I didn’t know who to start with, and even less where to start, or how to explain El Farruco’s hand movement that brought the world to a standstill, or the elemental force in female form that is Manuela Carrasco, or the astutely beautiful head of El Güito. Gonzalo took pity on me and advised me to write about my father to make me feel more comfortable.
My Father, Mario Maya
Artists would often come and tell me anecdotes of what they had experienced with him, and every day more Gitanos and Gitanas would remind me that he was a revolutionary – someone who spoke of oppression and discrimination during a period when that could land you in jail.
In works like Ceremonial and Camelamos Naquerar, based on poems by José Heredia Maya,1 and Ay Jondo, based on verse by Juan De Loxa, my father expressed his concerns and his visions in a blend of new approaches, music, anger and a lot of hard work.
I still remember when he came to see me – my parents at that time were already separated – and I read those poems like a child with a fascinating new toy. And at the end I wondered which poem I liked most ... my father has always made me think.
‘...how baile gitano can create a school and develop a philosophy that lasts the test of time.’
He revolutionised Roma flamenco dance, for example by staging the Pragmatic Sanction of the Catholic Kings, which had threatened to cut off the ears, tongues and hands of Roma. He transformed dance into a new art form that still bears his stamp today, and it is this that I want to talk about: how baile gitano not only tears your shirt and your heart within a second,2 but can also create a school and develop a philosophy that lasts the test of time.
Imagination and Listening as Working Methods
Mario Maya started with the basics: he would tell you the idea and then describe the image so you could imagine it in your head, while he played you the music. This allowed me to developed a cinematographic vision of choreography – the ability to visualise scenes, movements and colours – which I have found very useful.
He believed that working on the music was crucial to understanding it, along with its narrative, subtleties and mood changes. Thus he focused on the movement as drama – with the stage as a space to be filled, occupied, sensed, and used as another instrument for telling the story. Rather than the steps being learned, it was about how concepts were staged, how the space and steps could be used to develop a character or a narrative. He even wrote the script for some of his works, as well as for a movie called Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, which he did not have time to realise.
He would leave the choreography to the end, for he always said that there were thousands of steps but not good ideas, and he usually asked his dancers and dancers to play around a lot with the choreography, which he would then adapt afterwards. When in the middle of a project he would be obsessed by it; instead of sleeping he would constantly brood about it, writing, listening to music, discarding ideas. The ‘desk work’ of theatre – the dramaturgy and the entire process prior to the choreographic production – played a large role for him, and he was generally at a very advanced stage when he started with the work on stage.
Creating a School: Work, Discipline, Sacrifice
Mario was a specialist in getting the dance troupe moving and talking to the members on stage, more so than with soloists. He always insisted that we make use of the stage area, that we occupy it, that we should ‘dance big’.
He was fascinated by the technical aspect of dance but always tried to aflamencarla3 with small details and with the addition of flamenco singing, which he believed to be an essential aspect of the production. For example, his choreography paid great attention to the hands and their expressivity as well as to the use of the gaze. Perfect technique and disciplined work were also vital, and during the development phase of a show the entire company would receive ballet classes! In 1980s Seville that was viewed as an eccentricity, but he thought it was totally necessary.
In my opinion, he was not a choreographer of style or steps; what he transmitted to students who are so important today such as Rafaela Carrasco or Israel Galván was a new kind of stage discipline and a different understanding of space and the use of music – whether flamenco or non-flamenco – as communication.
The Dualism of Roma Professionalism
Mario sought the intensity of expression in small details – calculated brushstrokes and measurements – rather than great explosions of force or speed.
Restraint and attention to detail, elegance and technique are all characteristic of his style, as well as the leading role played by the music and musicians, especially by flamenco singing. Then there’s also the expression of emotion, conveyed by means of a gentle and subtle sensitivity; this takes precedence over technical prowess for the sake of looking good.
I want to emphasise that he always tried to preserve the gitanidad, the ‘Roma-ness’, in other words, his concept and his sense of what it was for him to be Roma, while basing his style on seemingly non-Roma elements of flamenco dance (musicality instead of rhythm, restraint instead of explosive feelings, technical cool instead of spirited heat, sensitivity instead of instinct, etc.).
Mario Maya taught me that the stage and the audience deserve the utmost respect and that flamenco has the same dignity and stature as ballet or any other art form. Moreover, the flamenco dancer is a professional who dedicates body and soul to his or her work, beyond all success and recognition.
I also learned that there is a creative and intellectual process behind each movement, that nothing is ‘just because’ or as he always said ‘nothing is free’, and I learned not to make the numbers too long or tire the public. Keeping an eye on the time was very important to him.
But above all I witnessed his contradictions – how Mario Maya lived as a Roma in everyday life and with his family, but was then forced to defend his Roma identity to the audience on stage. Both he and other artists of his time felt the need for flamenco to transcend its basic forms in order to express a much broader range of concepts, a need that stemmed from a particular intellectual influence and socio-political protest in conjunction with his flamenco training.
Finally, he viewed dance as a way of dignifying an art form, a profession and an ethnic group which was considered inferior and low down on the social scale.
Few flamenco dancers at that time could or wanted to understand this, using it instead as an anti-Roma argument against Mario: anyone who read books, listened to classical music and work hard could not possibly be a bailor gitano.
Having witnessed the discrimination against my father by other Roma artists, I am very proud to say that this does not happen today. Roma dancers have learned to thrive on many different artistic, social and cultural influences, to ‘be in the world’ and no longer fear losing our identity by opening our minds as well as our hearts.
Mario Maya left a creative legacy full of commitment, imagination and courage that was consistent with his time, and from this he created a school of great performers and choreographers.
He remained a rebel to the end and that is my most precious inheritance; for instance, we were almost kicked out of Thailand for refusing to greet the then king. But his rebellious, revolutionary and visionary nature can only be understood through his identity as Roma: as a Roma artist and a Roma dancer.
And that is true since the days when he was a child dancing in a basement bar for tourists...