María Benitez Early Years
A native New Mexican, María Benítez is one of the founders of the Institute for Spanish arts, she is best known for the dance company co-founded with her husband Cecilio: María Benítez Teatro Flamenco.
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.
With a long standing reputation for excellence, the company’s history includes performances at festivals and major concert halls in all 50 states, Canada, Germany, Holland, Spain, Austria, 8 seasons at the Joyce Theater in New York City, Kennedy center, and numerous other prestigious concert halls around the United States, and thirty-eight, 12- week summer seasons in Santa Fe, NM since the early 1970′s.
The company, renowned for its technical excellence and exquisite artistry, presented diverse music and dance rhythms of flamenco to theatre audiences around the world. Over the years, the company 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 2007, the Company 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.
Work with Opera
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. As a solo artist, Ms. Benítez has performed with the Orchestra of Santa Fe, the New Mexico and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestras.
Both Cecilio and Maria went to Dallas for one month to work with the Dallas Opera and the renowned opera singer, Denyce Graves in Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve and El Amor Brujo. Maria choreographed and performed in both operas. She said, “working with Denyce Graves is a paramount experience for me…a breath of fresh air and what an astounding voice!” It was wonderful to perform these operas once again and be on the same stage with Denyce.” These two operas were first presented by the Dallas Opera in 1994 in which Maria choreographed and performed in both. Johnny Jaramillo and Daniel Peregrino, both New Mexico’s own, also performed in both operas. Both operas were directed by Bliss Hebert and set design by Allen Klein.
Ms. Benítez has been featured in her choreography of El amor brujo on PBS's Evening at POPS with the Boston POPS, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Recently Ms. Benitez reunited with Ms. Graves at the Dallas Opera, choreographing and performing in El Amor Brujo and La Vida Breve by Spanish Composer Manuel de Falla. Performances ran January 9–17, 2004.
The Maria Benítez Institute for Spanish Arts
María Benítez’s non-profit organization, the Institute for Spanish Arts, produced 17 seasons of International Spanish Music and 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 to 19.
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 school children. 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.”
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.
Awards and Recognition
María Benitez has become an internationally recognized choreographer, dancer, and director of Spanish dance. On August 26, 2006 she received Spain’s most prestigious honor: La Cruz de Isabel la Católica 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.
Among many other recognitions, Ms. Benítez has been awarded 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 Hospitality Individual of the Year Award, for María’s single-handed boost to tourism in Santa Fe and a golden key to the City of Miami. She received a nomination for the National Medal of Arts, enthusiastically supported by U.S. Senator Pete Domenici; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson; New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson; and through a joint resolution of the New Mexico House and Senate. María was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the Santa Fe Opera.
Cecilio Benitez (April 1, 1933 – January 28, 2014)
Cecilio Benitez, a Spanish born theatrical director who left behind a legacy of introducing American audiences to a wide range of Spanish music, theater and dance along side his wife, internationally known Spanish and Flamenco dancer Maria Benitez, passed away peacefully on January 28, 2014 at their home in New York, after a long illness. He was 80. For four decades he was known for his technical artistry and company direction for the Maria Benitez Teatro Flamenco and co-founder of the Institute for Spanish Arts based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Born April 1, 1933 in Arenys de Mar, Barcelona, Spain to Margarita and Jesus Benitez, and a resident of New Mexico since 1967, Cecilio Benitez began his theatrical career at the age of 14 as an apprentice in the Fontalba Theatre in Madrid, Spain where he discovered his passion for Spanish theater. For the next 20 years he toured as a theatrical director with major opera, dance, theater and zarzuela companies. While in Madrid he met Maria who was training and performing professionally, they married in 1966 and relocated to Taos, New Mexico where their son Francisco was born.
In 1967 his work turned to radio for KDCE in Espanola and later in 1969 relocated with Maria and there son to teach Spanish literature at Verde Valley School in Sedona, Arizona and continued to direct such plays as Blood Wedding and Casa de Bernardo Alba by Garcia Lorca, Don Juan Tenorio by Zorrrilla, and La Barca Sin Pescador by Alejandro Casona, among others. In 1973 they relocated to Santa Fe where together they founded Maria Benitez Teatro Flamenco and later founded the Institute for Spanish Arts, one of the first non-profit performing arts companies to reflect a broader commitment to the Spanish arts. He served as co-director of both organizations and has been instrumental in elevating the world of flamenco in the United States to a broad audience. With a long standing reputation for excellence, he lead the company’s history of performances at festivals and major concert halls in all 50 states, Canada, Germany, Holland, Spain, Austria, 8 seasons at the Joyce Theater in New York City, Kennedy center, and numerous other prestigious concert halls around the United States, and thirty-eight, 12-week summer seasons and a summer workshop in Santa Fe, NM since the early 1970′s.
From the 1960s to the 2007 the company, renowned for his technical excellence and Maria’s exquisite artistry, presented diverse music and dance rhythms of flamenco to theatre audiences around the world. Over the years, he worked with 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.
Nearing retirement in 1994 he turned his interest to the Institute for Spanish Arts. For over 45 years, his life’s work and passion have stimulated, revitalized, preserved and disseminated Spanish arts and heritage.
Cecilio is the youngest of six brothers whom reside in Spain. He leaves behind his loving wife Maria Benitez, his son Francisco (Paco) Benitez and wife Anne Marcy- Benitez of Santa Fe, NM, his son Jose Maria Benitez de Sande and partner Jesus Carraminana Bustillo, Madrid, Spain, a daughter Afriquita Carrasco Benitez and husband Jose Carrasco, Madrid, Spain, grandchildren Virginia and Carlos, 2 great grandchild Marcos and Alejandro, many nieces and nephews, along with surviving brothers Emilio and Jesus. He will be greatly missed by many flamenco artists and friends from around the world.