Occasionally in the life of a dancer, one sees performances of other dance artists which completely challenge or transform one's presumptions of what is possible in dance. This has happened for me most notably on a handful of occasions and each time I was awed, disturbed and enamoured all at the same time: the performances of Odissi dancer Sanjukta Panagrahi, classical ballerina Suzanne Farrell, Butoh dancer Min Tanaka, and contemporary dance choreographer Pina Bausch are each engraved into my soul.
The most recent of these dance epiphanies was presented by flamenco dancer Israel Galvan. His 2005 work La Edad de Oro, (The Golden Age), which I saw a couple of years after its premiere, was a revelation. It was an austere performance – just Galvan as solo dancer accompanied by guitarist and singer – but the dancing was anything but simple. One expected the extraordinarily virtuosic feats of zapateados – the rhythmical footwork of which Galvan is a master – and the whirlwind turns and sudden arrests of movement, but the degree to which Galvan tears apart and reassembles the very grammar of flamenco was entirely unexpected.
Galvan is both an extraordinary dancer and an innovative, even revolutionary, choreographer. He mixes traditionally male and female flamenco vocabulary, frequently dances barefoot on a variety of unusual surfaces – earth or sand – and employs ranges of bodily comportment way beyond the conventional vertical posture of flamenco. His musical choices include Bach, Legeti and John Coltrane. He has been described as the Nijinsky of flamenco, and to the extent that this applies to Nijinsky as choreographer as well as dancer, I don't think that the comparison is unjust.
As did Nijinsky with classical ballet, Galvan has thrown a Molotov cocktail at the conventions and cliches of an established form in the belief that this particular genre of dance has enough depth to withstand the assault and enough resilience to emerge transformed.
One has the feeling that such a radical reconfiguration of flamenco vocabulary could only come out of saturation in the flamenco tradition, and one is not surprised to find that Galvan is the son of celebrated flamenco dancers Jose Galvan and Eugenia de los Reyes, with whom he studied.
Galvan first appeared on stage at the age of 5 and toured regularly with his parents and their entourage of dancers and musicians. At 19 he came under the aegis of legendary dancer Mario Maya, with whom he also regularly toured. In 1998, Galvan presented his first choreographies and over the past decade, during which he has performed at many of the world's leading arts festivals, he has created a major new work each year.
Galvan's latest solo work, which plays in Wellington during the New Zealand Festival next year, is La Curva. It's an extraordinary amalgam of flamenco and contemporary music. The title of the work comes from the name of a Parisian theatre where in 1924 the flamenco dancer Vicente Escudero presented a concert of flamenco heavily influenced by his encounter with Cubist artists and aesthetics.
Escudero represents the only other time in flamenco history when a comparable aesthetic revolution has occurred and La Curva can be seen as Galvan's homage to his predecessor. In La Curva, Galvan has chosen to work with two musicians from radically different musical traditions: the great Andalusian-gypsy singer Ines Bacan and the Swiss jazz and contemporary music pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, perhaps best known for her work with American avant-garde composer John Zorn. Though the performance is rich in dance experiences, it is also a feast of musical mastery and innovation.
Though Galvan is predominantly a solo performer, it is the vulnerability of the solo artist that leaves him open and available for extraordinarily rich collaborations with other artists and art forms, and in La Curva Galvan has set himself the task of staging an encounter between flamenco and contemporary music. The common bond which ties the two together is, surprisingly, silence, a realm with which Galvan is particularly comfortable. Those who may have seen Carlos Saura's recent film, Flamenco, Flamenco (to distinguish it from the earlier Flamenco), will have seen Galvan, dressed entirely in white, perform an extraordinary solo in silence.
One of Galvan's earlier evening works was entitled Tabula Rasa (clean slate), and so for him silence is the tabula rasa on which both flamenco and contemporary music make their primary gestures.
The reason Galvan has such rapport with musicians is because he employs to the full the resources of his own body as acoustic instrument. Aside from the traditional zapateados and thigh slaps, palmas (hand claps) and pitos (finger clicks), Galvan uses all the resources of the resonant body, from percussively knuckling the soles of his shoes to finger flicks to his teeth and slaps to his head. In addition, he uses amplification and unusual dance surfaces to modify the sound of his footwork.
In La Curva his stamping on a mound of sandy powder sounds like distant thunder, and in El Final de este Estado de Cosas, a work based on the Book of Revelation, his frenetic dance on a sprung and articulated wooden platform produced the most terrifying acoustic and visceral invocation of an earthquake that I have ever experienced in the theatre.
Just as the terrestrial fault-lines produce radical movements of the earth that incite in us a choreography of disequilibrium, so the startling juxtaposition of flamenco traditions and contemporary music produces in La Curva striking incongruencies, surprising moments of humour and affinity and a dance of a rare and precious angular beauty.
La Curva, Opera House, Wellington, February 27 to March 2, 7pm, as part of the New Zealand Festival.
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