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Flash Review, 7-25: Roots
Portraits of Flamenco History from Israel Galvan

By Anna Arias Rubio
Copyright 2008 Anna Arias Rubio

"Here is an impressive and plastic example of the feeling of the tragedy of life, made real with passion and precision by a Spaniard."

-- José Val del Omar, introduction to "Aguaespejo Granadino." (Berlin, 1956)

NEW YORK -- No one in the local flamenco community believed me when I told them that an artist of the caliber of Israel Galvan would be performing for free, June 17 on the Audubon Terrace of the Hispanic Society of America. My daughter Antonia and I spent most of the trip from Philly trying to guess which of the legendary musicians Galvan had previously performed with would be along for this concert: Alfredo Lagos? Enrique Morente? Fernando Terremoto? Ines Bacan? Antonia's favorite, Diego Carrasco...? Arriving early, we were surprised to see Galvan rehearsing alone on a small wooden stage on the ground in the patio, with no sound system, guitar, or singer in sight. His new work "Solo," it turned out, would be just that.

I have spent all of my flamenco-life trying to explain and teach anyone who will listen that what defines flamenco is the relationship and communication between the artists performing, using the "compas" (rhythm) as the conduit. And that our purpose as dancers is to adore and adorn the "cante" (singing). With this ideal as my raison d'etre, I thought to myself after it was announced that Galvan would be performing unaccompanied, how could I possibly consider the concert about to unfold flamenco?

Dressed in simple black pants and shirt -- as has become common in flamenco in recent years -- Galvan steps onto the stage alone and becomes the entire cuadro of artists. His palmas, mouth noises and footwork are the only audible accompaniment. In each palo (flamenco rhythm) that he interprets, he runs through an evolving passage of the gestures and remates (closings) that evoke my deepest memories of all the flamenco I have ever seen. Old films I dreamed myself into as a child, the photographs of bullfighters in the book my Spain-obsessed grandmother gave me when I was 12 years old -- all come back. His splayed fingers behind his head become the flower in the dancer's hair. He stands in a taut releve, one hand above his head, fingers tight together, pointing down, and I see Manolete fixed on the bull. He shows us the earthy, womanly, swaying hips and curving arms and hands of the traditional bailaora and then strikes the exaggerated masculine posture of a bailaor of old, maybe Vicente Escudero or Jose Greco: arms curved above his head, wrists bent like the banderillero in the bullring.

Between palos, to separate the passages of the piece, Galvan steps off the stage and faces the stone wall located about one meter behind it. At one point he re-mounts the stage and opens his mouth, using his fingers to rap out the rhythm of fandangos on his teeth. I hear the ria-ria-pí-ta and in my mind I see a singer sitting at a wooden table rapping his knuckles to set the compas before beginning to sing. Galvan then dances to this imagined song.

The films of José Val del Omar (Granada 1904 - Madrid 1982) come to mind, especially "Aguaespejo Granadino" (Water Mirror of Granada) from the early 1950s. In this film, fragments of flamenco footwork, cante and guitar are mixed with the sounds of nature, the gurgling water of the fountains of the Alhambra and spoken words, using Val del Omar's patented "diaphonic sound." This soundscape brings to life the visual images of Granada and it's people. The fountains dance, the eyes of a Gypsy sing, the pieces suggest the whole.

In Galvan's "Solo" his postures, fragments of footwork and body sounds suggest an entire traditional flamenco solo, from the "entrada" (entrance) to the development of the theme through the letra (lyric), the dancer's percussive response to the cante and the final cathartic resolution.

One section of Galvan's work particularly stands out for me. A chair sits between the stage and the stone wall behind the stage, facing to one side. Galvan steps off the stage and sits in the chair. He begins to clap bulerias and sings a couple of lines. He rises from the chair and dances, marking the rhythm on the ground behind the stage, then on the stage facing the chair. He sings fragments of a letra, and chants the rhythmic jaleos typical in bulerias: "Toma que toma!" "'Sa 'sa!" Every time he changes position on the stage, I see a different member of a cuadro, or person present in a juerga (flamenco party), joining in the buleria fin-de fiesta (end-of the party rhythm). Galvan ratchets up the speed and I see the films of Carmen Amaya and the sped-up way everything was performed in the '50s. At one point, marking the compas with rounded arms and arched back, he stops with his mouth open and eyes looking up. I see the black-and-white photographs of flamenco stars of old on the wall of every flamenco studio I have entered in my life. This section of the work seemed to represent the shapes and snippets of music that remain in your mind as you stumble home with your head full of wine late at night (or early in the morning) from a small flamenco tablao or juerga.

Israel Galvan, photographed by Stephen Grande Jr. for the Hispanic Society of America in performance at its Audubon Terrace. Photo copyright Stephen Grande Jr. and courtesy the Hispanic Society of America.

To end the evening, Galvan removes his boots and socks and uncovers a square pile of sand in front of the stage. The soft swooshing of his bare feet is a sweet contrast to his previous staccato taconeo. The movement of his hips and arms bring to my mind the memory of La Chunga dancing on the beach in the film "Los Tarantos" and all the 1950s and '60s beach party movies with stereotypical swarthy Gypsies dancing for tourists. It also recalls every essay attempting to tell the history of flamenco, mentioning the "dancing girls" on the beach of Cadiz, in the south of Spain, described in ancient texts. He concludes by crossing an arm in front of his chest and bowing in three directions before quietly walking away.

Some call Galvan's work "new" or "contemporary" -- even going so far as to suggest it's not flamenco. What I see is not new at all. What I see in his work are the archetypes of flamenco, our collective memory, our history -- the memory of all the images and sounds of flamenco that have surrounded Galvan since his birth to dancer parents in the very flamenco city of Seville. Does Galvan dance without the cante and the guitar because he thinks these elements of flamenco are not necessary or no longer valid? Having seen many of his pieces through the years, I would say not. His inclusion of some of the most serious and traditional flamenco artists of our time demonstrates the deep respect he has for the cante and the guitar. In this new solo work Galvan shows us the compas with his footwork and hands, and expresses the cante he hears inside, with his body. Galvan becomes the entire group, he tells the whole story himself.

I say: Yes, this is flamenco.

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