Tradition with a twist

Ornili Azulay has taken Spanish flamenco and added an Israeli flavor.

Ornili Azoulay (photo credit: carl hoffman)
Ornili Azoulay
(photo credit: carl hoffman)
‘When I was a little girl, my mom sent me to take dancing lessons.
Later, in school, I dragged myself to more dance lessons. I suppose I liked it, but I don’t think I was very good.”
One might imagine that this is a memory shared by thousands of women around the world: sent to dance lessons as a little girl, going through the motions to please a demanding parent, and then finally quitting when both child and parent realize that a future career as a prima ballerina is just not in the cards. This may well have been the fate of the lady sharing this memory with us, had it not been for a single 102-minute event that occurred when she was 12 years old.
Ornili Azulay, who was born in Ramat Gan and grew up in Herzliya, saw the movie Carmen by Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura.
“That movie changed my whole life,” says Azulay.
“From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to find teachers and learn flamenco and classical Spanish dance.”
And learn she did, while somehow fulfilling all the other requirements of a typical Israeli adolescence and early adulthood. Azulay attended Tichon Hadash high school in Tel Aviv and then served in the Navy. “Okay, I was not a sailor,” she admits with laughter. “I was the secretary of a general. And the officers let me go out a lot for dance rehearsals.”
All the while, though, a flair for dance and music continued to burn inside her, which she credits her grandmother for starting.
“My late grandmother was born in Syria, in Damascus.
And in that sense I was really lucky to grow up in a home that combined many influences. Life near my grandmother was really colorful,” she says. “It was a little like living every day, at least imagining, the stories of the Arabian Nights. She was very colorful. She spoke beautiful Arabic. She actually knew Ladino but she never spoke it at home. We spoke Hebrew at home. But I can still hear her chatting in Arabic. And I think I should attribute to her influence my musical talent, my sense of rhythm. She was exceptionally musical. She loved both Middle Eastern and classical music. So I grew up in a home that combined Eastern and Western influences, and I think that made a great deal of difference.”
Azulay, an only child, still lives in that home on a quiet street in Herzliya, which she shares with her mother.
Azulay studied flamenco and classical Spanish dance first in Israel under Sylvia Duran and then in Spain with such eminent figures as Tomas De Madrid; Victoria Eugenia, former director of the Spanish National Ballet; and Maria Magdalena, the famed teacher from Carmen, the movie that had turned Azulay on to Spanish dance when she was a child.
According to Azulay, Spanish dance in general, and flamenco in particular, relies heavily on the dramatic personality of the lead dancer. “There is obviously in Spanish dance a type of anger. There is an unending anger in the female flamenco dancer at the male sex. An unending anger and pain.”
To learn to tap into this anger on stage, Azulay also studied acting, first at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and later at the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. Along the way, she also studied literature at Tel Aviv University and, in addition to dancing, is a prolific writer of poetry. A book of her poems, To Worship God, to Worship Man, was published in 1994.
Azulay’s studies, mixed with her own rather intense personality, have resulted in an artist who has taken in classical Spanish dance and has moved on from there.
She says, “Being an Israeli, I was obliged to cross a distance and then to cross back. I learned the codes of flamenco and then came back to myself. I did not ‘go native.’ I took what I learned and created a synthesis.” performed that synthesis, to wild acclaim as well as occasional opposition from those who say that she is flouting tradition, on stages throughout Israel and the world.
FROM THE beginning, Azulay has made something of a trademark of performing before full symphony orchestras, as in 1997, when she created and danced The Flame and The Frost: A Dialogue For a Dancer and an Orchestra, in which she portrayed several female characters from Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, set to the music of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. She has since performed with the Israel Symphony Orchestra, the Brazil Philharmonic in Rio de Janeiro and the National Symphonic Orchestra of Ecuador, as well as the Los Angeles Opera and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Azulay is tall, the very definition of “statuesque,” and strikingly beautiful. The initial effect of meeting her is frankly overpowering.
This, combined with her many talents – she also plays the piano and is fluent in Hebrew, English and Spanish – begs the question of whether she has any flaws that she is aware of.
