The Seville-born dancer Israel Galván is the most avant-garde flamenco artist performing today, constantly taking the art form apart, ruffling feathers and exploding preconceptions. In this, he stays true to the spirit of the flamenco iconoclast Vicente Escudero, who spent time in Paris in the 1920s absorbing the artistic revolutions happening there. In fact, FLA.CO.MEN, Galván’s latest show and the opener for this year’s Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells, at times resembles what flamenco might look like if placed in the hands of Cocteau or Buñuel. It is wildly, wilfully odd, sometimes verging on the surreal, often defiantly self-indulgent, and about a third longer than it needs to be. And yet Galván’s restless curiosity, quirky sense of humour and, above all, sublime flamenco artistry keep you pinned to your seat.
It begins with Galván in a chef’s apron, taking up position in front of a music stand and flicking through a “recipe” as though following a set of off-kilter flamenco directions. The moves he pretends to demonstrate combine sharp gestures and posture, and lightning-speed zapateo with the sort of isolations and sassy attitude you’d expect in a Beyoncé video. There is extraordinary poise in Galván’s perfectly executed movements and, in contrast, a willingness to tip suddenly into the absurd – by barking like a dog, for instance, or grabbing a hollow ceramic boot and blowing into it to create screeching whistles, before smashing it on the floor.
The prop and instrument-strewn stage gradually fills up with Galván’s musicians. Sax and electric guitar are thrown into the traditional mix, as well as a strange array of percussive instruments. After a brief hiatus (one of several), where Galván sits in darkness on the side of the stage eating crisps, he’s off again, like a child in a playground, furiously inventing new, intricate games. His delight at using his own body as an instrument, way beyond the traditional sporadic slapping of thighs and chest, is given free rein here – at one point he’s lying on the ground headbutting a bass drum pedal, then beating out a rhythm with his toe caps. Then he’s unleashing frantic, beautiful footwork on a sheet of jingling coins, or ploughing into the audience and dancing in the stalls in pitch darkness, making the seats around him judder. If FLA.CO.MEN has a core idea, it is that the rhythm and the music should predominate, and that the spirit of flamenco can be distilled from all manner of sounds, from blues chanting to simply tapping on the soles of your shoes.
Galván finds his full-on rock star mode when he dominates the acid-pink bathed stage, exuding an anarchic vitality. He flirts with his feminine side, cedes the spotlight to his musicians, tears up his “recipe” and sticks pages to his head and body before whirling into a frenzy, then takes off his flamenco boots and tries all manner of ways to beat out a compás with his bare feet. The show is undoubtedly messy; it has its longueurs and there are moments when you wonder if anyone on stage has a clue what’s going on. But, if you’re prepared to just go along for the ride, there’s something rather thrilling about such unpredictability.