The Sound and the (Jewish) Fury of Flamenco

In a city crushed with a collection of dance companies, aficionados nevertheless know to give one cherished troupe some Elba room.

That’s because Elba Hevia y Vaca makes the room her own; just feel the noise and hear the heat when she brings in the first Philadelphia Flamenco Festival to Christ Church Neighborhood House.

And while you’re in the neighborhood, marvel at the seductive steps that seem to stride right out of Sephardic tradition.

The festival, presented by Hevia y Vaca’s Pasion y Arte , Philadelphia’s all-female flamenco company, takes to the stage March 19 to April 1.

Flamenco aficionado Hevia y Vaca’s acclaim has attracted the attention — and now the performance — of cutting-edge choreographer Rosario Toledo, with a number of premieres of Toledo works on tap at the event.

That goes along with films, master classes and symposia on the sensuous dance that enflames the soul and seduces the senses.

But Sephardic? “Very much so,” claims the festival organizer. “There is a tonality to the flamenco which comes from years of Arabs and Sephardim existing peacefully in Spain, from the 1500s to the 1600s,” when, post-Inquisition, Jews migrated to the southern section of the nation, settling in Andalusia.

The two cultures cast their spells, too: How far apart, she asks, is the spelling of cantaor — one who sings flamenco numbers — and cantor? The tonalities, she claims, between flamenco and cantorial are not coincidental.

“So many of the flamenco performers” — dancers, musicians — “I have worked with have been Jewish.” Indeed, Ethan Margolis, who was a founder of the Seville company Arte y Pureza, offers a pure play in the Sephardic tradition.

Ilisa Rosal, whose Ballet Flamenco la Rosa has made strides in the dance world, would seem to agree with Hevia y Vaca’s contentions. In an interview, she explained that “the Gypsies, Moors and Jews were the main influences in flamenco, along with European and African elements,” noting that “the Jewish influence is most evident in certain genres of flamenco music and in some of the lyrics, which reflect the persecution of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, when the secret Jews, or marranos, used flamenco music to disguise the expression of their experience.”

Masking misery is a smart use of music. But then, the Jewish influence on flamenco is a duality of the corporeal and cognitive. “There is an intellectual component to the dance which Jews have contributed through the years,” says Hevia y Vaca.

And listen closely, she says, and you will hear the history of the Sephardim. Amid the claps of thunder that storm from the performance, “their voice is there,” she notes.


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