The Sensual Embodiment of Carmen
Act 2 of Carmen begins in Lillas Pastia’s tavern. There, typically, we see a classical flamenco dancer - doing what none of us have done since we were young – dancing on a table. For four and one-half minutes, the dancer becomes the sensual embodiment of Carmen. In LAO’s 2008 production of Carmen, this dancer was the Israeli Dancer/Choreographer Ornili Azulay. For this exuberant episode, Ms. Azulay employed the flamenco twelve beat buleria rhythm, with its rapid, asymmetrical accentuation pattern.
Later, we were treated to a two minute, ten second dance segment at the beginning of Act 4. This was a bonus for our LAO audience: The entr’acte music, frequently omitted (as LAO did in 2004), was here played with the curtain up, allowing Ms. Azulay, in collaboration with Choreographer Nuria Castejon, to create a new dance routine that portrayed the capricious inner self of the opera’s heroine.
|On the table at Lillas Pastia's
During the entr'acte music preceeding Act 4
Photos by Robert Millard for LAO
That the above ever came to pass happened because, when Ornili, then a sixth grade student studying piano in her native suburb of Ramat-Gan (near Tel Aviv), viewed the Carlos Saura film Carmen. This film, one of Saura’s famed trilogy that celebrates the art of flamenco dancing, changed her life forevermore.
That this could happen is perhaps best understood by recalling the 1948 British film The Red Shoes. Moira Shearer’s performance in this motion picture inspired three generations of young women to take classical ballet lessons. Now, having viewed the Saura film, I maintain that his film, in the scenes requiring close personal interaction (the fight in the cigar factory; the Habanera; the fight in the mountains), elicit a more dramatic, visceral response from an audience than any live staged or filmed version of this opera that I have ever seen.
Ms. Azulay’s family has experienced more than its share of real life, personal conflict. Her mother is of Sephardic ancestry, with an additional sprinkling of Syrian, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan, and Egyptian blood. She became one of Israel’s first female barristers. Her late father was a mix of Ashkenazi, Russian, and German. He, a Holocaust survivor, escaped from Treblinka after seeing his parents and five sisters killed there. Remarkably, he became a pilot in the Polish Air Force and, after the war, became a Nazi hunter and was among those Israeli Mossad agents who captured Adolph Eichmann in Argentina in 1960.
Ms. Azulay clearly inherited the sustained, motivational nature of her parents, her cause being flamenco dance --- its variations, its permutations. Following her moment of epiphany when viewing the Saura film, Ornili shifted her artistic training from playing on a keyboard to learning how to exploit the percussive nature of prescription flamenco shoes. Her education continued with training as an actress in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, besides studying classical Spanish and flamenco dance under the tutelage of the world-renowned Sylvia Duran [LAO’s flamenco dancer in 2004]. Ornili became the leading dancer and soloist of Ms. Duran’s company, ultimately returning to it as a guest artist.
Of the many avenues so far explored in Ms. Azulay’s career, the evident favorite of hers is that of creating original choreography to accompany an existing musical composition. She demonstrated this here in the spring of 2007, dancing to her own choreography for the Misa Criolla of Ariel Ramirez. This was performed at the Disney Hall, accompanied by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Orquestra de Cámara de Los Angeles. Later, Maestro Gershon added to the four minute standing ovation, citing her “stunning choreography” and “masterful flamenco inspired performance”.
Ornili Azulay, dancing during the Credo of the Misa Criolla of Ariel Ramirez
As brief as her two dance sequences were in LAO’s Carmen, the choreography still manifested linkage to the Saura film. As homage to the late Antonio Gades, the male lead in the Saura film, a brief, identical embrace (from the film) was incorporated between her and the toreador-like dancer in the Act 4 prelude. Also, flamenco aficionados who view the Saura film surely recall the scene where Dance Mistress Christina Hoyos urges her pupils: “Let’s see those hands flutter like doves”. As Ms. Azulay rose to full height, standing on a table at the tavern of Lillas Pastia, the audience indeed saw her hands “fluttering like doves”.
Dancing on the table at Lillas Pastia's with hands "fluttering like doves"
Photo by Robert Millard for LAO, Photo montage by May Wang for OLLA
Dance interpretations based upon the music in Carmen have sprouted up over the years, with Roland Petit’s 1949 choreography being reprised by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Zizi Jeanmaire in 1980 and again in 1986 with Natalia Makarova and Denys Ganio [Amazingly, Jeanmaire also danced the premiere in 1949]. Ornili would like to collaborate in creating a new flamenco interpretation. She looks forward to choreographing a program that would work with a combination of full orchestra and vocal soloists, with herself as the dancer and with a mezzo singing the role of Carmen.
In any case, whether it is in an opera, a concert, master class, video, or interpretations of her own poetry, these expressions of her artistic soul will never cease. In the film The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer [as the Vicky Page character] is asked: “Why do you want to dance?” Her response, “Why do you want to live?” suits Ornili to a “T”.