Until the Inquisition, Spain was home to a thriving community of Jews, who lived in relative peace as scholars and merchants alongside Muslims and Christians. Like everyone else, they spoke Spanish, but after they were expelled in 1492 their medieval speech mingled with the languages of the places they fled to -- Hebrew, Turkish, Slavic, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Greek -- to form Ladino, sort of the Spanish equivalent of Yiddish. Like Yiddish, Ladino is a dying language: Fewer than 200,000 people speak it these days, and it's as mysterious to modern Spanish-speakers as Shakespeare's voice is to American ears today.
What does Ladino sound like? Albert Greenberg, co-founder and co-artistic director for A Traveling Jewish Theater, wanted modern audiences to hear Ladino's staccato rhythms and rolling, slurring patterns, in part to help rescue the language and its history from obscurity. To that end, Greenberg composed an original Ladino score for the troupe's latest world premiere, Una Noche de Sueños Vidi Flores, A Dream of Flowers, a "dance theater" event drawn from the music. The melodies combine sultrily spoken words (in Ladino and English) and Gypsy-esque wails on strings and horns with sensual rhythms picked out on guitar, rung softly on bells, and tapped out jazzily on drums. The resulting sound combines the haunting wistfulness of a love song with the vaguely ominous air of a sci-fi film soundtrack.
Una Noche merges the score with dance moves designed by acclaimed local choreographer Sonya Delwaide; Yolanda Aranda, herself of Judeo-Spanish descent, sings with Greenberg. The performance isn't one continuous story, but rather a series of vignettes inspired by the songs, which range from traditional romanceros to tango, jazz to samba. Each tune draws out a different aspect of romantic love, from the pain of lost passion to the delight of a new crush to the surprise of finding love late in life. Greenberg wrote the lyrics in English, and Rebecca Camhi Fromer (co-founder of the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley) translated them into Ladino. Three local dancers -- Patricia Jiron, Sally Clawson, and Eric Rhys Miller -- also participate in this home-grown effort.
Tickets are $12.50-25 (Thursday nights are pay-what-you-can)
The goal of A Traveling Jewish Theater, according to Greenberg, is to "reclaim parts of lost Jewish culture," and the story of the Jews of Spain and their language -- now lingering mostly in Israel, Turkey, and the Balkans -- certainly fills the bill. In fact, he created the Ladino Project, an offshoot of ATJT, to develop this piece and support other Ladino-related work. Whether you're curious about this lost chapter in history or just want to see some sexy dancing, Una Noche should be a dreamy night to remember.