“I’m very sensitive. Too sensitive,” she says.
“And when you’re too sensitive, and something hurts you, you need to cry at some point. I think I need a somewhat larger space for myself, at all levels, than other people need. This is a disadvantage. I think I need a great deal of space in my mind and a great deal of space in my life. And I need time to help myself recover from profound emotional experiences. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I have not yet formed a partnership with anyone.
I haven’t gotten married – maybe I will in the future, maybe I won’t – and I haven’t got a child. Also, people tell me that I have a hard time enjoying myself.”
Asked whether she enjoys dancing and if she is actually having fun onstage, Azulay replies, “There are some blessed moments, and they are not very frequent, in which I feel so deep in the dance, so free in the dance, that I feel like I have gone completely outside of my body, outside of myself, watching the performance from a distance.
In those rare moments of freedom and profound capacity to enjoy myself in real time – as if my psyche has gone out of myself and is seeing me – I can’t tell you how great the happiness is. I can’t tell you how powerful that emotional orgasm is. It is the purest form of life.
And that’s very rare. One can live like a poor drug addict, searching for that moment again and again, doing your best to get another one.
I think I was just 17 years old when I went through that experience for the first time.”
Although she has performed and is known internationally, Azulay clearly defines herself as an Israeli artist. “I am a proud Israeli,” she says.
“And I definitely define myself primarily as an Israeli artist, aspiring to reach wider audiences everywhere.”
That search even led her to Hollywood, where she acted and danced in an independent film, The Brothel, and later found herself in a meeting with none other than the notorious Mel Gibson. She recalls, “After 20 minutes of conversation about different things, I knew that he wanted to talk about his movie The Passion of the Christ. He was very curious about the fact that I am Israeli and Jewish. He asked me, ‘Why is that film making all of you so upset with me?’ And I said, ‘Mr. Gibson, before we continue, I need to ask you a question, just to make sure that I can stay with you in this room. Mr.
Gibson, do you and I agree with the fact that the Holocaust took place?’ He said, ‘Of course it took place. How could I ever think otherwise? I have friends and neighbors who have numbers tattooed on their arms.’” On July 19, Azulay will present an evening of dance and creative art at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv. Entitled Dance and Desire, the show is described as “a personal voyage in Spanish dance.” Azulay says, “It’s a night of solo works in which I combine dance technique with texts. These are my translations of the poetry of F.G. Lorca and my own poetry as well.
There will be sound recordings and screen projections to accompany my dance. I’m going to perform several works. Ballade No. 1 by Chopin. My poem, To Have a Few Words with You – intimate words in high heels, a dialogue between myself and an empty chair. I will perform the [part of the] bride from Lorca’s Blood Wedding, as well as Ariel Ramirez’s Misa Criolla and excerpts from Carmen.”
What is ahead for Ornili Azulay? Her immediate future will apparently revolve around a lifelong fascination with the famous femme fatale courtesan-turned-WWI-spy, Mata Hari.
She says, “I have been developing in the last few years a one-woman show, telling in monologues and in solo dances the story of Mata Hari. Since I was very young, people have told me that I am much like her. Some people say I look like her. I think that the resemblance might be at a deeper level. I have always been deeply intrigued by her story. It is about feminine power that victimizes itself. She was eventually arrested, convicted and executed by firing squad on evidence that was not even enough to flog a cat. I deeply relate to how an attractive woman can be cursed by her attractiveness.
I hope to have the show in production by the end of 2013.”
Asked what she would do with her days if for some reason she could no longer dance or participate in the arts, Azulay replies, “When I was little, my first childhood dream was to become a chemist, and a great scientist like Madame Curie. My second childhood dream was to be a squirrel. I guess when you mix Madame Curie and a squirrel, you get a flamenco dancer.”
On that note, I ask whether she ever wakes up in the morning wishing that she was a “normal, everyday person” leading a “normal, everyday life.”
Her reply is immediate: “No, I do not.”
Ornili Azulay will perform “Dance and Desire” at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv on Thursday at 9 p.m. For tickets and further information call (03) 510- 5656 or visit