Israel Galván’s “El final de este estado de cosas, Redux” at Festival Transamériques

Israel Galván. Photo: Felix Vazquez

Montreal–Spring in Montreal has been struggling this year, leaving the first few days of Festival Transamériques under cold and wet conditions. While the majority of the performances are indoors, the bad weather drags down the buzz and excitement surrounding the launch of the 5th Edition of the festival. I set out in the rain last night to see the first performance on my list. El final de este estado de cosas, redux, the newest tour-de-force from Spanish flamenco dancer Israel Galván, was worth the trek. El final runs one more night – May 28th at 8pm.

The son of Sevillian dancers, Israel Galván has been dancing onstage since the age of four. Over the past 30 years he has rewritten the rules of flamenco and collected an impressive list of major awards. International recognition aside, from the moment he steps on stage his presence is electric and it is clear that we are in the presence of a maestro.

The solo dancer shares the stage with eleven musicians. At times they are his support and at times they are his playmates, taking a more active place on the stage as they solo and interact with Galván. The musicians form two ensembles, the flamenco jazz band Proyecto Lorca and the heavy metal band Orthodox. Two male singers are featured with Proyecto Lorca and one female singer is featured during the Orthodox set. The singers were all outstanding, with heart-wrenching voices, and I was disappointed that the female vocalist was underutilized. On the flip side, I was glad that Orthodox was only featured during one of the movements. I found that the creativity and genius of Galván’s dancing was far better highlighted by Proyecto Lorca. The same mode of expression, set to heavy metal, felt like somewhat of an overstatement.

I feel as though society’s age-old obsession with the apocalypse has recently seen a lot of love from contemporary dance and theatre. I have at least three performances to see in the next month that are all personal explorations of the end of days. El Final is a dancer’s reading of the biblical text. It is presented in five chapters, each distinct in staging and sound quality.

Israel Galván. Photo: Felix Vazquez

In the first chapter, Galván flirts with Butoh, almost naked, alone, and unaccompanied on a sand-covered surface which muffled the percussive steps. In the third movement, he personifies the Whore of Babylon and the space is filled with the metallic percussion of her rings and heels. In the final movement, he shares the stage with four wooden coffins, dancing on top and inside of them. Perhaps the showiest piece – delightfully so – was the use of a sprung wooden platform early in the performance (see video below) that had the ground literally shifting and clattering in response to Galván’s movement. “I wanted to dance an earthquake,” says Galván in the program notes.

The second movement of the program was a huge video projection of a female dancer, one of Galvan’s students. Overlaid with a letter to her teacher about war in her country, the music for her performance was a soundtrack of explosions and gunfire. I find that one of the dangers in using video in live performance is that the projected performers often upstage the live ones, becoming “more real.” The opposite was true in this case; the dark video paled in comparison to the live performance, detracting from the overall rhythm and energy of the program.

Every artist that explores cultural forms walks a tightrope between tradition and experimentation. Galván has had public success in this regard, celebrated for his stripped down portrayal of flamenco, essential elements stripped of much of the traditional showiness. I was struck by the extremes of the performance: absolute silence vs. ear-splitting noise, anger vs. playfulness, the extended gesture of his kicks and jumps vs. the tiny movements of his fluttering fingers. It is a beautiful paradox that Galván is so vibrantly alive throughout this performance about death.

Confronted with a culturally specific performance, I found myself back at a familiar question: can we ever fully understand a performance without knowing the cultural language? Flamenco is, in itself, a language of hand and body gestures and, while I was captivated by the beauty and intensity of Galván’s performance, I felt as though I was always on the verge of understanding something much deeper – if only I understood the language.

Festival Transamériques, 5th Edition
May 26 – June 11, 2011
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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