“I see dance in everything that surrounds me,” Israel Galván, enfant terrible of the flamenco world, has said in an interview. For his latest outing at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, titled FLA.CO.MEN, he rampages around the instruments and props scattered about the stage, wantonly pummeling out rhythms, no surface safe from his restless hands and feet. That includes his bare torso, which he drums mercilessly with his hands. He stomps on a ceramic boot, shattering it to pieces, then unleashes a ferocious zapateo amid the shards. He head-butts a bass drum pedal. He pounds a platform piled with shiny coins, spewing showers of gold into the air, to the wondrous sound of metallic rain. In a blackout – with the house in pitch black as well – he carries a tiny wooden platform into the stalls and lays it down wherever the fancy takes him, so that the house reverberates with what sounds like random artillery fire at very close quarters.

© Hugo Gumiel
© Hugo Gumiel

From the moment Galván first steps on stage we understand this is not going to be an ordinary night in a smoke-filled flamenco café. Wearing a white apron over a black T-shirt and jeans, he thumbs intently through a sheaf of papers on a music stand, as if they are a recipe book for dance. He performs a disjointed series of movements of astonishing virtuosity while bellowing a set of instructions that a bemused young woman attempts to translate into English. She turns out to be the violinist and bassist of the band, the talented Eloisa Cantón.

“Make sound only from your heart” is one of the more stimulating directives, but others are heavily larded with gibberish. Cantón abandons the interpreter gig and finds solace in her violin.

Sans interpreter, Galván continues to mutter and holler throughout the evening. We pick up the phrase “omelet, omelet, omelet,” and indeed Galván seems to break a lot of sacred eggs. “I dance from a knowledge and respect for traditional flamenco, precisely to be able to dance it with liberty, to disarm it and rearm it,” is another high-minded line from the interview. In this work, he “disarms” flamenco to the point where certain episodes resemble nothing more than a toddler throwing toys out of the pram. And his obsession with jumping up and down on the bass drum pedal makes me sorta wish that he would fall into the drum, like Charlie Chaplin in Limelight, to be carried off by his long-suffering musicians.

© Hugo Gumiel
© Hugo Gumiel

Yet the cumulative effect of his antics, the way he scraps with his musicians, and the periodic outbreaks of silence and stillness resonate with the defiant energy of flamenco, with the spirit of rebellion that fueled its earliest practitioners. In FLA.CO.MEN, the rebellion is aimed at those who seek to constrain dance within fossilized traditions.

Like an MTV video, images flash by, some from his early works, but nothing lingers. One minute he’s practicing aikido with an imaginary foe. The next, he’s slouched in a chair – but he can’t even occupy a chair without it becoming a theatrical experience, hips and shoulders twisting, legs shooting in one direction then another. Then, he’s confined to a tight spotlight, grinding his heels into the floor at warp speed – taunting an invisible bull, perhaps, or issuing a summons to war. The light bathes him in a deep red, as if drenching him in blood.

Similarly, the music veers off into cacophony one minute, then a heartbreakingly gorgeous fusion of cante flamenco and American gospel-jazz, from singers David Lagos and Tomás de Perrate, the next.

There is a fierce beauty to all this movement and sound in dislocation. Chance, too, plays a role in shaping the experience. In one episode on opening night, Galván appears to sneak away from his musicians and perches on a stool in the dark in front of the proscenium arch. He helps himself to a drink and a bag of crisps. We hear the crunching of the crisps. Nothing else is happening on stage. A lone member of the audience starts to clap, slowly. It is a magnificent dare. But Galván won’t budge until a musician seduces him back onstage with a few soulful pings of the xylophone.

In another serendipitous moment, Galván ventures back into the audience and, in corny showman fashion, encourages us to clap out a compás pattern with him. He takes the hands of a young woman seated on an aisle, as if to guide her through the rhythm. She makes an assertive and accomplished flamenco response, which momentarily astonishes him. She’s a ringer, and the two have an exhilarating back-and-forth. 

The most poignant moment in FLA.CO.MEN arrives during the bows, for which Galván flounces out in a polka-dotted dress. He curtseys and spins and flips his skirt flirtatiously. We glimpse his bright red briefs – and also his knees, thigh and calf encased in tight elastic bandages. A hint of the physical suffering that a passion for dance can impose, sometimes on the greatest performers.