present time, the Company has performed for approximately 1.18 million people in approximately 1,625 venues, doing some 35-40 tours throughout the United States, Austria, Holland, the Bahamas, and Canada. For 38 summers the Company has performed in various venues in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In addition to these performances, the Company has appeared in various television programs including the Perry Como Show, PBS Boston Pops, and the PBS programs “Flamenco!” and “Estampa Flamenca” which featured Maria and her Company and aired numerous times nationally and internationally. The highlight of María’s television experience was her nationally featured choreography and performance in Manuel de Falla’s dance/drama El Amor Brujo. The performance included the Boston POPS orchestra, acclaimed opera singer Denyce Graves, and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.
The production of La Vida Breve and Carmen at the Santa Fe Opera were María’s first experience to perform and choreograph an opera. She subsequently choreographed and performed with the Boston Lyric, and the Virginia, Dallas, Fort Worth, St. Louis and Austin opera companies. She also performed as a solo artist with the Orchestra of Santa Fe, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestras over the next two decades.
In 1987, she choreographed the production of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera of New York, a production, La Forza del Destino (directed by Giancarlo del Monaco) in 1989, the Met's new production of Carmen (directed by Franco Zeffirelli) in 1996, and in 1998 the Met's new production of La Traviata also directed by Franco Zeffirelli. In the spring of 1997, Maria performed in The Met's Carmen televised production of PBS's Great Performances, repeating her performance in New York, in 1998.
María Benítez’s non-profit organization, the Institute for Spanish Arts, produced 17 seasons of International Spanish Music & Dance Workshops in Santa Fe. Annually, between 200 and 250 students from throughout the United States and several foreign countries, participate in the ISA’s summer workshops offered by teachers specialized in the genres of Spanish dance, guitar, cante, and percussion (cajon). Participating teachers have included: Ciro, Mario Maya, Javier Latorre, Joaquín Ruiz, Domingo Ortega, Luis Ortega, Ángel Muñoz, Antonio Granjero, Rafaela Carrasco, and Alejandro Granados. The ISA has awarded many children with scholarships to take classes offered in three levels of children's dance and guitar. At the end of summer workshops, the students perform what they have learned to a theater audience. This event has become very popular in Santa Fe, filling theaters to capacity.
Recognizing the influence of Spanish culture and heritage on New Mexico and a need to reach out to the youth of the state, Maria and Cecilo formed a second dance company of Teatro Flamenco called “Estampa Espanola” in 1991. Focused on the youth of New Mexico, the mission of this regional company is to share flamenco, an aspect of Hispanic heritage, throughout the state. Under the artistic direction of Maria Benitez, the company consists of young, emerging, native New Mexican dancers who perform Spanish dance and music at community venues and private functions throughout Northern New Mexico. Today, the company continues under the name “Flamenco’s Next Generation” and has an emphasis on youth age 13- 18.
In response to an increasing interest in Spanish art forms the, “Spanish Dance in the Schools Program,” was instated in the fall of 1994. This program brings instruction of Spanish dance and flamenco guitar to Santa Fe schoolchildren. The Institute of Spanish Arts has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in support of its Children and Youth programming. This program focuses on underserved Hispanic youth and works to instill an appreciation for their culture through Flamenco and Spanish guitar classes offered through after-school programs, summer workshops, and professional development. The McCune Foundation, the Thaw Foundation, and many other contributors have supported educational programs as well as to the youth performing company, “Flamenco’s Next Generation.”
María Benítez has received many awards for her art and community outreach including: the New Mexico Governor's Award for Excellence in the Field of Dance, the City of Santa Fe Mayor's Arts Award, the Classical Spanish Dance Award from the Institute of Puerto Rico in New York City, the New Mexico Hospitality Individual of the Year Award, a golden key to the City of Miami, and awarded the Luminaria Award from the New Mexico Community Foundation. María also received a nomination for the National Medal of Arts which was supported by U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, former New Mexico Governor Gary E. Johnson, and through a joint resolution of the New Mexico House and Senate.
In 2000, María Benítez was elected to the Board of Directors of The Santa Fe Opera. On August 26, 2006, María Benítez was given Spain’s most prestigious honor, La Cruz de Isabel La Catolica Award. On behalf of King Juan Carlos, Spanish Consulate General Julio Montesinos presented María with the award at the Lodge Inn in Santa Fe. “Isabel la Catolica” is the name by which Spain’s legendary Queen Isabella of Castile is known. The grand cross bearing her name is the king of Spain’s highest artistic award. The grand cross was established in 1815 for services to the Spanish crown in which Spain recognizes “those who have distinguished themselves in their contributions toward relations of friendship and cooperation between Spain and the international community.”
Most recently, Governor Richardson nominated María Benítez for the Thirtieth Annual National Governors Association (NGA) Awards Program for Distinguished Service to State Government in the Arts Category for Artistic Production. In May, 2009 Maria was elected, “Notable New Mexican,” by the Albuquerque Museum. She “joined a distinguished group of honorees who have been recognized for their achievements, strong ties to New Mexico and contribution to the public good. Each Notable New Mexican has contributed significantly to this state’s cultural richness and touched the lives of its citizens..... “
In an interview for Calzados de Arte FYL with Manuel Moraga, María shared her dream for the future of ISA: “My dream is to see the Instituto del Arte Español continue to move forward with economic support, with the collaboration of the general public, and of the large foundations that have power and means. If we had this, we could continue – at a higher level – to give opportunities to artists to create and present original works of high quality, provocative, but always respectful of tradition. These artists will take the voice of Spanish Arts to the whole world via their knowledge, their affection and their keen interest”.
For over thirty eight years, Maria Benitez, Teatro Flamenco, and the Institute for Spanish Arts, have stimulated, revitalized, preserved and disseminated Spanish arts and heritage through music, dance, and visual arts throughout New Mexico, continuing to attract flamenco aficionados to Santa Fe from around the world.
1. Interview Maria Benitez, 2009.
2. The Institute for Spanish Arts: http://mariabenitez.com/
3. The Albuquerque Museum Foundation: http://www.albuquerquemuseum.com/pages/benitez.html
4. Taos Daily News. Horse Fly, “Benitez Flamenco Queen”. August 30, 2006.
5. Maria Benitez: The Essence of Flamenco (Interview). World Literature Today, July 1, 2006. Terri, Stubblefield.
6. Iberia Nature. “Jota dance.”