By Jacob Katel
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Joaquin Cortes, 24 years old and a dangerously handsome Gypsy trained in classical ballet, is the first flamenco dancer to achieve the popular status of a rock star. In Spain his mix of strong flamenco stomps and lyrical jumps and turns have seduced both jaded postmodern payos (non-Gypsies) and gitano audiences obsessed with maintaining the authenticity of the art of flamenco.
Last year a record-breaking 12,000 people packed Madrid's Teatro Albeniz over twelve nights of performances, where standing ovations reportedly outlasted the length of the dances themselves. Cortes, who performs in suede pants and little else, or unconstructed designer suits, has appeared in a music video (Una rosa es una rosa, by the venerable Spanish pop group Mecano); has modeled (grabbing his crotch) for magazines; and has been shot by the fashion-conscious photographer-videomaker Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who declared the Spaniard more charismatic than Prince. Director Pedro Almod centsvar, a rabid fan, wants to create a role for the dancer in an upcoming movie.
Cortes typically performs with five singers, two additional dancers, and a band of thirteen musicians who play a hybrid style of contemporary flamenco on flute, violin, drums, bass, and traditional flamenco guitar. The company has traveled extensively through Europe, Japan, and South America -- in Caracas the stage was ringed with armed guards to hold back ardent fans. The Spanish press has repeatedly called Cortes "the inventor of flamenco for the 21st Century." Other reviewers say his dancing is, simply, "a scandal."
Tonight (Thursday), Joaquin Cortes will make his American debut on a street in Miami Beach. He will dance solo, with a reduced group of three singers and six musicians, on a stage placed on Espanola Way as part of a Spanish festival celebrating renovations four years ago that brought an art community to the street. The fiesta also includes an appearance by the Spanish folkloric dance company "Fina Escayola." WLRN-FM (91.3) DJ Emilio San Pedro will provide the music between performances.
To say the least, this is a major coup. Cortes was supposed to make his U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. (He is now expected to dance there next year.) Instead he was persuaded by Chu Oroz and Naomi Campano, Spanish designers who are among the Espanola Way event's producers, to perform here first, at a considerable discount off his standard $70,000 fee. Admission to the street festival is free.
Beyond that, a steamy night outdoors is the ideal setting for flamenco. The origin of the Andalusian song and dance might still be hotly debated, but many trace it back to the evening festivities in the camps of Gypsy migrant workers who toiled in the fields of the Southern region. Although it is one of foreigners' favorite Spanish stereotypes, along with paella and bullfighting, flamenco has remained a marginal art in Spain, experiencing repeated creative crises throughout this century.
While purists have deemed it an art form impossible to reinvent, many musicians have worked to develop new forms of flamenco A Paco de Lucia, Camaron de la Isla, and more recently, flamenco-rock groups like Ketama, Pata Negra, or El Ultimo de la Fila. Less known are those who have successfully dedicated their careers to the evolution of flamenco dance. Antonio Gades has become familiar to international audiences through Carlos Saura's films Blood Wedding and Carmen. He introduced ballet movement into flamenco dance, softening the forceful footwork. Gades, not a Gypsy, began studying ballet relatively late in his career.
Cortes, on the other foot, began taking ballet at age twelve, and by the time he was seventeen he had become a soloist with the National Ballet of Spain. Three years later he quit because of differences with the company's director. He soon began dancing flamenco, forming his troupe in 1992 with producer Ricardo Cue. With his classical acrobatics and Gypsy passion, Cortes embodies both the bailarin (ballet dancer) and bailaor (flamenco dancer) while moving with the seductive self-awareness of a lead singer. A completely different type of rock star.
Joaquin Cortes performs at 10:00 p.m. today (Thursday) at the Espanola Way fourth anniversary celebration, which begins at 6:00 p.m. between Washington and Drexel avenues, Miami Beach, 672-3224. It's free.