Flamenco — the exuberant dance form originating from Andalusia in southern Spain — has long thrived in Japan, with many of the greats traveling here to perform. There is even a popular claim that Japan has more flamenco academies than Spain.
“In this country flamenco took hold a long time ago, though it’s not only about dance and music styles,” says avant-garde flamenco dancer Israel Galvan. “Many Japanese love flamenco culture, and they try to grasp its essence in their lives. So I can say that flamenco is vibrantly alive here.”
The 47-year-old maestro from Seville, who has amassed prestigious awards and honors such as the National Dance Award for Exceptional Artistry from the U.K. and the French Order of Arts and Letters, is now in Japan to share his love of this powerful performance art.
Galvan will perform two programs in Yokohama and Nagoya this month. One is his 2019 work “The Rite of Spring” (“La Consagracion de la Primavera”), inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s concert and ballet of the same name that caused an uproar when it debuted in 1913; the other is a 45-minute piece titled “Solo,” in which Galvan performs all three of flamenco’s main roles himself — dancing, singing and creating rhythmic sounds by using his body in place of guitars and castanets.
Galvan’s original collaborators, composer and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and pianist Cory Smythe, were unable to join him in Japan due to traveling restrictions amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, on this tour he’s working for the first time with Japanese classical pianists Tatsuto Masuda and Shu Katayama.
Another difference from the usual program is that the second half of Galvan’s “The Rite of Spring,” which normally features Courvoisier’s composition titled “Songe du Sacre,” will instead be set to “Piano Distance” by composer Toru Takemitsu and Masuda’s “Ballade.”
Unperturbed by this turn of events, Galvan says, “I believe the universality of Stravinsky’s music will make the bridge between me and the Japanese pianists. In fact, since the pandemic has made traveling difficult, I now often work with local musicians instead of my original team. So this ‘Rite of Spring’ will be the world premiere of the Japanese version.”
Galvan has spent much of his career drawing inspiration from diverse sources, and the dance form itself draws from a melding of cultures, such as the age-old Roma, Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities of southern Spain.
“I understand the flamenco dancer is a traveler, a migrant, and basically I am very shy, so I prefer to dance alone by myself and most of my works are solo pieces,” he says. “But when I create a new work, I always look for someone or something new to collaborate with. It doesn’t matter if the collaborator is a dancer, or a human, or not.
“For example, during this pandemic situation I made ‘Maestro de Barra,’ in which a team of waiters collaborated with me in their cafe and I used their voices reading the menu lists. But sometimes, even though I might be looking for someone to collaborate with in a particular context, I could encounter someone or something I had never imagined before and choose them as my collaborators. That’s always happening to me.”
Galvan began dancing almost as soon as he could walk thanks to his parents, Jose Galvan and Eugenia de los Reyes, both famous flamenco dancers in their own right.
“My first memory is of me already dancing,” he recalls. “My parents took me to local flamenco bars every night and I would dance there almost as if it was playing or a game. There was lots of laughter and fun in those entertainment places, so they were my life college, I think.
“For me, dancing is an essential part of my daily life.”
One of the major turning moments in his life, however, came in 1998 when he founded his own company so he could take a more experimental direction away from traditional performances. As a result, he is now known as being in the forefront of “avant-garde flamenco” for his incorporation of unexpected styles and ideas.
“After a lot of dancing for the judges in competitions, not for the audiences or myself, my career really started from my 1998 work ‘Look! The Red Shoes,’” he says. “There, I tried things I really wanted to do and started to find my own ways of physical expression. Since then, I’ve been searching for more new ways, and those processes have made my flamenco today.
“I think flamenco is a kind of virus; it obtains nourishment from other elements and then creates a new variant. So flamenco dancers have always borrowed powerful, innovative ideas from their times. Of course, there’s a folklore element, too, but there are always new kinds of flamenco coming from entirely new approaches.”
Galvan’s 2014 collaboration with his contemporary, Akram Khan, in their duet program, “Torobaka,” is a perfect example of flamenco’s flexibility for change.
As well as being one of England’s leading contemporary dancers and choreographers, Khan is also an expert in kathak, a form of classical Indian dance.
“When I danced with Akram it was the first time I’d ever worked with Indian percussionists,” Galvan says. “Because that Indian music has very strict rules, they are always calculating and counting the rhythm and speed with mathematical accuracy and sticking precisely to the starting cues. So Akram introduced me to that and shared so many new things with me.
“In comparison, flamenco has a lot more freedom because it incorporates many different influences and doesn’t have rules like that Indian music. That means we can’t define what is and what is not flamenco.”
Galvan’s enthusiasm for artistic experimentation is a major part of his success as a dancer and choreographer. In 2000, he created a flamenco piece based on Franz Kafka’s novel “Metamorphosis,” followed by his bullfight-themed “Arena” in 2004 and the minimalist “Solo” in 2007. In 2019, he performed in Japan with an artificial intelligence robot in “Israel & Israel,” a collaboration with the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
However, in all these disparate works, the core of Galvan’s performance is the breathtaking speed of his footwork and his near-magical physicality — the evocative silences interrupted by the rhythms he creates by slapping his arms, legs, stomach or any other body part.
Of course, as with many performers around the world, Galvan has seen the pandemic affect his work and the greater arts community. He himself had to self-isolate for two weeks upon his arrival in Japan for this tour. As Japan inches toward opening up again, he says he believes it’s “not fair to close theaters, which are indispensable places for everyone.”
“I believe art exists everywhere in the world in different forms and it can have a strong influence on the political scene, too,” he says. “It’s important to continue to dance even during this pandemic because we need to keep art alive in our daily lives.”
“The Rite of Spring’’ runs through June 20 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama. It then runs June 23-24 at Aichi Prefectural Art Theater in Nagoya. “Solo” runs June 28-29 at Yokohama City Hall Atrium in Yokohama. For more details, visit https://dancebase.yokohama.
In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.