Israel Galvan defies the pandemic with Japan world-premiere flamenco and more
First and foremost, heartfelt thanks are due to the unrivalled star of contemporary, avant-garde flamenco, Israel Galván, for coming from Spain to perform in Yokohama and Nagoya despite having to self-isolate for two weeks upon arrival.
It’s not as if the 47-year-old dance legend needs the work, having collected just about every award, honor and prize there is in the world of flamenco — many of them several times over.
Instead, the maestro from Seville is here simply to share with Japan’s many fans — and hopefully new ones, too — his love of this powerful performance art rooted in his native Andalusia, southern Spain, among whose Gypsy, Arab, Jewish and Christian peoples it evolved some 500 years ago.
During his short stay, Galvan performs two separate programs. One is his 2019 work “La Consagración de la Primavera” (“The Rite of Spring”) inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s eponymous 1913 concert and ballet music; the other is a short, 45-minute piece titled “Solo” in which Galvan takes all three of flamenco’s main roles himself — dancing, singing (cante) and using his body in place of the rhythm instruments of guitar and castanets.
Looking back on his career, the dancer/choreographer famed for the speed of his footwork and his use of silent, frozen motion in his compositions, recalled in our recent Zoom interview, “My first memory is of me already dancing.
“My parents (who were both famous flamenco dancers) took me to local flamenco bars every night and I would dance there almost as if it was playing or a game. There was lots of laughter and fun in those entertainment places, so they were my life college, I think.
“Anyway, for me dancing is an essential part of my daily life and I am always so pleased to come here to Japan to dance.”
For Galvan, however, that daily life changed fundamentally in 1998 when he founded his own company so he could take a more experimental direction away from regular performances. As a result, it’s his incorporation of unexpected new styles and ideas that now generally sees him described as being in the vanguard of “avant-garde flamenco.”
“To be honest, after a lot of dancing for the judges in competitions, not for the audiences or myself, I think my career really started from my 1998 work “Look! The Red Shoes,” he says.
“There, I tried things I really wanted to do and started to find my own ways of physical expression. Since then I’ve been searching for more new ways, and those processes have made my flamenco today.
“I think flamenco is a kind of virus; it obtains nourishment from other elements and then creates a new variant. So flamenco dancers have always borrowed powerful, innovative ideas from their times. Of course there’s a folklore element too, but there are always new kinds of flamenco coming from entirely new approaches.”
It would be hard to find a better example of flamenco’s leeway for change than Galvan’s 2014 collaboration with his near contemporary, Akram Khan, in their duet program, “Trobaka.”
As well as being one of England’s leading contemporary dancers and choreographers, Khan is also an expert in Kathak, a form of classical Indian dance, and Galvan admits, “When I danced with Akram it was the first time I’d ever worked with Indian percussionists.
“Because that Indian music has very strict rules, they are always calculating and counting the rhythm and speed with mathematical accuracy and sticking precisely to the starting cues. So Akram introduced me to that and shared so many new things with me.
“In comparison, flamenco has a lot more freedom because it incorporates many different influences and doesn’t have rules like that Indian music. That means we can’t define what is and what is not flamenco — and there’s no scientific test like there is for Covid.”
Besides that groundbreaking work with Khan, Galvan’s enthusiasm for artistic dance experimentation has rarely been absent for long. In 2000 he created a flamenco piece based on Franz Kafka’s novel “Metamorphosis,” followed by his bullfight-themed “Arena” in 2004 and that minimalist “Solo” in 2007. Then in 2019 he performed in Japan with an AI robot in “Israel & Israel,” a collaboration with the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media.
However, in these disparate works, and his many others beside, the core of Galvan’s performance is always the breath-taking speed of his footwork and his body’s near-magical flexibility — that, those silences, and the way he creates rhythms by slapping his arms or legs or stomach or any other way he seems to fancy.
“I understand the flamenco dancer is a traveler, a migrant,” he says. “And basically I am very shy, so I prefer to dance alone by myself so most of my works are solo pieces.
“But of course when I create a new work, I always look for someone or something new to collaborate with. It doesn’t matter if the collaborator is a dancer, or a human, or not.
“For example, during this pandemic situation I made ‘Maestro de Barra,’ in which a team of waiters collaborated with me in their cafe and I used their voices reading the menu lists.
“Sometimes even though I might be looking for someone to collaborate with in a particular context, I could encounter someone or something I had never imagined before and choose them as my collaborators. That’s always happening to me.”
Then, without actually mentioning the popular claim that Japan has more flamenco academies than Spain, Galvan continues. “For example, in this country flamenco took hold a long time ago, though it’s not only about dance and music styles. Many Japanese love flamenco culture, and they try to grasp its essence in their lives. So I can say that flamenco is vibrantly alive here.”
This time, though, Galvan’s original collaborators, the composer and live pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, and her fellow live pianist Cory Smythe, were unable to come to Japan. Consequently, on this tour he’s working for the first time with the Japanese classical pianists Tatsuto Masuda and Shu Katayama.
Also, whereas the first half of Galvan’s “The Rite of Spring” normally features Stravinsky’s music and the second half a Courvoisier composition titled “Songe du Sacre,” this time the second half will instead be set to “Piano Distance” by Toru Takemitsu and Masuda’s “Ballade.”
Untroubled by this turn of events, Galvan says, “I believe the universality of Stravinsky’s music will make the bridge between me and the Japanese pianists. In fact, since the pandemic has made travelling difficult, I now often work with local musicians instead of my original team. So this ‘Rite of Spring’ will be the world-premiere Japanese version.”
Finally, as regards the pandemic he says he believes it’s “not fair to close theaters, which are indispensable places for everyone.
“I believe art exists everywhere in the world in different forms and it can have a strong influence on the political scene, too. So it’s important to continue to dance even during this pandemic because we need to keep art alive in our daily lives.”
**** “The Rite of Spring’’ runs June 18–20 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama, a 5-min. walk from Nihon Odori Station on the Minato Mirai Line. It then runs June 23–24 at Aichi Prefectural Art Theater in Nagoya. “Solo” runs June 28–29 at Yokohama City Hall Atrium, a 2-min. walk from Bashamichi Station on the Minato Mirai Line. For details, call 045-323-9901 or visit https://dancebase.yokohama/.