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MARIA BENITEZ SPANISH DANCE COMPANY

at the Dance Center of Columbia College

October 23 and 24, 1987

Diffidence is not the keynote of Spanish dance. That much at least was made plain by the performance of the Maria Benitez Spanish Dance Company at the Dance Center of Columbia College. I hadn't previously seen any serious flamenco or other Spanish dance, and it did take me a while to come to terms with its exuberant exhibitionism.

The first number, Concierto Andaluz (one of several traditional dances by the four company members), opens with each dancer in a different, exaggeratedly dramatic posture: backs arched, arms raised, heads thrown back, the dancers are literally looking down their noses at you. They hold these poses for several seconds, and in that moment each dancer seems to say, "Look at me, give me your full attention, and I might deign to dance." The two women wear brightly colored flounced dresses; the men are in tapering black jackets and narrow-hipped pants flared at the ankles. The dance itself has little to surprise even the novice viewer: the familiar flamenco footwork, the relatively stationary twirling and stamping, the playing of castanets. Interesting and enjoyable in its way, it still seemed a museum piece, a somewhat airless tribute to something dead.

In the second number, Reflexiones (choreographed and danced by Benitez herself), the posing evident in Concierto Andaluz burgeons to consume the entire dance. In a gossamer-thin, backless white dress that revealed every rib and every delicate muscle, Benitez began seated, her head and torso thrown back, a huge fringed shawl framing the pose dramatically. Everything about her suggested pride and an intense self-absorption: the frown, the mouth stretched wide and down in disdain--even her shoulder blades standing out arrogantly. When she removed her shawl to dance, it was in itself a small ceremony. An ounce less dignity and we'd call it a strip.

Less flamenco than Spanish-influenced modern dance, Reflexiones made me squirm, perhaps because the modern tradition seems incompatible with self-display. The typical modern dancer wants to escape the affectations of ballet, to make the body not an end in itself but a transparent means to some other truth. And in those cases where the point is merely what can be done with the human body, the modern dancer is usually expected to move unselfconsciously, not as if he or she expected to be admired. Still, in her first appearance onstage Benitez did exhibit a remarkable physical presence: a large, feral face; huge, and hugely expressive, hands; and a whiplike, elegant body.

The next number in which Benitez appeared, Taranto, a duet with Eduardo Montero, also gave me, initially, some misgivings: Benitez is a much more imposing figure than Montero--apparently taller, and certainly more powerful. In addition, this number introduced as accompanists two guitarists (Paco Izquierdo and Guillermo Rios) and a singer (Cuquito de Barbate). I thought at first that the singer was a comedian, and that his intense fidgeting and nervous glances were the humorous prelude to a joke. Then he broke into song, and his raucous, apparently off-key shouts made me feel I'd stumbled onto a bad imitation of a bad Spanish lounge act.

But those impressions didn't last. The dissonance gradually came to seem weirdly melodic, the singer's timing was exquisite, and altogether it began to sound not so much strident as deeply passionate. And my original impression that Benitez and Montero were mismatched dissolved as the intensity so evident (and self-absorbed) in Reflexiones here took the form of sexual passion. Benitez and Montero never touched, but the exaggerated, splay-fingered caressing motions of their hands conveyed desire as well as any embrace. The footwork--that stamping at once martial, angry, eloquent, and controlled--built to a crescendo, to which the live accompaniment contributed not a little. Moreover, the onstage accompanists, who watched the performers avidly (as indeed they must, technically, to synchronize the music with the dance), gave a voyeuristic twist to the dancers' eroticism.

I had anticipated some problems with the polarized sex roles of traditional Spanish dancing, sex roles that these days are often presented as camp, or offered merely in the interest of historical authenticity. I didn't expect that an earnest, straightforward rendering could be as intriguing as Benitez made it in her second solo, Solea.

Female exhibitionism and male voyeurism here were patent. Benitez, the sole woman onstage and only person dancing, was watched by five men--the guitarists, the singer, and two male dancers who clapped, stamped, and shouted in time to the music. (In fact, the distinction between music and dance is in flamenco obscured--the percussion of the dancers' footwork is a kind of music, and the clapping and stamping accompaniment is a kind of dance.) Benitez wore a brilliant red dress with a flounced long train and a fringed shawl--which again served as a key prop: a male dancer ceremonially removed it, and his disrobing her emphasized the men's role in the woman's display.

And it is a display. Most dancers are curiously touchy about exhibitionism, uncomfortable with the fact that they display their bodies, often with sexual overtones. Perhaps the reason is that exhibitionism implies onanism--although it need not. And in Solea it did not, maybe because those five men were so enthusiastically present.

But a further explanation is Benitez herself, and her dancing. I've never seen hands so expressive, so sexualized: undulating, beckoning, resisting, offering, they in effect performed a dance all their own, their size and strength in curious contrast with Benitez's small, slow-moving, almost repressed arms and torso. In this piece, reflective interludes in which the singer sings to (or for?) the female dancer were followed by passages of mad clapping and stamping, when Benitez tattooed the floor. And yet the point never seemed to be a merely technical virtuosity: instead Benitez seemed truly possessed, seemed forced by the music, the men's urging, and her own nature to move passionately, and the look of agony that was artificial in Reflexiones here shaded into pleasure. Benitez--sweating, her hair disheveled, escaping its severe bun--was in this dance softened, humanized, and ultimately sensualized by her exhaustion. Yet despite that abandon, she never lost her control, and the pride evident at the end of her performance seemed a fully justified expression of machisma.

Solea was for me the high point of the concert, and yet the concluding number, for the entire company, was equally rousing in its way. Flamenco is a cabaret art form, meant to be danced, played, and sung in close quarters, with no clear distinction between audience and performers. Benitez and company did their best to reproduce that intimacy, especially in their finale: all dancers were onstage at all times, but they might surround a featured performer downstage, or stand back by the guitarists and singer to observe and applaud a lengthier display from a distance.

By this point in the evening our familiarity with the individual dancers enhanced their solos. Montero, a guest artist, danced a farruca. This traditional dance of violence came across as technically impressive, but Montero seemed boastful and at the same time fey and slight. I wondered whether I simply found male exhibitionism distasteful, but another male dancer, Timo Lozano, was thoroughly captivating. Certainly a show-off (he did a flamenco version of the Charleston), he seemed less selfinvolved. Then, too, the likable Lozano seemed to observe his fellow dancers with more generosity and enthusiasm than any other company member. The other male dancer, Miguel Diaz, distinguished himself in his solos mainly by his extremely loud stamps.

The two female members are in startling physical contrast to Benitez herself: both are rounded, even plump. Monica Flores, who danced an alegrias, had a somewhat vacant look but her work was pretty and appealing. Rosa Mercedes, not tall, not thin, and evidently not young, was the better dancer, with a natural drama and intensity and the observation of a hawk.

By this time, the exhibitionism intrinsic to this dance form no longer seemed an affectation but a natural, vital impulse. And because the distinctions between dancer and musician, between dancer and observer, had been broken down, the sense of communal celebration was palpable. So when the performers abandoned their microphones to approach the audience, we snatched at the invitation, and all of us avid voyeurs broke into a rhythmic clapping, to which the dancers beat out their final steps, their final song.

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