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Juilliard Dance

Published: September 23, 2011
Category: review

Israel Galván: Upending the Flamenco Tradition, Artfully

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK – Flamenco dancer Israel Galván could be the modern-day soul-mate to the famed Vaslav Nijinsky. Like the Russian ballet dancer (d. 1950), he hails from a prestigious dance family and had the finest training. Also like Nijinsky, when he turned to choreography, he distorted his dance tradition’s codified vocabulary beyond recognition.

Galván, however, is having a better ride than Nijinsky did. For one, he hasn’t gone mad. On the other hand, his stream-of-consciousness performance of “Edad de Oro,”(Golden Age), which opened the Joyce Theater’s season on Sept. 20, was as bizarre as it was brilliant.

Though the Seville-born dancer’s primary stylistic influence is flamenco, he also channels Michael Jackson’s hyper-sexualized dancing. His gestures reference nature, but hardly in a romantic way: His hand becomes a mysteriously cascading leaf; later it ends up as a fist in his mouth. He postures like a prize-fighter and then like a cockatoo. He makes guttural sounds. His hard-hitting staccato footwork borders on rhythm tap because of his bent-over body posture. The torrent of these paradoxical forms and iconoclastic images makes for a surreal evening. “Edad” must infuriate flamenco purists.

But in the dance world, Galván is hardly persona non grata. “Edad” is currently making the rounds of the international theater circuit with 100 shows and counting. On the basis of his performance of the 2005 premiere, Galván was named best dancer of the year by the prestigious Flamenco Hoy organization. And the five-day run at the Joyce marks his fifth appearance in New York since 1994, when he performed with Mario Mayo’s Compañía Andaluza de Danza.

“Edad” begins on a bare stage. The lighting (by Ruben Camacho) is suitably murky. Three male performers walk to three chairs. They are flamenco’s triumvirate: the dancer, the singer, the guitarist. Seated next to Galván are brothers David and Alfredo Lagos. David, the singer, projects a broad sound, sustaining long, low notes without a waver or taking a breath. Alfredo’s guitar playing is dulcet and sensitive, a welcome contrast. In the course of 90-minutes, each takes a solo turn.

Different lighting plots and the occasional use of a floor mike are the only stage-craft add-ons. The power of the performance comes from the semi-improvised interactions among the performers, all the more striking for their differences – the urgent, deep sound of Lagos’ voice, the serenity of his brother’s guitar. In the encore two of the performers swapped roles (a traditional practice in flamenco): Galván the dancer sang. Lagos the singer danced, evoking much laughter when he tried to imitate Galván’s trick of audibly flicking his finger from the back of his teeth in rhythmic counterpoint to his footwork.

On the surface the title “Edad de Oro” would seem a misnomer. The flowering of flamenco was from 1870-1930, a period that has generally become known as its Golden Age. But, as the program note explains, Galván dislikes this historical marker because he believes it dooms contemporary flamenco to nostalgic-retrospective status. For him “Edad de Oro” is a double entendre, associated with the 1930 Luis Buñuel-Salvadore Dali French film “Age D’Or” (Golden Age), the final vignette of which shows characters emerging from a Marquis de Sade-inspired orgy. Galván, who satirizes male and female sexual stereotypes, is aligning himself with a perverse but no less influential part of cultural history.

Galván’s rebellious spirit may well trace to his upbringing in Seville, where his father directs a flamenco academy. That the son postponed his dancing career until he was 18 indicates that he did not want to follow in the father’s footsteps. His choreography flouts flamenco’s central tenet of embracing handed-down ideas from generation to generation.

But Galván’s rebellion wouldn’t be interesting if his flamenco dancing wasn’t a tour de force. Like Nijinsky, he seems to be a new kind of dancing creature, twisting steps in order to comment on them. Purists be damned; for this taste, Galván’s flamenco is a startling, radical transformation of tradition.

Musical America

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