‘Flamenco, in this case dance, is an art that supposes intellectual preparation in the broadest sense of the term. Being initiated into it and learning it is only possible if you take humanism as a philosophy of life; and this is the only basis that will enable the artist to create.’

These were the basic premises upon which the Roma choreographer and dancer Mario Maya shaped his artistic personality and his teaching doctrine.

Mario Maya Fajardo was born in Córdoba in 1937 and grew up in Granada. His mother, Trinidad Maya, moved to the city to work in the Sacromonte quarter, singing and dancing for tourists in one of caves which had been turned into a tablao (Tablao is the Spanish word for a venue where flamenco performances take place). It was here that the young Mario was introduced to flamenco, but then a stroke of luck at the age of sixteen enabled him to move to Madrid in order to study dancing at El Estampío academy. It came about because the English painter Josette Jones had painted an oil portrait of him which won a contest in London; Mario subsequently received the equivalent of 200,000 pesetas in prize money to finance his dance studies in Madrid. Full of dreams, he sought out and frequented flamenco venues in Madrid until a tablao by the name of Zambra hired him. Fate intervened again, this time in the form of the prestigious choreographer and dancer Pilar López, who was pleasantly surprised by the young Gitano’s ways. She incorporated him into her ballet and became his teacher and main supporter.

The world was thus laid open at the dancer’s feet, not only with respect to dance and its techniques, but also choreography; just as importantly, he came into contact with new musical and dance cultures. Mario was receptive to everything he saw on his frequent tours around the world. He was smart, learned quickly, studied choreography and began to understand art from the humanist perspective that he adopted as a philosophy of life and profession.

After a few years, he left the company and began his first creative adventures – initially in union with ‘La Chunga’ (‘La Chunga’, who was born as Micaela Flores Amaya, was a Spanish flamenco dancer and painter of naïve art), with whom he travelled throughout the Americas; and later with the woman who would become his wife, Carmen Mora.

At that point, he felt a strong need to progress as a choreographer. The chance arose as a result of an extended contract with Columbia artist management for a tour of the United States. He grasped the opportunity with both hands and took advantage of a lengthy sojourn residing in New York, soaking up the avant-garde trends.

On his return to Spain, equipped with the knowledge he had acquired and at the height of his personal and artistic maturity, he began his solo journey by founding his own company.

His search for new forms and formats in which to express his overflowing creativity brought him together with the Granada poet Juan de Loxa for the premiere of Ceremonial in 1974, thereby laying the foundations for a new concept of theatre and flamenco.

Mario wanted to remain in touch with the Roma and with his neighbourhood of Sacromonte in Granada, which were the twin sources of his inspiration, and so he opened a studio there called Zincalé which became a meeting point for Roma intellectuals and artists of the time. It was here that the play Camelamos naquerar (which means ‘we want to talk’ in Caló) was created, based on the works of Roma writer and poet José Heredia Maya. It was one of Maya’s greatest works of art, in which he used all the expressive richness of flamenco together with his modern scenic vision to do something entirely new – denouncing the anti-Gypsyism that had been expressed for more than five centuries in a series of laws and measures aimed at persecuting and exterminating the Roma people. The work marked a turning point in the history of the Roma people, for it supposed a before and an after; finally, the Roma people began to discover their history, to know who they were and why they were in that particular situation. The work also proved a great success, both at home and abroad.

At that point in his career, Mario Maya was bubbling over with creativity. His next work, Ay! Jondo, was awash with gitanería flamenca – the spirit of Roma flamenco – and he became more and more convinced that flamenco was ‘the purest artistic expression of the Roma people’.

He received unanimous public recognition from fans and institutions alike: this included two simultaneous prizes in the National Flamenco Art Competition (Córdoba in 1977), the Premio de Baile dance prize awarded by the flamencology chair of Jerez de la Frontera (in 1977), the Medalla de Oro de Andalucía gold medal awarded by the Junta de Andalucía (Seville in 1986) and the Premio Nacional de Danza national dance award, awarded by the Spanish Ministry of Culture (Madrid in 1992).

On top of all that, he made forays into the world of cinema, with adaptations of his own works on the one hand (Camelamos naquerar, Ay! Jondo and Amargo) and feature films directed by internationally renowned figures on the other, such as Corre Gitano by the French Roma filmmaker Tony Gatlif and Flamenco, by the Spaniard Carlos Saura.

Wisely and generously, Mario Maya dedicated the final years of his life to teaching. He was keen to pass on the wealth of his artistic experience to future generations. With this in mind, in 1983 he founded the Centro de Actividades Mario Maya in Seville as a venue for teaching flamenco dance, classical dance and jazz according to the principles of humanistic learning to which he had always subscribed. The institution offered a programme that not only trained students in the disciplines of flamenco and dance, but also encompassed other complementary subjects such as history, music and philosophy.

Mario Maya, – flamenco dancer, choreographer, man of culture and Roma to his very core – died in his Seville home on 27 September 2008.