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.