Cuban dancer and choreographer Irene Rodríguez made her Tampa debut performing a flamenco piece at the gala for the Youth American Grand Prix ballet competition, which was held at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for Performing Arts in January.
It was the first time a flamenco dancer had been invited to perform at the prestigious gala. Rodríguez received a double standing ovation.
“I’m very excited and very grateful for the welcome of the Tampa Bay audience,” she said.
Rodríguez moved to Tampa last year with her mother. She said the city’s cultural heritage attracted them.
“Tampa has an amazing connection and heritage from Spain and from the Cuban culture too,” she said. “We love how the city is growing up culturally and the people, how you support arts and you appreciate the culture I really develop, that is the Spanish culture.”
Rodríguez, 38, teaches ballet at the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory and flamenco at Brucie Klay’s Dance Center.
During the competition where she got the standing ovation, Rodríguez choreographed a Spanish ballet piece for the Patel Conservatory students. It won first place in the ensemble category, and Rodríguez received the Outstanding Choreographer award.
Awards and prestige are nothing new for Rodríguez. In addition to having her own international touring company in Cuba, Irene Rodríguez Compañia, with 400 students, she was the principal dancer of Spanish dance and flamenco at Ballet Español de Cuba. She was a guest artist, choreographic adviser and rehearsal instructor of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.
Rodriguez has been the director of the flamenco and Spanish dance program for the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in the U.S. and artistic director of the international festival La Huella de España (The Print of Spain) in Cuba.
She taught for the Juilliard School over Zoom during the pandemic, and was commissioned to create recorded pieces for the LA Opera, Jacob’s Pillow dance festival and the Laguna Dance Festival.
Among her many honors, in 2018 she was given the Order “Isabel La Católica,” Spain’s highest civilian honor for “recognition of extraordinary conduct or civic virtue exemplified by Spanish peoples and foreigners, that benefit the Spanish Nation or those who contribute in a significant way to foster the friendship and cooperation of the Spanish Nation with the rest of the international community.” It is signed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the King of Spain.
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Rodríguez said that honor means a lot to her because she feels like an ambassador of Spanish culture.
Born in Havana, Rodríguez found dance at a young age and was quickly noticed for her talent. She holds a master’s degree in theoretical studies of dance and a bachelor of theater arts (acting) from the National Arts University in Havana.
Her teaching and choreography credits are vast and include the National Spanish Dance Academy. She created the Professional Spanish Dance Academy and the Vocational Dance School in Cuba, the success of which led her to become the representative for the Flamenco School of Andalucía in Cuba.
As a choreographer, she’s won several international awards.
While trained in classical ballet and contemporary styles of dance, flamenco is Rodríguez’s passion. She appreciates the storytelling aspect of the dance and the expression of many emotions. She takes inspiration from literature and art to incorporate into the dance.
“When you are a flamenco dancer, you are a musician as well, because we do percussion with our feet and we do percussion with the castanets.”
“Ms. Rodríguez is an intense, exacting dancer; the word ‘fiery,’ so overused with respect to flamenco, actually suits her well,” The New York Times wrote of her when she performed with Irene Rodríguez Compañia at the Joyce Theater in 2016.
In Tampa, Rodríguez plans to continue teaching and create a bigger studio. She dreams of performing with The Florida Orchestra and at Tampa Theatre and The Dalí Museum. She’s found a community of people who she said are working hard to develop culture and dance in the area.
“We need to do more festivals and we need to have more performances in open spaces and theaters,” she said. “I would love to be a part of it and contribute with art to (make) this explosion possible.”