Marina Tamayo: A Flamenco choreographer with unmatched duende

Marina Tamayo. Photo by Ben King.
Marina Tamayo. Photo by Ben King.

Marina Tamayo, renowned Flamenco choreographer and artist, is celebrated for her profound artistic expression. She is often described as possessing ‘duende’ – a soulful depth unique to true artists. Tamayo’s illustrious career spans decades and is marked by collaborations with iconic figures in the dance world. 

From 1982 to 1986, she danced alongside Antonio Vargas, famed for his role in Strictly Ballroom, who praised her as “a dancer that holds nothing back.” More recently, from 2015 to 2019, Aitor Hernandez, a former dancer of the Nacional Ballet of Spain, lauded her as “one of the most powerful artists I have met on stage, crafting magic in her every movement.”

Marina Tamayo in 'Carmen' from Adelaide Film Festival performance at Her Majesty's Theatre. Photo by Naomi Jellicoe.
Marina Tamayo in ‘Carmen’ from Adelaide Film Festival performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Photo by Naomi Jellicoe.

Devoted to her art form, Tamayo has self-funded many dance education projects over the last 40 years. With the hope that the Australian Dance Arts Council will one day provide financial support, she has travelled to remote communities across Australia. “I do this to bring joy, unite communities and bring the love of dance through inclusive storytelling; it fills my soul,” she shares. 

From 2010 to 2019, she travelled to Tasmania to teach and create performances for groups in rural areas. In 1992, she founded Adelaide Hills Performing Arts Centre, which is dedicated to providing accessible arts for rural children. In 2023, she travelled to Coonamble Indigenous communities, delivering dance and education experiences. In addition to this, she currently delivers weekly inclusive dance programs, including for children with disabilities at Chatswood Public School and with The Arts Unit, which is offered by the Department of Education of NSW. 

Recognised for her unwavering passion and captivating style, Tamayo’s solo performance in Benjamin Millepied’s 2022 film re-imagining of Carmen received critical acclaim. Jazz Tangcay of Variety described her performance as “jaw-dropping” at the Toronto International Film Festival. This role also earned her a nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography at the New York Chita Rivera Awards in 2024, alongside Millepied.

Tamayo’s dedication to her craft and belief that “artists are called where they are needed the most” drive her to pour her heart into every performance and project. Her contributions to the dance world have been recognised with numerous awards, including a Fellowship from the Australian Music and Performing Arts Academy in 2023, and multiple nominations at the Australian Dance Awards.

Her recent work includes a choreographic residency as a DAIR contemporary choreographer, sponsored by Ausdance NSW in 2021, where she co-created an experimental dance composition with Victor Zarallo. Their reimagining of Bolero premiered on April 29, 2023, at NIDA, performed by Australian Music and Performing Arts Academy students.

Tamayo continues to influence the dance community through her company, Las Peinetas Spanish Dance Theatre, which was showcased at Ausdance’s 45th birthday celebration. Her commitment to fostering new talent and innovative performances ensures her legacy as a transformative figure in Flamenco dance.

Join Dance Informa, as we delve deep into what makes Tamayo the captivating dancer, choreographer, cultural leader and educator she is renowned for. 

Marina, I’m curious to know about your journey with Flamenco. Could you share how you were first introduced to this art form and what drew you to pursue it?

“My childhood years were turbulent and violent. My father was an abusive alcoholic, and we all suffered in the house. Unfortunately, being the youngest and a girl, I was the most vulnerable and targeted regularly. Music, dance and my creative imagination were my safe space, and Flamenco became my saviour. 

My mum introduced me to Flamenco — another survivor of this abusive relationship. When Mum could change our world, she danced, sang, and played her castanets to Spanish and Flamenco music in the house daily, so the music and songs were all very familiar to me. My mother was a folk dancer and belonged to her folk group during her university years in Granada. She was my most influential teacher.

My family are from Granada, and they were very much involved with the arts. My auntie is a painter and poet, and my great uncle is Manuel Cano, a renowned Flamenco guitarist. I studied ballet from the age of three until 13 years of age and Spanish dance from 11 years of age. My mother had a Flamenco album called ‘Jose Greco’, and I played and memorised each song on the Grundig (old record player) for days on end. I did this by picking up the needle and returning it to the start until I had learnt all the zapateado (percussive footwork) on that album for every dance he did. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I learned how to match his feet by the sounds.  I showed my mum my favourite one, it was called Farruca. After I had danced it mostly with my feet, she asked if I wanted to learn Flamenco seriously, and I said yes! I begged her. The following year, she had taken me to Granada to meet my Abuela and stay with her to study in Sacromonte with the gypsy teacher Paco Torres, which invariably began a love affair and a lifeline that saved my life.”

How have you evolved your art form cross-culturally between Australia and Spain? 

