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Jose Greco

By Elizabeth Hollenbeck

With an intense stage presence to match the driving rhythms that characterize flamenco dancing, José Greco captivated audiences around the world during his career and brought Spanish dance into mainstream culture. The José Greco Dance Company was the first Spanish dance troupe to perform on Broadway, and among Greco’s other accomplishments are numerous film and television appearances, and the honor of receiving knighthood from the Spanish government in 1962.

Since he is acknowledged as one of the premier Spanish dancers in history, it may come as something of a surprise to learn that José Greco was actually born in the small mountain town of Montorio Nei Frentani in Italy. His birth name was Costanzo Greco, and once his father had immigrated to the United States and attained his citizenship - and that of his wife and children by extension - he sent for the rest of their family to come to New York where they settled together in Brooklyn. Greco was nine years old then, and by the time he was thirteen it had become his duty to escort his sister Norina to her Spanish dance classes at Madame Helen Veola’s studio. At the time, Madame Veola was the most renowned teacher of Spanish dance in New York. She spent her summers in Spain taking in the dance scene and then brought back what she had learned to her studio classes.

Greco only watched at first, taking everything in during class and at the weekly Tuesday night recitals put on by the most accomplished students. Norina would practice at their home, occasionally struggling with combinations of steps, and Greco would tease her by mimicking what he’d seen in class perfectly. This teasing rebounded on him when Norina told Madame Veola that he pestered her at home saying he was a better dancer than she was. Madame Veola requested that Greco give a demonstration. He was taken off guard by this, but was loathe to back down, and so he performed for the entire class - and received thundering applause when he finished. Just like that, Greco ended up studying with Madame Veola for several years, and was selected for an opportunity to perform a number in La Traviata at the Hippodrome Theatre in Manhattan at age sixteen. The experience of performing onstage in the largest and most successful theatre of that era kindled Greco’s desire to study Spanish dance even more seriously.

Greco began his career dancing in nightclubs, sometimes venturing outside of New York, although he maintained his connection to Madame Veola’s studio. In 1938 he performed with several of her students when a distinguished guest was visiting the studio. Madame Veola’s guest turned out to be the well-admired dancer Vicente Escudero, who was impressed with the young Greco. No one could have predicted that this encounter would lead to a telephone call, months later, from none other than La Argentinita (given name: Encarnación Lopez, 1900-1945), one of the most talented and well-known Spanish dancers at that time, who by then had heard about a young dancer named Greco, and had decided to offer him the chance to audition to be her dance partner. He did, and passed with flying colors, except for one small detail - how could a Spanish dancer have the name Costanzo? She suggested he change his name to José, and since he rather liked the sound of it, he did.

Greco and La Argentinita began their tour, and made enough of a splash to catch the eye of impresario Sol Hurok, a man known for his uncanny managerial success in show business. He signed them both for another tour, which lasted until La Argentinita’s sudden death in 1945.

At this point, Greco had become established enough to strike out on his own and found a dance company: Ballet y Bailes de España de José Greco. He resided in Spain while touring all over Europe, although the Spanish couldn’t believe he was Italian-American and could perform their native Spanish dances so well; mostly people thought it was some kind of publicity stunt and that he was truly Spanish. "I was just an Italian with a Spanish heart who loved the dance," José Greco said (Eichenbaum, 2001). Nonetheless, in a few years both Greco and his company had become legends. Greco caught the attention of the film industry, and landed dancing roles in several major pictures.

One of these films, Brindis a Manolete, was a biographical film about a bullfighter that did poorly in Spain when it opened in 1948, but by 1951 had become all the rage in France. Lee Schubert, owner of the Schubert Theatres, happened to see this film while vacationing in Cannes. The cinema’s audience was so taken with Greco’s dance number that time after time the projectionist was forced to rewind the film and play it again. This was so extraordinary that Lee Schubert sent one of his agents all the way to Copenhagen on a quest to track down José Greco and company and propose a six-month performance series contract. Greco’s former manager Sol Hurok got wind of the offer and put in an offer of his own, but in the end Greco chose to partner with Schubert. Soon, his dance company was booked for a performance series that lasted a month at the Schubert Theatre on Broadway, which was then extended for another month in the Century Theatre, a truly astounding feat for any dance company at that time, much less an ethnic dance company.

