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He's Turning the Heat Way Up

Dance: Joaquin Cortes has shaken the world of flamenco with his sensuous, rock 'n' roll approach to the ancient Spanish art. Some call it 'Flamenco fusion.'

September 11, 1996|JORDAN LEVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When he stalks onstage at sold-out stadium shows, bare-chested and in a black skirt, young girls scream and faint. Women in Porsches follow him through the streets in foreign cities. He has shocked the press and the cultural elite of his native Spain with his unorthodox moves and provocative statements. His manager is a veteran promoter of the likes of Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson.

Is he the latest European rock star?

Not exactly. He's the first, the only, crossover Gypsy flamenco dancer rock star.

His name is Joaquin Cortes, a charismatic Spanish 27-year-old who wants to bring the ancient art of flamenco to the world. Already a star in Europe, Cortes is taking his show "Gypsy Passion," with 14 dancers and 13 musicians, on a one-week tour of the United States that will bring him to New York's Radio City Music Hall, Chicago, Miami and, on Sunday, to the Universal Amphitheatre. He already has smoldered in photos in Vanity Fair, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, and he has stomped his feet on "Regis and Kathie Lee."

"I come to America with open arms," Cortes says in husky Spanish by phone from an August tour stop in Italy. "I think I am like a Spanish [version of the] American dream, because I started with nothing, came from nothing. And isn't the American dream that someone who has nothing can get to have everything?"

Raised by his Gypsy grandfather Antonio Reyes (to whom "Gypsy Passion" is dedicated) in a working-class neighborhood in Madrid, Cortes grew up hanging around the flamenco clubs called tablaos. At 12 he told his uncle Cristobal Reyes, a famed flamenco dancer who now appears with Cortes, that he wanted to dance. Reyes helped him get into the school of the National Ballet of Spain, the country's official repository for flamenco and classical Spanish dance. By age 15, Cortes was invited into the company and rapidly rose to soloist, but by the time he was 20, the National Ballet's traditions seemed too constraining, and he went out on his own.

"To me it's a company that has stayed in the '40s, that hasn't evolved," Cortes says now.

At 22, he formed his first group, not only mixing flamenco with the graceful extended lines of ballet (he is known for his multiple pirouettes), but also throwing in modern and jazz dance, and adding new rhythms, musical elements and rock-show theatrics. "Flamenco fusion" it's been called, or "flamenco of the 21st century."

Cortes' talent and charisma are undeniable; he has classical virtuosity and line, powered by a feline grace and intensity that have led critics to compare him to Nureyev--whom he idolizes. But his showmanship, his ease with the media, his stylistic experimentation and Populist vision have made flamenco purists question whether he is diluting the dance's essential dark soul.

"Young girls are dying because Joaquin Cortes is coming out naked," says Merche Esmerelda, one of Spain's most revered flamenco artists, who has performed with Cortes. "Right now he is a symbol here--it is something of a phenomenon. But whether this is a way to attract people to flamenco, I don't know. Flamenco is much more serious than that."

Cortes sees it differently. He wants to make flamenco popular and accessible to everyone. "I believe it has a universal message, something everyone can feel," he says. "Flamenco has always been for people with money . . . who paid the Gypsies to sing and dance for them. What I want to do is to popularize the dance in every sense. To mix all types of dance and above all to do it for the people, not just a minority."

He denies that the publicity he attracts and pursues will detract from his art. "I don't use the press, the press uses me," he claims. "All the attraction that I can generate is beneficial for dance. In Spain, dance was totally asleep. Now, with what we've done, young people keep coming. Little girls want to dance. Little boys want to be like Joaquin Cortes--they want to dance."

*

Beneficial or not, Cortes has created a sensation. Under the management of Spanish rock promoter Pino Sagliocco, "Gypsy Passion," which began touring in March of 1995, has had extended sold-out runs in Madrid and Barcelona and filled bullrings throughout Spain. It played for full houses in cities throughout Europe, including a stadium show in Rome attended by 11,000 people.

The Cortes whirlwind is a full-scale show-biz assault. "Gypsy Passion's" costumes are by Armani, a video and album are coming on Buena Vista. Spanish political leaders want their pictures taken with him; director Pedro Almodovar's picked him for a role in his latest film, "The Flower of My Secret."

"I don't see [Cortes] as a dancer," said Sagliocco by phone from his office in Spain. "I am treating him like a rock star. The thing is to get out of the subscriber theater situation and go more to the rock world, where people come to see you."

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