Flamenco’s healing power


As her mother’s yahrzeit approaches, a middle-aged woman undergoes a crisis of the soul in the play “Heart Song,” currently at The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood. The woman, Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap), then joins a flamenco class and experiences the transformative power of that dance form. Playwright Stephen Sachs, who co-founded the theater with Deborah Lawlor, said that, due to Lawlor’s love for the dance, the Fountain has become the foremost presenter of flamenco in Los Angeles.

“The idea came to me,” Sachs explained, “that the writing of a play where a character takes a flamenco class and is changed by it would be a really good vehicle through which to tell the story, because the audience shares the experience with our lead character and enters the new world of flamenco with her.” 

Sachs described the character of Rochelle as someone disconnected from her Judaism, her culture, her religion, her faith and her God.

“In that first scene, she talks about having forgotten the words to the Kaddish, which is something that she has known ever since she was a little girl, but now she can’t remember the words, and so she’s lost. She’s mourning the loss of her mother and struggling with some really deep philosophical questions, not only about grief and loss, but about the meaning of life and what’s our purpose.” 

Rochelle’s turmoil was triggered when she went through a closet after her mother’s death and found a box with a girl’s striped dress from the concentration camp at Birkenau. At first she wasn’t sure who owned the dress.

“I think she suspected it was her mother,” Sachs said, “but, because her mother never talked about it, it was an issue that was never spoken in the home, and she never shared her true feelings. 

Sachs continued, “Her mother was unable to share her pain with her own daughter.” 

The challenging relationship that Rochelle had with her mother is something with which Dunlap can identify. Like Rochelle’s mother, her own mother was not very forthcoming.

“Of course, my mother was not harboring the gravity of a secret like Rochelle’s mother was hiding. Actually, my mother said to me, the week of her death, ‘There is something I have never told you. I have to tell you.’ And she was not well. She was frail, and she was agitated and her breath was labored, and I got concerned. I calmed her down and said, ‘Tell me tomorrow. We can talk about it later. You don’t have to tell me now.’ She died. And I don’t know what that secret was.”

Dunlap added, “Most of us have secrets; most of us have big secrets, and we take those secrets to the grave with us, like Rochelle’s mother did.” 

Rochelle’s mother also took her true name to the grave. After discovering the concentration camp uniform, Rochelle found out that her mother was born with a Polish name that she had changed. She’s now beside herself because she feels the name on the gravestone is wrong.

When she joins the flamenco group, Rochelle learns from its leader, a Gypsy named Katarina (Maria Bermudez, who is also the play’s choreographer), that there is a tradition of having two names in Gypsy culture. One name is private and known only to the Gypsy community, and the other is the name used in the outside world. 

“I just thought that was a really interesting idea and metaphor to use in the play too,” Sachs remarked.

Rochelle also learns about the interconnectedness of the four cultures represented in the group; besides her Judaism and Katarina’s Gypsy roots, there is the Japanese heritage of Tina (Tamlyn Tomita), the masseuse who introduced Rochelle to flamenco, and the African-American culture of Daloris (Juanita Jennings), who befriends Rochelle.

As Katarina illuminates the mysteries of flamenco, the dance becomes the catalyst for revealing the deep-seated pain born of suffering that is shared by all the cultures. Daloris talks of the blues and its relevance to her culture; Katarina speaks of the Nazi extermination of the Gypsies, much like the extermination of the Jews; Tina expounds on the internment camps in which the Japanese-Americans were held during World War II. 

“Too often what we do, and that’s a major theme, we carry other people’s stories,” director Shirley Jo Finney stated, “and part of the letting go is to create our own story. 

“I think that’s one of the things each of those ladies, all of those ladies, in fact, were having to reconcile.”

According to Gypsy tradition, flamenco leads the dancer to reach into the farthest recesses of the soul to release the pain residing there, and, ultimately, Rochelle does find release in an anguished wail, the kind of outcry known to the Gypsies as the cante jondo, a primal scream that “rends the world in two” and is common to all cultures.

“Every culture has a wound,” Finney observed, “and it’s the deep need to be seen, to be nurtured, to feel safe. 

“And [for] each of the tribes, when they talked about the tribes within that piece, that’s where the cry comes from. The cry comes from not being acknowledged, and the cry comes from that deep-seated place of self-expression.” 