Along with the six-month tour around America, Greco appeared on many television programs including the Ed Sullivan Show. He took part in Hollywood films produced by MGM, 20th Century-Fox, and Michael Todd, one of the premier film and television producers in the 1950s. Though he maintained several residences in Spain which he considered home, Greco performed and toured around the United States and internationally almost nonstop between 1951 and 1974, when he retired from full-time performing. During that time he was presented to Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and knighted by the Spanish government.

By this time Greco’s son, José Greco II, and his daughters Carmela and Lola, were showing great promise as dancers themselves. In 1984 Greco decided to create an all-new José Greco Company that would feature his three children, for whom he would act as manager. Their tour started at the Joyce Theatre, billed as “The Next Generation,” and lasted a year before there were artistic differences within the family, mainly between father and son, which proved too difficult to resolve. Carmela once described it this way, “It is characteristic of two males in a family to compete. Lola and I never challenged our father's decisions. My father is very liberal with us in all matters, but onstage he is a dictator” (Okrent, 1999). José Greco II remained with his father’s company until 1994, when he started his own: José Greco II Flamenco Dance Company.

In 1993, Greco took on a professorship at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, a college with a good drama department and a strong program in dance interested especially in ethnic dance. Around this time he was also awarded funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to recreate and preserve in labanotation1 two of his signature choreographies, the male solo “Dance of the Horsemen,” and the female solo “Legend de Petenera”. He taught up until age 82, when he died of heart failure at his home in Lancaster on December 31, 2000.

It would be hard to name another dancer who has elevated Spanish dancing in the public eye to the extent that José Greco did through the prodigious accomplishments of his life and his career. Despite any artistic differences or father-son friction, Greco’s philosophy and choreography live on through the efforts of José Greco II and his company. This legacy and tradition of Spanish dance that was so much a part of José Greco’s existence will certainly live on through future decades.

Elizabeth Hollenbeck is an artist, writer, and scholar. She is an MLS candidate at Texas Woman's University specializing in archives and digitization processes, and will graduate in Spring 2014. Her fiction writing has been published in the anthology Fight Like A Girl. In 2013, Elizabeth was selected to be a Dance Heritage Coalition Archives and Preservation Fellow, placed at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, MA.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Cannon, Angie. "Brooklyn boy makes good." U.S. News & World Report 15 Jan. 2001: 10.MasterFILE Premier. Web. 16 Sept. 2013.

Eichenbaum, Rose. "Remembering José Greco--Ambassador Of The Spanish Dance." Dance Magazine 75.4 (2001): 64. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web. 7 Sept. 2013.

"Farewell To Jose Greco And Tanaquil Le Clercq." Dance Magazine 75.3 (2001): 42. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web. 16 Sept. 2013.

Greco, José and Harvey Ardman. The Gypsy in My Soul: The Autobiography of José Greco. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1977. Print.

"José Greco." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2013): 1. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 16 Sept. 2013.

"José Greco." Daily Variety 270.25 (2001): 30. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web. 10 Sept. 2013.

"José Greco." Variety 381.7 (2001): 74. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web. 16 Sept. 2013.

Mayer, George Louis. "The Gypsy In My Soul (Book Review)." Library Journal 102.10 (1977): 1205. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 12 Sept. 2013.

Meyer Camill R. “Inventory of the José Greco Graphic Materials 1900-1985.” 2005. PDF file.

Okrent, Neil. "Dance In The Blood." Dance Magazine 73.3 (1999): 80. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web. 16 Sept. 2013.

W., P. "From Spain With Pasión." Dance Magazine 87.3 (2013): 14. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web. 16 Sept. 2013.

Moving Image

Brindis a Manolete. Produced by Hércules Films S.A. Spain: Divisa Home Video, 2003. DVD.

Dance On: José Greco. Produced by Billie Mahoney. New York: Insight Media, 1994. DVD.

José Greco in Performance. Originally telecast on ABC-TV's Voice of Firestone series on January 5, 1959. Produced by Frederick Heider. Directed by Richard Dunlap. New York: Video Artists International, 1990. Videocassette.

Spanish Dance with the Master: José Greco and Friends. A public program presented at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, as part of the series Music and Dance of Spain, Dec. 21, 1995. Videorecording available at the Library for the Performing Arts under classmark *MGZIC 9-5097


Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts:

José Greco professional and personal papers, 1942-1984. Finding aid: http://www.nypl.org/archives/698

José Greco graphic materials. Finding aid

La Meri papers in the Harvard Theatre Collection, including photographs of José Greco in costume: http://hollis.harvard.edu/?itemid=|library/m/aleph|013627845

Also available: press materials, programs, miscellaneous manuscripts.