Tangibly Transcendental

Tina Perić*

20th Belgrade Dance Festival, Serbia, 17th March to 13 April 2023. La edad de oro and Solo, choreographed and performed by Israel Galvàn.

At the 20th Belgrade dance festival, among 15 fine productions of different kinds, I was particularly struck by two performances conceived and performed by the Spanish flamenco dancer and choreographer Israel Galvàn, La edad de oro and Solo. It’s difficult to find the right words to describe this kind of performance, especially the scenic power of Israel Galvàn: I mean, words that would fit in a performance review. I would rather call him a shaman, a magician, a visitor from another planet, which is how I experienced him on stage.

Israel Galvàn. Photo: Nicolas Serve

Actually, I wasn’t prepared enough for the performances I was going to see. Although I’d heard a lot about Israel Galvàn, I based my expectations upon other flamenco concerts and performances I had seen a long time ago in Spain. I was wrong. This was not only a modern version of traditional flamenco but one whose essence brought on exaltation, and in the second show, completely unconventional, illuminating formal solutions.

La edad de oro, Trailer 2021

La edad de oro, performed on the big stage of the Madlenianum theatre, refers to a “golden period” in flamenco at the end of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth century. In synergy with singer Maria Marin and guitarist Alfredo Laegos, Israel Galvàn initiates a dialogue with the formal qualities, as well as the sense and spirit, of the flamenco art of those days. His unique style abounds in fragmented actions, sums of gestures and mixtures unknown in traditional art, while powerful live music underlines and carries the passionate, tragic, visceral dimension of his dance and facial expressions. Together, three artists in continuous alternation and in perfect harmony honor a life full of passion and intensity, which I perceive as the essence of the flamenco spirit.

Three artists in continuous alternation: Maria Marin, Alfredo Lagos, Israel Galvàn, La edad de oro. Photo: Duško Vukić

There is something more to be said about the rhythm and the music as integral parts of this dance. Since most of the movements produce sound and create rhythm (all different kinds of steps and jumps, as well as clapping hands and snapping fingers), a flamenco dancer is inevitably a musician, too. And the dance that generates those complex and mighty rhythms can certainly be considered as music! Now, this is a general premise of this art, but in the case of Israel’s dance, due to his incredible virtuosity and his dancing style full of accents, dramatic pauses, long repetitions, it becomes much more evident than usual.

Unique dancing style full of accents, pauses and repetitions: Israel Galvàn with Maria Marin and Alfredo Lagos, La edad de oro. Photo: Duško Vukić

The rhythm turns out to be the protagonist of his performances, its form and content. And I suppose that this is where the absolute magic happens. For example, during La edad de oro, while Israel was beating the ground and clapping his body so rapidly and firmly, so precisely and vigorously, I started to feel powerful waves of sound literally influencing my body. All of a sudden I became aware of the ground beneath me, as if his movements were transferred to my feet. With every new step the sensation became stronger. Alone on a big stage, but as potent as a whole army, Israel appeared almost like the God of heaven and earth. He was making thousands of steps a minute and beating so soundly on the wooden floor of the stage that it looked to me as if he ruled the underworld, too. All these metaphors have helped me find the word I was looking for at the beginning: it was a transcendental experience.

The second performance, Solo, took place in the Bitef theatre, on a significantly smaller stage and without music, or rather without other musicians. But it opened up a whole range of new possibilities for Israel’s expression and sounding.

Solo. Calder Foundation, New York

Before I dive into some images and details of this extraordinary performance, I would like to note a subtle but very important difference in his approach to these two shows. While in the first one he was still in the service of flamenco dance, the mighty channel for its archetypal energy, in the second he was acting as a performer in a narrower sense, one who uses his own body and personality as material for the performance, and flamenco dance as his tool.

This is to say that apparently there wasn’t a lot of personal material directly expressed on stage, but the performer’s presence was different: whatever Israel was doing carried his personal stamp, often in the mood of an ironic, sweet and sad clown, suggested by the flower he put in his hair in one scene. In this particular performance he used colorful clothing and props, often in a funny manner, for example a mike stand as a billiard cue. . . Actually, the whole performance was quite theatrical. He organized the scenes according to an invisible script, from which some ordinary topics emerged. For example, there was a moment when a dance turned into a scene of calling a taxi, or another one in which he was pronouncing on the mike some ironical text about people from Sevilla, los Sevillianos. Maybe we couldn’t always understand the meaning of these interventions, but his way of performing was irresistibly charming: he was making faces, doing small gestures, pronouncing some words, whispering others. . . All this was perfectly combined with the dancing, since he never ceased to dance and to mark the rhythm, not only with his feet and hands, but with whatever object he found. Again, rhythm was the main ingredient and catalyst of every scene.

Israel Galvàn in white shoes, Solo. Photo: Philippo Manzini

Extremely interesting was the acoustic effect of his dancing on different surfaces— metal, wood, even sand—all very precisely amplified. For me, this accurate research into sound was not purely aesthetic. The sound frequencies penetrate our bodies directly and intensely, and Israel was playing all the time with it, immersing himself into long improvisations with specific sounds, which from time to time almost gave me the experience of a sound bath. There was a moment in which his barefoot dance produced the sound of a real shamanic drum. Another marvelous scene was his dancing in boots. I wouldn’t be able to imagine someone dancing flamenco in regular rubber boots, but incredibly it happened, and with almost the same virtuosity as with flamenco shoes. Furthermore, since the sound was so different, it created a moment of great surprise and wonder.

Solo, Teaser

I have to say that the whole performance was amazingly well directed, and I use the word ‘directed’ on purpose, since it was abounding with clever changes of register, rhythm and intensity. Ecstatic and transcendental moments were continuously wrapped up in playful, funny, ironic sequences. My favorite one happened as a part of the scene on the sand, which had very particular moves and sounds as well as some funny moments. At the end, after falling on the ground in a specific flamenco manner, Israel took a green plastic rake out of his pocket and made a gesture of a child playing in the sand. Hilarious!

I could end by underlining the main qualities of this extraordinary performer and author, such as his astonishing technical virtuosity, godlike presence, uniqueness and inventiveness, combined with playfulness, self-irony, even a touch of folly. But there is still something more, something that tops the sum of what has previously been said, and that I would like to underline again. The way he uses these qualities is something tangibly transcendental. It makes of his art a total theatrical act, in the way that Grotowski uses this expression. I studied that concept but have never seen it personally on stage, not until now. And it was not only my experience: in Belgrade Israel Galvàn got long, long standing ovations. 

*Tina Perić (MA in Art theory, PhD in performance studies) is a researcher in performance theory, a freelance critic and a performer. She is the author of the book The Way of the Performer: From I to Self (Sterijino Pozorje2019) She takes an active part in various projects and workshops in the field of dance, music and theatre. Her performance Ruža (Rose), realized with her mother and daughter, premiered in March 2022.

Copyright © 2023 Tina Perić
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