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Israel Galván: La Fiesta review at Sadler’s Wells, London – ‘magnificent surrealist flamenco’

Israel Galván's La Fiesta at Sadler's Wells, London. Photo: Laurent Philippe
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There is a sadness at the heart of Israel Galván’s latest work. Inspired by the end of a flamenco performance when all the participants swap roles and let their hair down in an informal post-fiesta party, Galván indulges in the kind of play that he claims he never had as a child.

The son of flamenco dancers, he was required to dance from the age of four, entertaining the adult performers as they unwound. Now a mature man and a consummate artist, he gives free rein to his adult imagination as if liberating the child within.

Entering on his knees to the rhythmic clapping and drumming of the cast, he taps and kicks his toes and heels on the floor, bouncing on his bottom and rolling on his back like a toddler in a tantrum battling with gravity.

The sounds are extraordinary. The versatile singing of Alia Sellami, who shifts effortlessly from opera to Tunisian songs, and Niño de Elche’s full-throated flamenco trigger Galván’s increasingly bizarre antics and gestures, while two men dressed in football strip push and shove each other around. A guitarist plays a stomach-wobbling riff from a strange-looking instrument as Galván clicks and rattles across a variety of amplified platforms, stretching the limits of acoustic endurance. He goes too far for some audience members, who leave during a sequence when de Elche emits an almost continuous wail while rubbing his stomach – either a hungry infant or a woman giving birth.

There is humour and horror; images of the Inquisition peek out as a woman in a red dress is revealed manacled to the underside of a platform as if in a torture chamber. Trousers are dropped, dancing feet are hobbled. Edgar Allan Poe meets Savonarola with interventions by Charlie Chaplin and Max Wall.

Galván seems to morph from child to man and male to female before our eyes as he gesticulates and preens, hands slicing the air and body angling like a human surfboard. The finale is an extended solo of blurring feet as he hammers out a staccato rhythm like a pneumatic drill set to warp speed. This is extreme, magnificently bewildering stuff. A Galvánic vision of turbo-charged melancholia beamed down from a distant galaxy in which there is only one star.

It’s flamenco, Jim, but not as we know it.

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Israel Galván’s surrealist flamenco enters a new dimension