Oddly enough, Israel Galván’s riotously eccentric show – opening this year’s Flamenco Festival London – put me in mind of two late, great British comedians; neither of whom, one imagines, will have been familiar to Señor Galván. Les Dawson made a habitual comedy routine from playing the piano badly (even though he was an accomplished pianist) and Eric Morecambe’s memorable sketch with André Previn (“Mr Preview”) had him playing Grieg awfully; only to remonstrate with the conductor by saying “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”!

© Hugo Gumiel
© Hugo Gumiel

Well, El Galván’s FLA.CO.MEN has all the right attributes of flamenco but not necessarily in the right places! Just as his title deconstructs the name, so his show deconstructs the art. I was privileged to hand over an award for Exceptional Artistry to Galván, last year; and I will defer to no-one in my admiration for this man’s liquid movement skills and the extraordinary clarity of his compás through the range of flamenco styles. He has the most articulate, rhythmic feet, no matter what tempo, placing him on a pedestal with the likes of Savion Glover, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or the Nicholas Brothers. So, it pains me to say that FLA.CO.MEN turns out to be a flaccid affair, lacking the vigour one has come to expect from a performer with such leonine stage presence and passion.

The show runs for a few minutes more than the promised ninety and it is at least a half-hour too long. Galván’s deconstruction includes several unnecessary pauses. Early on, he leaves the stage with just a motionless percussionist while the audience hears indistinct music and voices from offstage – reminiscent of Trisha Brown’s Foray Forêt, where the musical accompaniment is a brass band playing outside the theatre; later, the show is blacked-out completely while we hear the sound of zapateado moving from the stage into the auditorium; and Galván later returns to perform in the Stalls area, in a place that is invisible to anyone occupying the upper tiers; finally, the seven musicians are silhouetted, motionless on the stage in a re-run of the star’s absenteeism while the muffled pop music and offstage voices are reprised. The idea of fooling with theatrical conventions and the fourth wall is commendably challenging, but this actuality is a mess.

© Oscar Romero
© Oscar Romero

The show starts eccentrically with Galván wearing a chef’s apron, facing a music stand and speaking incoherently while his only female musician (the multi-talented Eloísa Cantón, who plays a range of instruments, from the violin to a penny whistle) narrates, also largely indistinctly. If there is a leit motif throughout the work, it appears to be Galván’s combative relationship with music, as made tangible by the stand, at which he often gesticulates. He uses his body as an instrument, not just through those busy feet, employed both in footwear and without; but also by beating his body rhythmically with his hands (a feat reprised by his main percussionist, stripping to a bare torso to create his own human drum) and even playing a big bass drum by using his head! Prior to this sequence, Galván lays face down, prone, beating out the rhythm with his toe caps. Elsewhere, he dances barefoot on silver foil with some kind of ball bearings rattling around his heels. 

It is that sort of episodic show. Where flamenco seems to meet a surreal Monty Python sketchbook on the set of The Old Grey Whistle Test; and where you can only anticipate the unexpected. But, it is at its best only in one outstanding sequence where Galván uses his exceptional artistry to dance flamenco surrounded by great musicians and singers.

© Hugo Gumiel
© Hugo Gumiel

It is at its worst when his grey-bearded guitarist plays around in a childish balancing act with his guitar and when Galván appears for the traditional flamenco encore (where the musicians show that they can dance, too) wearing a dress, flicking it up to reveal his bright red briefs. Later on in this Festival, we will see Manual Liñan demonstrate how a bailor can, sensitively, dance as a bailaora in a bata de cola. Galván’s cross-dressing seemed to be just ribald mockery and risible for all that.   

Galván is a man of many exceptional talents but FLA.CO.MEN did little to showcase them in musical episodes that were frequently a riot of cacophony. There is a thin line between innovation and self-indulgence and I’m sorry to say that this show frequently veered across that boundary.            

**111