For playwright Sachs, working on this story helped him examine issues of spirituality and mortality that are part of the human experience and are very personal to him. 

“The older we get,” he mused, “the more friends we seem to be losing, and it just makes one think about one’s own time, the time that we have left and how we’re spending it. I’m very much wrestling with that, and so the play allowed me to kind of swim in that water for awhile.”

“Heart Song” plays through July 14 at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 663-1525 or visit fountaintheatre.com/perform.

Flamenco and tango melodies strike Jewish chords


Ethan Margolis, co-founder of Arte y Pureza (Art and Purity), a Seville, Spain-based flamenco troupe, says three influences stand out as soon as you begin reading about flamenco: Sephardic, Arabic and Indian. Margolis, whose company will perform at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater on Friday, Sept. 28, attributes the influences to the peregrinations of the Romani people, some of whom migrated from the Indian subcontinent, across northern Africa through Arabic countries and into southern Spain before the Spanish Inquisition.

While Margolis said the “complicated rhythms” of flamenco come from India and some of the melodies have an Arabic quality, the Sephardic component can be heard in the “Jewish chants and laments,” as well as the “Phrygian mode” and “chromatic scales,” which, according to Margolis, have a “Middle-Easty sound to” them.

Margolis hails from a family of musicians, among them his father, a rock and blues pianist and songwriter, and his brother, a classical guitarist. Margolis was “following in his father’s footsteps” as a rock musician and songwriter when he heard flamenco music for the first time about 11 years ago. At the time, Margolis was an electric guitarist and Spanish major at the University of Michigan, but after attending a live show by Paco de Lucia, viewed by many as the “most famous flamenco guitar player ever,” Margolis switched his attention to flamenco.

The young Margolis moved to Spain, where he studied flamenco and Spanish at the University of Seville. He was “looking for a dancer” when he met Cihtli Ocampo, who was studying dance on a Fulbright and was “looking for an accompanist.” The two — who now are engaged — co-founded Arte y Pureza, which on its tour of the United States will perform in San Diego, Berkeley, San Francisco and New York, in addition to Los Angeles.

Although Margolis said that 50 percent of flamenco musicians he has encountered worldwide and many of his recent flamenco students in San Diego are Jewish, he is the only Jew in his seven-person troupe, which includes singer-dancer Miguel Pena Vargas, known as El Funi. “Flamenco doesn’t seem to pan out among other cultures until you leave Spain,” he said.

Not unlike flamenco, the tango has multiple influences, including Spanish, Latin American and African. According to Dr. Lina Kaplan, who along with Vladimir Estrin will be teaching a tango class at American Jewish University this fall, you can hear the Russian Jewish influence in the melodies of many pieces of tango.

The tango developed mostly in Buenos Aires in the mid- to late 1800s, when Ashkenazi Jews migrated to Argentina.

The tango even has a grisly link to the Holocaust. Kaplan, a practicing psychologist, said that the term, “Death Tango,” originated in the concentration camps when Jews had to play tango numbers during executions of their co-religionists.

To Kaplan, however, the tango is about so much more than Jewishness or any other ethnicity. To her, the tango becomes a quest that is as much metaphysical as physical. She wants her students to “enhance awareness, mindfulness, being in the present moment.” She and Estrin “emphasize much more the interpersonal and the personal elements of dance,” as opposed to learning just the steps.

That is not to say that she is solely a philosopher of the dance. Kaplan, 43, is also a practitioner who recently returned from a trip to Argentina, where for two weeks she said she spent half her time dancing.

If she sounds like a teenager at Carnaval, she has an appreciation for the higher forms of the art. She speaks of the tango as “a metaphor for life…. It’s not simply a dance.”

Arte y Pureza will perform “Maestria” on Friday, Sept. 28, at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater, 4800 Hollywood Blvd. For tickets or more information, call (818) 249-1428.

American Jewish University will offer “The Spirit of Tango: A Path to Personal and Interpersonal Growth” on Sundays from noon to 2 p.m., beginning Oct. 7. For information, call (310) 440-1246. For tickets to the Arte y Pureza performance, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.arteypureza.com.

For more information about the class “The Spirit of Tango,” visit

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 30th



Funny Jewess Rita Rudner takes a break from her regular Vegas shtick to entertain us Angelenos this evening. Pepperdine’s Smothers Theatre hosts the comedian before she returns to the City o’ Sin for a new contract with Harrah’s on Oct. 2.



