A stranger autobiography would be hard to imagine. Both of Israel Galván’s parents earned their living by performing flamenco for tourists and so young Israel was nurtured by the tablao, and to such a degree that he claims it robbed him of the natural playful element of his childhood. Flamenco shows traditionally end with le fin de fiesta, whereupon the performers (singers, dancers, guitarists, percussionists) swap roles, invariably demonstrating varied and surprising skills; usually ending with a joyful promenade from the stage.

<i>La Fiesta</i> © Aliaksandra Kanonchenka
La Fiesta
© Aliaksandra Kanonchenka

In La Fiesta, Galván adds an outer envelope to this tradition by importing singers and musicians from other cultures, including a Tunisian vocalist and a Hindustani sarod, and in true fin de fiesta style, everyone seems capable of stepping in to each other's shoes; that is, except for those of the main man himself. He is inimitable.

Several people exited the theatre before the end of this controlled mayhem. Anyone who came to see picture-postcard flamenco would have been disappointed, although those that left before the last fifteen minutes will have missed Galván demonstrating his virtuoso footwork (zapateado), albeit dressed in Lycra hot pants, kneepads and a transparent vest. Much of his contribution to what had come before seemed to deliberately deconstruct flamenco puro, such as his opening solo, which was largely performed from a prone position, then inverted like an upside-down crab; the unwavering rhythm of the zapateado beaten by his metal heels. It was several minutes before Galván stood upright. Later, he performed with a table top concealing the movements of his feet and imitated traditional flamenco hand clapping (palmas) by tapping rhythms on his teeth. He ended the show wearing a veil and there were moments within it when he approximated the skirt flicking leg actions of a bailaora wearing her traditional bata de cola. It was the kind of show where every established norm was flipped.

<i>La Fiesta</i> © Aliaksandra Kanonchenka
La Fiesta
© Aliaksandra Kanonchenka

“I left my childhood in fiestas,” Galván states in his programme note, and there is a strong sense that this is his revenge, asserted through bringing his lost childhood to La Fiesta. The whole ninety minutes feels a little like Tom Hanks’ prematurely grown-up child in the 80s film, Big, in this vision of child-like innocence confronting an adult world: wild expressions and protruding tongues; tables that bounce like sprung playground platforms; singers queuing up at a microphone, pushing each other out of the way, as if at an infant karaoke party. And yet, there was always also a sinister adult undertone, perhaps as if the grown-ups are behaving in a way that the children cannot quite understand.

A strange but compelling atmosphere of camp Baroque filters through the middle of the work, often centred upon the singing of Alia Sellami, an artist originally trained in contemporary dance who then became an eclectic singer with a range from opera to jazz. The mix of movement and song in Sellami’s performance was echoed in the contributions of Eloísa Cantón – another regular Galván collaborator – who wafted ethereally through the performance, including performing under a table and then affixed to it, as if being tortured or crucified.

<i>La Fiesta</i> © Aliaksandra Kanonchenka
La Fiesta
© Aliaksandra Kanonchenka

There is little theatrical formality. The house lights remain up for several minutes, initially with the stage open and the audience chatting and also while Niño de Elche and the enigmatically-named veteran cantaora, Uchi, sit on a platform and begin to sing. Later El Niño performs facial gymnastics as he mimics an opera singer, opening his mouth as widely as possible, but simply gargling some occasional choked sounds before retching; later still, he removes his trousers and shirt to sit extreme stage-left, lasciviously circling a finger around exposed nipples, peeking out from a hairy chest (disconcertingly reminiscent of Mike Myers’ Fat Bastard character in Austin Powers)! Galván also removes his trousers, performing for a while with them stuck around his boots as if with feet bound, but still attempting to produce the beat from the muffled steel on his soles.

Galván and another performer communed with wooden bowls for heads and amongst other eclectic costumes, supporting bailaor Ramón Martinez wore a vivid green and white Adidas tracksuit, which I guess not many dance critics would have recognised as the official colours of Real Betis, the Spanish football club based in Seville, perhaps demonstrating that you can take flamenco out of Andalusia but it is difficult to remove Andalusia from flamenco!

La Fiesta is an inherently personal concept drawn from the memories and imagination of an extraordinary artist and enacted by this tightly coordinated ensemble of nine mix-and-match dancers, singers and musicians. It is not a performance for anyone wishing to experience the entertaining spectacle of a traditional flamenco tablao but it is nonetheless challenging and absorbing postmodern dance theatre.

***11