“Yes, I am passionate about working between Spain and Australia. I spent quite a bit of time in our hometown in Andalucia studying. However, I also lived in the North and studied folk Gallego dance there. I mixed amongst the northern gypsy community living there and learnt about their stories. I offered to teach young gypsy children for free in the local youth centre in Viveiro, and I was inundated by the students. I taught the local gypsy children compas (beats) and basic technical braceo (arm work), and they ate it up. I have performed and taught in the northern, Madrid, and southern parts of Spain various tablaos (colloquial term for theSpanish “tablado”, floorboard on stages), mostly by invitation. I have also collaborated with several distinguished dancers from Spain in Australia, sponsored, toured, taught, designed curriculum, performed and produced over forty years worth of Flamenco projects.”

Your choreography was recently featured in Carmen along with contemporary choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Please walk us through the initial process and filming on set. 

“The process was organic and personal. First and foremost, I am a gypsy dancer; I have my own story, which transpired into my style. When I received an invitation to audition, I had nothing prepared; I just came with my story. Benjamin invited me to chat with him and the executive team of the film. I had no idea who any of them were, which, in hindsight, was in my favour because I had no nerves about it. 

I always believed in being myself, so I had nothing to lose. After Benjamin heard about me and my story, he invited me to dance a week later. He had hired a studio at the Sydney Dance Company studios for two hours. Upon arrival, he greeted me with anticipation for what was about to transpire. I was unsure how I would dance for two hours on my own and secretly concerned about that, and I didn’t have a guitarist or a singer! However, Benjamin had an idea of what we wanted. He gave me the brief, ‘You have to dance for your life,’ and I said, ‘I can do that,’ and he added, ‘And there is no music.’ To which I replied, ‘Perfect. I prefer that.’

I stood in the middle of this enormous studio, closed my eyes, took a deep breath and exhaled. My feet began to mark out the compas, and the rest flowed. I danced for three minutes or so; it is hard to tell as you lose track of time when you improvise. However, when I came to my subida (a climatic end), I glanced at Benjamin, and he was smiling, menos al eh? (not so bad!) When I finished, he said, ‘The next time I see you, we will be in the desert filming.’

Marina Tamayo in the desert in preparation for filming 'Carmen'. Photo courtesy of Tamayo.
Marina Tamayo in the desert in preparation for filming ‘Carmen’. Photo courtesy of Tamayo.

Benjamin added me to the script several times in several places after that meeting, and I was thrilled to do extra, of course. The filming in the desert was a spiritual experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was so powerfully cathartic that I took a whole day before filming sitting on set, on the sacred Indigenous land, asking the ancestors of the land to allow me to dance on it, to share my story with them. It was such an overwhelming, vast space that I needed the time to feel the enormous power and connection of sacred ground. Benjamin took this image photo on set pre-shooting.”

You’ve also been nominated for Outstanding Choreography in a Theatrical Release for Carmen and a finalist in The Australian Dance Awards for Emerald. Could you describe your sentiment towards this recognition? 

“It is humbling. No true artist works for or towards recognition, though it often comes as a humbling surprise when it arrives. My choreography is all about risk-taking and isn’t ever put together for entertainment or conforming to traditions. My best work has always been a trauma response, but it has become cathartic. No great artwork comes from a place of comfort. 

In my choreography, I always consider all the possibilities of generating a new discourse and prefer a more ‘arthouse alternative crowd’ than pleasing the masses. I tap into a fusion of contemporary dance concepts with traditional folk and Flamenco dance. The themes are often the more compelling, political or confronting aspects of human nature, and I pay attention to the dialogue instead of special effects and fancy tricks. Don’t get me wrong; I can make a cabaret show for events and create an engaging Spanish experience for tablao, TV, fashion or dinner shows, though these would be regular bread-and-butter jobs because we need to pay bills.

To this day, I thank my mother, abuela and gypsy community for teaching me resilience, fortitude and patience. The national and international recognition reaffirms that artistic intent need not be met with acceptance from anyone else other than the artist and its purpose. The work will define your story, not who you say you are, and thus, it is always important to remember why you create your work and not for who. After I received the international Chita Rivera Award from Broadway for the work I contributed to Benjamin Millepied’s Carmen, I sat in my hotel room in Manhattan, New York, overlooking the skyline and reflected on ‘How did I get here?’

The nominations celebrate outstanding work, but what is successful? I describe it as a shared experience or story that leaves a transformational imprint on the artist and their audience, that they are different to how they walked in, it provokes deep conversation, it is timeless, it promotes reflection and it inspires people and in the case of Carmen, to ‘fight for their lives.’ I think Carmen is a movie that intends to move people, make them think, get carried away with the beauty of movement, and reflect on the power of ‘place’ and the right to have a home, a voice, freedom.”

