Carmelita Maracci was born in Goldfield, Nevada, the daughter of Josephine Gauss and her second husband Joseph Maracci, a gambler and restaurateur. Her German French mother was a concert level pianist. Her father, Italian and Spanish, had considered a career singing opera; his father was first cousin to Adelina Patti (1843–1919), the great opera star. Hence she was christened Carmelita Patti Maracci. "Carmelita was brought up as Spanish." The mother told her daughter that she was born in Montevideo, Uruguay; Maracci only learned differently much later from her husband.
After the family moved to San Francisco she started her schooling in a convent. In Fresno she continued her dance lessons, and attended a private girls' school. In 1924, when sixteen, she relocated to Los Angeles to advance her dancing abilities. "Carmie was her mother's spoiled darling." On a nine-foot Steinway her mother played very well, music to which "Carmie danced, from the moment she could move--danced before she could walk," according to choreographer Agnes de Mille.
In the 1930s in Hollywood, the two young dancers Agnes and Carmelita hung out together. Agnes, many years later, described the situation and people:
"I found the atmosphere of the house, comforting. There was always a group of radicals, malcontents, and indigent writers, intermingled with painters and dancers, waiting to be recharged by Carmelita's personality, for she was great fun to be with."
Maracci's dancing was already special; it sparked "extravagant" rumors. "It is no ordinary experience to discover one evening that an intimate, a known, well-loved, daily companion, has genius." In her studio, the night before Maracci left for a San Francisco concert, de Mille saw her dance for the first time. She writes, "my jaw dropped". Adding, "This girl worked with thunder."
In 1926 Maracci performed as a soloist at the Hollywood Bowl, through her dance teacher Ernest Belcher. In New York she studied and as a soloist toured with a dance company. Returning to California, Maracci in seclusion created a new style of dancing. In Los Angeles in 1930, she made her "debut in a program of her own works" to music by Ravel, de Falla, Granados, and Schumann, at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. A similar New York City debut followed in 1937. Her arrival in New York was troubled by her sponsor's sudden default. Yet first at the 92nd Street Y then at other theater venues, her performances were well received.
"Camelita Maracci, the fiery and brilliantly talented West Coast dancer, who combined ballet and Spanish dance" performed at the Y. "Maracci mesmerized New Yorkers with her smoldering passion and unique movement style. Here were wonderfully spiraling hands, a spine that arched proudly, and dazzling technical footwork."
Maracci had studied various Spanish dances. Some of her techniques derived from baile flamenco (the dance counterpart to Cante jondo). In his 1919 ballet El Sombrero de Tres Picos (French: Le Tricorne) the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla presented classical music orchestration inspired by flamenco, and Léonide Massine had combined elements of the two dance forms. De Falla and poet García Lorca worked to achieve the 1922 music festival Concurso de Cante Jondo, held in Granada.
The innovative fusion of ballet and baile developed by Maracci, and performed, would later be included as 'hybrid dance'. Her style of choreography and ballet art, while not itself flamenco, incorporated some of its mood, lines, and techniques.
In Los Angeles in the late 1920s "Maracci began to experiment with choreography that was a blend of ballet and Spanish dance techniques." From her unusual combination of the two styles emerged a singular expression. In 1946 John Martin, a dance critic at The New York Times, wrote, "Both styles are merely materials out of which she fashions an art that is altogether personal, purely subjective in its creative approach, and utterly unique." Agnes de Mille writes:
Plainly and simply, Carmelita's best dances were the most passionate and powerfully devised solos I have ever seen. ... ¶ Her line was visually flawless. ¶ She baffled criticism because her technique fell into two categories: ballet, which, although impeccably correct, was not classic in style, and Spanish, which was virtuoso in its range but highly unorthodox in form and flavor. She had no wish to perpetuate aesthetic traditions and used only those stock gestures so deeply imbued with emotion as to have become, under her manipulation, original."
After touring with other dance troupes, in the 30s and 40s she led her own performing group appearing in quality venues across America with "a repertory of her own dances." Her touring act was considered top rung by those in the business. In 1951 in New York City, especially for the Ballet Theatre, she staged at the Metropolitan Opera House her choreographed work Circo de España, to a mixed reception. She performed at the St. James Theatre on Broadway in 1939, and Carnegie Hall in 1946.
"Maracci's dancing was deeply personal and an innovative art form. With fiery, passionate individuality and deep political and social convictions, she created dances inspired by Goya's war drawings, García Lorca's poetry, and Unamuno's philosophy. Her dances could be satirical, witty, or flirtatious; a passionate protest of inhumanity or a celebration of human spirit, a plunge to deepest sorrow or an expression of joy."
