The Rite of Spring by Israel Galván | review

Words by Bengi-Sue Sirin.

Since its conception by Vaslav Nijinksy in 1913, The Rite of Spring has enjoyed several transgressive reworkings. Its choreographic soil is inspiringly fertile, something which is shown within the vastly contrasting directions each adaptation has taken. In 1959, Maurice Béjart gave the Rite an intense, electrifying and sexual edge. Sixteen years later in 1975, Pina Bausch honed in on the powerlessness within misogyny in her raw, soil-streaked version. Michael Clarke reimagined it through a punk-rock lens (which I would perform ritual sacrifice of my own to see). The list goes on – or could do, if somebody had the resources to compile over 150 danceworks from all corners of the world. So for a piece with subversion in its DNA, how does one go about standing out? Enter Israel Galván, flamenco’s answer to the avant-garde, lifelong transgressor from Seville, España. 

Galván, though highly decorated with accolades and awards for his prowess in the traditional artform of flamenco, is known for revolution rather than continuation. Amongst his back catalogue are works such as Lo Real/Le Réel/The Real (2013), an exploration of the barbaric treatment of travellers in the Holocaust; TOROBAKA (2014), a collaboration with Akram Khan which traversed flamenco, kathak, Gregorian chants and Hindu songs; and La Fiesta (2017), an explosion of movement and sound that won acclaim for how alive it was. And now, a solo version of The Rite of Spring, that holy grail of subversionists. Heading to see the piece, I wondered – will it be narrative or abstract? How will one dancer obtain, even maintain, the pace of such a vivid story? And will I see Spain within it?

As we took our seats we saw that the curtain was up, the set on show. Unusual. My experience of dance is that the show takes place on a separate planet, revealed by the raising of the curtain. Instead, we walk towards a stage bearing two pianos at diagonals and a variety of wooden crates. I have a feeling of entering a studio as a participant or of something resembling the breaking of the fourth wall. This reminds me of another flamenco show I saw, Paco Peña’s Solera, where the formalities of theatre were bypassed, and we felt as though in the studio or the tablao. But back to Galván; looking ahead, I can’t really link what I see to the story of The Rite of Spring. I definitely get much more of an abstract vibe from this set. 

Two pianists walk onstage and take their seats, one woman (Daria van den Bercken) and one man (Gerard Bouwhuis). They begin playing as they will carry on, complementing each other with virtuosic skill, at times jarring and disparate, at others gentle, harmonic and with clear smatterings of Stravinsky’s beloved score. We familiarise ourselves with it, our aural accompaniment. Then Israel Galván enters. In black leggings shorts with odd lines drawn on his legs and a sort of black chef’s top, he teeters onto one of the wooden crates in a manner I can only liken to animalistic. Imagine (it’s very obvious) what the signs for ‘giraffe,’ ‘llama’ and ‘peacock’ are in BSL and you’ll visualise what I mean. His body flung with grace into firm but camp flicks and reaches, whilst remaining grounded in a way that reminds me of tap dancers. The stomps emanating from his lower half result in deep bassy reverberations that show us – there are not two musicians on stage, but three. Galván’s footwork is not random; his stomps and occasional shouts convey the Rite chords. 

After a few minutes of dance in this way, Galván walks off (but still within view; there are no side curtains either) and we have a music pause. I reflect that so far, there has been a tonal summoning of the Rite, within the performance’s sounds and its rabble-rousing energy. I think it’s pretty remarkable how a solo flamenco show can convey enough strands of this classic piece that it is believable, especially with neutral costumes and no soil on set. When Galván reenters he brings a different energy. In his castanet-like hand twirls and whistle-sharp scissor knees he brings to my mind the sexual undercurrent of the Rite, a portrayal of the ritual sacrifice of a young woman to bring a prosperous spring harvest. Of course, it has to be a virgin (could you imagine the state of the wheat if not?) In every version I’ve seen there is a fanatical fixation of the townspeople on this poor woman’s body, an overriding of her non-corporeal substance that actually makes it so enduringly relevant as a piece. It is an intoxicating mixture of desire and herd mentality that backs her into a corner, against every ounce of her will. This is the precise nuance that Galván expresses here, at first drawing attention to the desirous possibilities of the body, then almost rebelling against it with pure, utter expression. The feeling is enhanced by clouds of white powder ascending from beneath his feet as he stomps, alluding to earth, soil, even a bullfight. At this point I am wondering if his shoes are miked because the bass coming from those stomps is thudding through my heart. 

Next is a section which reminds me of Picasso’s ‘Guernica.’ Galván twists his limbs at splaying angles, throwing back his head exactly like the woman holding her child’s corpse. More than before, he travels rapidly across the space; between the crates, pianists and corners in a cubist frenzy. The anguish of his body is enhanced by a yellow backlight, adding sunlike intensity to a scene that increasingly resembles the build-up of the Rite. It hits me that I can make out the narrative within the abstract, much like cubism as a style. Galván’s choreography shows us how one body can be channelled, chopped and changed to paint a complete picture a lá that other great Spanish creative, Picasso. 

The Spanish imagery doesn’t stop there. I am reminded of a third Spanish artist when after a short music break, Galván reemerges in a black priestly skirt. It is as though he is at once the priest doing the sacrifice and the about-to-be-killed woman in her sacrificial gown. Galván perches cleverly on a stool and reclines backwards so that it bounds out looking 16th century regal, much like Diego Velázquez’s ‘Las Meninas.’ With abs of Toledo steel he remains at this 45 degree backwards angle, swishing his skirt in undulating waves. Meanwhile the pianists build and build, adding to the impending doom. I see and hear them both hunched over the deep ends of their instruments. Once again, I am struck by Galván’s ability to recreate scenes of a story in such an abstract way. 

Following on from this seat motif, he appears to shapeshift again, embodying triumph and prosperity with birdlike poise, upwards-pointed flourishes and an Icarus-esque confident swagger on top of a wooden crate. His palms raise upwards in absolution, abandoning that grounded tap dancer posture I mentioned earlier. All the while we hear the clicking and stomping of his footwork, which by now has taken on a joyous and exhilarated tone like the ‘jaleo’ element of flamenco – a fourth-wall breaking style where encouragement is shouted, castanets are clicked and hell is raised. Right at the very end of the show and yet for the first time, Galván’s footwork completely harmonises with the score. It is cohesion out of chaos. An unusual place to leave The Rite of Spring and open to much interpretation but for me, an ode to the unexpected narratives that can emerge from abstract artistry, the circularity that can be found in a cube. It ended with Galván beaming from ear to ear, the rightful receiver of two encores and a standing ovation. I genuinely didn’t want it to end, that’s how good it was.

Images by Jean-Louis Duzert.