Belén Maya is flamenco royalty. Her parents — Spaniards Mario Maya and Carmen Mora — were celebrated dancers, and Maya herself is renowned for her traditional and experimental choreography. Born in New York City, where her father's troupe was on tour, Maya was raised in Spain. Now in her late 40s, she has lived in Seville for many years.
This weekend at Drexel, she will make her Philadelphia debut — performing Romnia, a one-woman show that explores the lives of seven Roma ("gypsy") women. Experimental flourishes include non-Spanish music, a passage danced in wooden shoes, audience participation, and a brief suggestion of nudity (beneath a sheer floor-length black dress that Maya wears at one point).
Maya is tiny but intense and speaks fluent English. In an interview last week on the Drexel campus, she talked about her reluctance to follow in her parents' footsteps, how her bisexuality is received in this ultratraditional dance form, and the surprising power of Balkan folk music. These are edited excerpts.
How did you become a flamenco dancer?
Originally, I wanted to be a Spanish-English translator and a writer. Although I liked watching my parents on stage, I wasn't interested in doing flamenco. And after my parents' divorce, I lived with my mother, who didn't want me to become a flamenco dancer.
But my mom died when I was 14, and, after that, dancing was how I felt I could be in contact with her. So I rediscovered flamenco. I also reconnected with my dad and joined his company. My dad was a wonderful teacher and mentor. He taught me a lot about how to put flamenco on stage, and how to create innovative choreography.
You talk a lot about other experimental flamenco dancers, such as Israel Galván and Rocío Molina. How has working with them affected you?
Israel was in my father's company, so I've known him a long time, and it was wonderful to be in his latest show. I'm so in awe of his work that, when he asked if I could dance in wooden clogs, I said, "Sure!" without a moment's hesitation. And when he asked if I could also dance naked, I said, "Sure!" I spent months in those wooden shoes and decided to include them in Romnia.
In our own work, both Rocío and I protest the way that women in flamenco are stereotyped and objectified. I am bisexual, and I said so openly some time ago — which is still shocking in the world of flamenco. But now there is also Rocío, who is openly queer. In Romnia, I also explore nudity — which is definitely forbidden within the Roma community, and still unusual within flamenco. Rocío Molina uses nudity, as well.
How did you come to create Romnia?
My mom wasn't Roma, so I wasn't in touch with those roots, growing up. But during my father's final illness, we grew close, and I became fascinated by Roma history and culture.
Three years ago, the flamenco scholar Joaquín López Bustamante suggested that I create a show concerning the Roma. But I said no because I didn't know enough. Then he sent me some recordings of Balkan folk-dance music from different countries — Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic — and I loved it. The music was so powerful. So I decided to create a show based on the roles women play in Roma and flamenco culture, using traditional Balkan music.
This is my first one-woman show. At first, I was worried. Would I be able to keep up my energy, to do this whole hour-long piece by myself? But it's fine, partly because I had a great woman director, Marilia Samper.
Tell me more about Romnia. What happens in these different segments?
First, I play a Roma goddess — like the Amazons, women warriors who are independent and unafraid of their bodies. Then I embody a present-day Roma woman who has suffered physical and emotional abuse. Next, there's the "circus" segment, inspired by the colorful patterns and textures Roma women like to wear.
The most dramatic part of Romnia is about a Roma woman during the Holocaust in World War II. There's also a scene in which I invite audience members to join me on stage.
In the final section, I wear an enormous ruffled white dress and a tiara. The over-the-top wedding is still the biggest symbol of Romani culture. But I wanted to "break the code" between Romani families and outsiders, so I present the bride as drunk.
Romnia includes recorded voice-overs — in Spanish. Is this an issue for foreign audiences?
I created Romnia to be performed in the street during the Seville Biennale of Flamenco. Since then, I have danced it in many theaters, in various countries. I want the audience to understand what's being said, so in Philadelphia there will be English translations in the program.
Some time ago, I performed Romnia in Switzerland. After the show, a woman came up to me, crying. She said, "I felt things I've never felt before." And that's the point of art. I'm tired of just being "pretty" on stage, or doing things that are technically impressive. There's not a lot of flamenco movement in Romnia, but my soul, my energy is flamenco. I want the audience to experience that and to leave the theater feeling changed.
Performances 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Drexel's URBN Black Box Theater, 3401 Filbert St.
Tickets: $25 ($15 for students).
Information: 215-895-1029 or drexel.edu/westphal/news-events.