Starting in the 1930s, she received press reviews that noted her extraordinary art, e.g., in The Times of London, the Paris-Soir, and the monthly magazine Dancing Times published in England. In the 1940s John Martin of The New York Times wrote six-column reviews hailing Maracci, recognizing her as "a unique phenomenon".
Maracci also worked as a choreographer in Hollywood film making, although with pause and reluctance. In 1951 for Charlie Chaplin she contributed to the dance scenes in his Limelight, released in 1952. During the war she was a source for dances in the film Three Caballeros by Walt Disney released in 1944. While "commercially successful" it was for Maracci "personally unsatisfying."
In later years, "her performances, though infrequent, drew lines around the block and enthralled the audiences." Yet "Maracci freely admits that her art was not for the masses." She began rehearsals, but ultimately declined to dance the lead role in the ballet Giselle. She refused to dance in a Spain ruled by Franco.
Throughout her career, Maracci excelled in fashioning and performing solo dances: Cante Jondo ("Deep Song"), Viva la Madre ("Live for the one who bore you"), Dance of Elegance (a satire, "a caricature of a ballet dancer preening"), La Pasionaria (about the radio voice in war-torn Spain, a coal-miner's daughter), Another Goyescas (re Granados' piano suite per Spanish painter Francisco Goya), Carlotta Grisi in Retrospect (re the nineteenth century Italian ballet dancer), The Nightingale and the Maiden (inspired by a poem written in 1500, to music by Granados).
"But unlike those who struggle for immortality, Maracci refused to compromise her sensibilities or her convictions. She turned away from the fame-makers and artist-merchants, often with just scant cause, and generally made herself inaccessible. By choice, she never connected with the major institutions nor lingered for long in the limelight."
She was long acknowledged by admirers in the ballet world for her inner knowledge of the art. In 1985 Robert Joffrey of Joffrey Ballet said of her, "There was, and still is, no one like her. She had incredible strength and supreme delicacy. Her technique was astonishing, perfection itself... ." Maracci was known, according to dance writer Walter Terry, as "one of the major dance figures of our time."
"Although regarded by her peers as one of the leading dancers in the United States... Maracci shrank from the concert stage after two experiences which devastated her." In 1946 a lone drunken heckler in St. Paul, Minnesota, mocked her three dancers. They were on stage doing Maracci's choreographed tribute to the republican loyalists of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). She emerged from backstage quite angry, and ordered the curtain pulled down. It terminated the performance, outraged the local theater, and eventually ended her national financial backing. The second event concerned the 1951 staging of her choreography Circo de España, for the Ballet Theatre in New York City. Its debut was not considered successful enough by the ballet company; it needed work.
During the Spanish Civil War, Maracci had been greatly moved by La Pasionaria, an exceptional woman whose emotional radio oratory championed the Republican faction. Maracci's political views were strongly held; she "wanted to change the world through theater." Yet she probably overreacted in St. Paul. At the theater manager Maracci, according to Agnes de Mille, "let loose... the full extent of her primal rage. She attacked the man personally and all the people of St. Paul." Forty years later, in a private letter, "she still referred to 'the drunken audience jeering at Spanish heroes'."
About her Circo de España in New York, Maracci "was told by the famed dancer Agnes de Mille that the ballet was 'no good'."
According to de Mille, Maracci's performances had fascinated everyone in the ballet company, but her brilliant solo dances did not fit the larger piece when staged. The New York audience was "puzzled and not a little put off by Carmelita's austere, sardonic personality" and was "tepid in response". Oliver Smith, the co-director of Ballet Theatre, told de Mille it needed work, and to give Maracci a "pep talk" to pull the piece together. In Maracci's dressing room, the pep talk unexpectedly "produced in no time a collapse. She had to be carried out of the theater."
A contrary view was expressed in a speech by dance journalist Donna Perlmutter. Although de Mille harbored an "intense admiration" for Maracci, she also had a "burning... I guess you could call it... jealousy." About the 1951 incident with Ballet Theatre, "Agnes had no small part in this." Maracci had expressly requested dance and theater conditions that were promised, but not delivered. Consequently, she felt that the Circo de España performance "wasn't a ballet but a disaster." Antony Tudor, a resident choreographer with Ballet Theatre, however, afterward made some puzzling remarks. According to Perlmutter, "reflecting on that April night... " de Mille "says she immediately told Maracci the ballet was no good, and because Maracci was always on the emotional brink, Donald Saddler carried her from the theater shortly thereafter."
"Yes, I was devastated," Maracci admitted. "Agnes can be unbearably cruel. She came to my dressing room like a matador, people on either side of her... . She came to deliver the verdict. She told me that Tudor always says what he doesn't mean, that he meant I'm no good... ."