Your knowledge, studies and determination to share Flamenco have been invaluable, and their impact is evident. What drives you each day?

“I think the struggles of my mother as a migrant in Australia, her passion for having us educated and sacrificing so much of her own needs to have both my brother and me educated have had a huge impact on my drive.

As a passionate advocate for equity in education, I decided to become a qualified teacher and gain my Bachelor of Education. I recognised the profound impact that access to high-quality, inclusive education can have on individuals and communities, particularly those who have been historically marginalised. Pursuing a teaching certification with the New South Wales Department of Education allowed me to translate my commitment to educational inclusion into tangible action.

Marina Tamayo. Photo by Cassie Strand.
Marina Tamayo. Photo by Cassie Strand.

Through rigorous training and hands-on experience, I developed the pedagogical skills and cultural competencies needed to create learning environments where all students, regardless of their background or circumstances, can thrive and access Flamenco discourse. I have designed curriculum and programs and implemented assessment rubrics aligned with Australian Professional Standards For Teachers. 

In the classroom, I strive to dismantle systemic barriers and empower my students to reach their full potential through positive reinforcement. This means incorporating diverse cultural perspectives and narratives into the dance curriculum, employing teaching methods that cater to various learning styles, and fostering a climate of cultural storytelling respect, empowerment and belonging. I also work closely with families and community stakeholders to understand and address the unique needs of the population I serve. 

Often, I work in areas where high-quality cultural dance arts are scarce, such as rural Tasmania, New Zealand, regional South Australia, and New South Wales. I founded the Adelaide Hills Performing Arts Centre in 1988, a centre for rural children; I founded Flamenco Australia in 2000, to represent and support Flamenco artists students across the country and took flights to regional parts of Tasmania for over a decade to provide cultural engagement through classes and performances in rural areas. I teach in the public school sectors for EALD students, have written a program for students with disabilities in the inclusion hub, and deliver Flamenco workshops with the Arts Unit of the Education Department. 

By taking this holistic, equity-minded approach, I aim to be a catalyst for transformative change – equipping communities, both young and young at heart, with the knowledge, critical thinking abilities and sense of agency to become engaged, empowered cultural dance citizens who can effect positive change in our world.

Becoming a qualified teacher has allowed me to marry my passion for social justice with my deep love of learning and teaching Flamenco. Every day, I have the privilege of guiding students on their educational dance journeys, opening their minds to new possibilities, and helping them develop the skills and mindsets to navigate an increasingly complex multicultural global landscape. Recently, I have taught programmes in Classical Ballet 121, AMPA, National College of Dance and Tanya Pearson Academy for ballerinas, and it is immensely rewarding work. 

Through my role as a Flamenco dance teacher and choreographer, I have the opportunity to be a force for progress, to disrupt cycles of inequality, and to empower the next generation of dance professionals, leaders, artistic innovators and engaged dance citizens.”

For those who have seen your work and have yet to experience the passion of Flamenco, what are your goals for the future and Australia? 

“My goals have always been elevating this vibrant and diverse art form onto the international stage, focusing on showcasing the rich multicultural dance traditions that originated in Australia. I look forward to new collaborations and going where I am most needed.  

Marina Tamayo in 'Carmen' from Adelaide Film Festival performance at Her Majesty's Theatre. Photo by Naomi Jellicoe.
Marina Tamayo in ‘Carmen’ from Adelaide Film Festival performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Photo by Naomi Jellicoe.

However, to truly establish this multicultural dance form as a respected professional genre on the global circuit, I require the vital support and funding of the Australia Arts Council. Regrettably, to date, after 44 years of service to the Australian arts and after receiving countless awards, national and international nominations and productions, my applications for such backing have been unsuccessful, hindering my ability to provide the necessary resources, infrastructure and promotional platforms to propel Australian Flamenco dance into the spotlight it deserves.  

Without this institutional support, it becomes exponentially more challenging to organise large-scale international tours, secure prestigious performance and teaching venues, create a professional company and attract the media attention required to elevate Australian multicultural dance theatre to the forefront of the global arts landscape. The artistic richness and cultural significance of these dance forms must be amplified, and I am steadfast in my mission to do so – but I cannot accomplish this momentous task alone. 

The Australia Arts Council and philanthropists hold the key to unlocking the full potential of Flamenco and multicultural dance, enabling these vibrant traditions to transcend geographical borders and inspire audiences worldwide with their beauty, power and authenticity. With their backing, I am confident we can firmly establish it as a vital, celebrated and commercially viable professional genre, shattering preconceptions and forever transforming the international performing arts arena.

In the meantime, I will keep working on my artistic path, collaborating internationally, continuing to implement education programs at ballet and primary and secondary public schools, nurturing the next generation of dance artists and citizens in Flamenco storytelling, and then let’s see what happens.”

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.

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