“Bonito!” “Maravilloso!” The praise was being shouted loudly last night by the flamenco fans at Israel Galvan’s performance at the Sadler’s Wells 2011 Flamenco Festival. The volume and frequency of the exclamations said to me that this was one the aficionados had picked up on; it sounded like I was in Spain, as normally the only words of encouragement at a Sadlers Wells flamenco show come from the various performers on stage. But Galvan’s reputation had preceded him and the house was packed with people who wanted to see fantastic flamenco, and they got what they came for.
It’s hard for me to describe what happened last night, as I lack words and to be perfectly honest was far more interested in watching what was going on rather than trying to scribble everything down. The show was stripped to the bare minimum; just two accompanists (a singer and a guitarist, both men, both dressed in black) and the dancer, who eschewed flamboyance in favor of a dark green shirt rolled up to the elbows, soft black pants and black shoes. He traced a line on the stage with his toe, emphasing the musical nature of what he was about to do (and the fact the stage was miked). Then he launched into the most intense, pure, performance of male flamenco I have ever seen, totally one with his singer and guitarist, becoming one, the three of them, with the music they were all creating. His movements went far beyond the usual macho posing; he showed humor, he spun and tapped his toes as he went, he held his fingers behind his head as if creating a comb for a mantilla. He thrust his chest in and out, he lifted his shirt and yanked on its hem, he slapped his chest and his shoes (ever aware of the music he was making with his body), he played his teeth with his fingernails. At one point, it seemed like he was telling the entire story of an invasion of a town by opposing armies entirely with his dancing.
I am constantly amused by the ego I see on stage in flamenco, especially with men; and I want to say that this was about dance and not “Behold, I am Israel Galvan, bow before me o ye lesser mortals.” It wasn’t like that, but I can’t say it was egoless, though; Galvan was wholly himself, one with his music and the performance, utterly aware of himself and his body at all time, but seemingly driven by a vision of perfection, a vision he was capable of executing as he whipped around so fast his feet were a blur. He let his accompanists play their parts while he faded into the background or accompanied him, not appearing to be “condescending” but to be part of creating a perfect flamenco performance. At the end, they all changed roles for a bit, Galvan singing while the guitarist (Alfredo Lagos) strutted a bit on stage, then deliberately teased him by tapping his teeth with his fingernails. Then they switched again, with the singer (David Lagos) dancing very tentatively while Galvan mimed the guitar and the guitarist sang a bit and laughed. After so long and so intense an evening, we were ready for comedy and lightness, and after so many years of seeing men past their prime dominate other people on stage, I was ready for the joy of a performer who was both tops in his class and a gentleman to boot. Israel Galvan, you have set a standard not just for the 2011 Sadler’s Wells flamenco festival, but for every male bailador I shall ever see again.
(This review is for a one-off performance that took place on Wednesday, February 9th, 2011. The Flamenco festival continues through February 19th. For my joy expressed more elegantly, please see Clement Crisp’s review in the Financial Times.)