Beyond the dissimilar views as to how it happened, there are different commentaries on its significance. The journalist Jack Jones writing about it, quotes what later "Maracci said of herself":
"People tell me my unplanned oblivion was a tragedy. ... But I say no. Save that word for human suffering, for wars that kill innocent people, for the devastation of the poor and unwanted, for the corruption and cruelty that cause these things in the world. Mine is no tragedy. If art could relieve misery, I'd gladly sacrifice it."
Agnes de Mille, her former student, expressed admiration for Maracci. In her book, de Mille describes the paradox of Maracci's career. The New York Times had early "predicted international glory." True, "Carmelita had imagination, verve, energy, and fascination. What she did not have was the ability to cope with the practicalities of her career." At a setback in the late thirties in New York, she had "tongue-lashed all concerned". Collapses often are "contrived to hide flaws" yet her "talent was immaculate". Although managers want reliable clients, "anyone who prefers practical cooperation to genius is a fool." To build a great career, however, takes realistic courage, and a steadfast character; "those with a great gift generally have in their character a certain instinctive protection of the endowment." Here, "Carmie was a tragic exception."
Donna Perlmutter, Los Angeles journalist who followed her career, quotes Maracci who here is musing on her own soul's passage, her inner constellation:
"The terrain I've traveled led me into Goya's land of terror and blood soaked pits... ." Accordingly, "I could not be a dancer of fine dreams and graveyard decor. So I danced hard about what I saw and lived. I was not an absentee landlord. I was one of the dispossessed."
After interviews, especially of the husband Lee Freeson, and years of research, Perlmutter comes to layered conclusions. Her fate was a tragedy. The great gifts she possessed and crafted in the dance arts were enjoyed for the most part by a few hundreds of knowledgeable people in the City of Los Angeles, rather than by multitudes of aficionados nationwide, worldwide. Yet her fate was born of her character, her compass of principles. Perlmutter from a podium said:
"In literal terms, she Carmelita knew only privilege and doting parents, and never encountered a land of terror and blood soaked pits. Hers was purely a case of identification with its victims, an overt rallying to their cause, an imaginative leap. At its most profound, she tapped a kinship based on interior terror and ravaged spirit."
However hard and durable was her perfectionist spirit, and however vital her anger at intentional cruelty or political mayhem, her corresponding sensitivity for the victims, which might fuel her artistic expression, also might cause her to be vulnerable as well, even surprisingly fragile. It led her perhaps to be apprehensive before an ill prepared, unsuspecting audience. On the other hand, it was the very strength of her principles that guided her in appraising offers to perform.
"Her reputation attracted students" whether the young or the professional dancer. For Maracci "teaching gave her more autonomy." She had offered instruction in ballet since the 1930s, but it became her focus as she approached her fiftieth year. "Her teaching included politics, poetry, music, and cooking, as a way to nurture the art of dance as an integral part of the student's journey of life." "She lived in a world of people who came to sit at her feet."
Over a teaching career spanning 50 years, among others Maracci taught Gerald Arpino, Joan Bayley, Erik Bruhn, Leslie Caron, William Carter, Charlie Chaplin, Geraldine Chaplin, Janet Collins, Carmen de Lavallade, Agnes de Mille, Paul Godkin, Cynthia Gregory, Allegra Kent, Julie Newmar, Tommy Rall, Tina Ramirez, Jerome Robbins, Janice Rule, Donald Saddler, and Christine Sarry. She was a major influence on Los Angeles dance teacher, Irina Kosmovska.
Cynthia Gregory remembers her teaching class "on pointe and wearing pink tights puffing a cigarette, flicking it out the window and dashing off a fast, furious set of pirouettes." "I think that a technique should be subordinated to the idea," Carmelita wrote.
Tina Ramirez, the founder and artistic director of Ballet Hispanico, called Maracci a "fabulous dancer" who could "dance ballet on pointe" as well as she could in a Spanish style. She sought in her teaching to "influence the overall well-being" of her students. In "imaginative ways" Maracci related "the history of dance to that of music." She might say, "And now do an arabesque as if you were standing on top of the world looking down."
Allegra Kent writes, "As a teacher Carmelita was able to impart and illuminate... the ineffable qualities as well as the technical points of ballet." She treated me as an imaginative child, celebrated my learning, and taught me "that dancing can be a profound experience for the performer and the audience alike." She was generous. "Carmelita showed me that feelings and emotions had to be genuine, not put on like a spangled dress for a party." Dancers listened to the music. "Somewhat like an athlete but also as an artist, we had to paint sound and sculpt rhythm."
"Passionately opinionated, Miss Maracci taught classes with a Socratic tinge, including talk of politics and the other arts of the time. She continued teaching during her last illness by gathering students around her bedside to talk with them of the art of ballet," wrote dance journalist Jennifer Dunning. A longtime student remarked, "Every class of hers was really a performance."
A centennial event celebrating Maracci's birth was held on September 28, 2008, in Los Angeles.