8 p.m. $65. 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 506-4522.


Sunday the 1st


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Wednesday the 4th



Still some time for some “Summertime.” The Gershwins’ classic American opera, “Porgy and Bess,” plays tonight and tomorrow night as part of the opening celebration for the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Hear arias, including “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy,” through the hall’s impressive acoustics.
8 p.m. $50-$140. 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (800) 346-7372.



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Friday the 6th



Inspired by the essay “The Grey Zone,” written by Primo Levi, Tim Blake Nelson penned a play and screenplay of the same name, telling the obscure story of the Sonderkommandos-Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz/Birkenau who worked in the gas chambers in exchange for better treatment. The controversial film was released in 2001, and the play now makes its Los Angeles debut in a guest production at Deaf West Theatre.



Sept. 29-Nov. 5. $20-$30. 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (800) 838-3006.



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For Love of the Dance


Or Nili Azulay often gazes at the faded photograph of her late grandmother, who was widowed in her 20s. “Her huge, expressive eyes are filled with strength and struggle,” the Israeli dancer-actress said. “She looks like Bizet’s ‘Carmen,’ although she is wearing nothing fancy, only a simple white dress and a white flower in her hand.”

Azulay, renown for her flamenco work, excels at portraying characters who are equally strong and passionate. In her spin on Edvard Greig’s “Peer Gynt Suite,” she plays a feisty Bedouin princess and other heroines from the plays of Henrik Ibsen. In her version of the Bizet opera, “Carmen,” she depicts the defiant gypsy as a feminist, not a prostitute.

Azulay will bring a similar range of emotions to Noam Sheriff’s “Israel Suite” and the world premiere of Yuval Ron’s “Canciones Sephardi” when she performs with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) on Sunday.

“The kind of happiness I recall in my grandmother’s way of being is the same as in flamenco,” she said. “It’s never 100 percent happiness; it’s always tinged with melancholy.”

If it seems unlikely that a nice Jewish girl would become a flamenco dancer, consider her early role models. Azulay’s Syrian-born grandmother, Nona, defied her parents to wed the man she loved, then refused to remarry after he died several years later. Azulay’s mother, Chaya, became one of Israel’s first female barristers; her father died when she was a small child. “The sadness of not having a father was tempered by growing up with these strong, independent women,” she said.

No wonder Azulay was riveted by Bizet’s fiercely independent gypsy — and the art of flamenco — when she saw Carlos Saura’s film “Carmen” at age 14. The ballet student was so “stunned” by the dance numbers that she returned to see the movie a dozen times. “In ballet, the body is an instrument in service of the overall piece, while in flamenco, the protagonist is the dancer’s personality,” she said.

As Azulay began intense studies with famed teacher Sylvia Duran, she learned that “People who become huge in flamenco have huge personalities. They don’t have to do much to burn up the stage.”

The poised, five-foot-nine Azulay — who is also an award-winning poet — displayed similar charisma when she studied in Spain in 1995-96. She went on to establish a career emphasizing flamenco and classical Spanish dance performed with orchestras around the world. Azulay — who also appears in films such as 2003’s “The Brothel” — considers herself part of the flamenco revival spurred by Saura’s “Carmen.”

But her grandmother remains an important artistic inspiration. Azulay was drawn to the “Canciones Sephardi,” in part, because it reminds her of the tunes Nona used to sing in Ladino and Arabic. “That really struck a chord in Or Nili, and she brings that passion to the stage,” said Noreen Green, founder and artistic director of the LAJS.

The complex emotions of the “Israel Suite” also remind Azulay of her grandmother. In the dreamy first movement, she flies onstage with a white lace mantilla, reminiscent of a bridal veil. In a section based on a 15th century Ladino song, she uses constricted movements to suggest the pain of exile.

“The piece conveys the pathos of being an Israeli, of living in a state of half-dream, half-war,” she said.

The concert Sept. 14, 7 p.m. at the International Cultural Center (formerly Scottish Rite Auditorium), 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, also features internationally renown musicians such as flamenco guitarist Adam Del Monte and music by David Eaton. For information, call (310) 478-9311, where you can buy tickets through 1 p.m. Friday; or purchase them at the door.

Mojdeh Sionit contributed to this story.