On Thursday 16 February 2017, we went to see the opening offering of Sadler’s Wells 2017 Flamenco Festival. Called FLA.CO.MEN and staged by Israel Galván, it was not your standard flamenco; rather it was flamenco as conceptual art, avant-garde flamenco and the theatre aficionados were on the edge of their seats. Literally. On my left, next to me after the couple between us had taken advantage of a blackout to scarper, a grey-haired stout man sat forward eager to catch every nuance and the woman behind had to ask him to sit back so she could see even a little.
I think the point was that the show subverted or played with the forms of Flamenco. It certainly emphasised the link between the music and the body movement, the body itself being used as a percussion instrument at times and at others the stamping of the feet used directly to beat a drum. It was supposed to be all about freeing the music from the constraints of a narrative but it seemed like there was a narrative to me – learning flamenco steps and movements. It broke the fourth wall, bringing performers to the front of the stage at a particular section to sing, dance or play the stage as a drum and plunging us all into darkness for a considerable time just hearing the percussion from Galván’s feet – or from bits of the stalls auditorium he found to play. If that was a section where we could see nothing; there was also a section where we could hear nothing. “Silencio!” called one of the singers; and it fell on the theatre – silence. It was towards the end. People started to get nervous. Should we be applauding? One person made a feeble attempt to start us clapping. We stayed silent. And, then, they carried on with the final scenes.
Even so, the music was often very good: a section that was very Indian, another that sounded Polynesian, both working really well with the tones of the cante. The xylophone was amazing and sang under its player. The two singers were incredible, complimenting each other with their different tones and providing evocative, emotional moments. However, often the music was just an atonal cacophony or loud, loud drums.
There were some other flashes of brilliance. Israel Galván has strength in the stamping and tremendous form and line even when executing moves that were more martial arts or yoga than flamenco. At the same time, there were some just weird bits: the section in total darkness, silence, throwing paper around, smashing a plaster foot. There is a thin line between genius and self-indulgence and for me it walked too often on the self-indulgent side. It probably didn’t help that I didn’t get the jokes – and people did laugh – which were rather slapstick. I was very glad when it was over.
If you have a chance to see the show or Israel Galván, should you go? If you love traditional Flamenco cante, guitar, percussion and dance, maybe not – save your pennies and pounds for another day. However, if you like more experimental theatre experiences, you will probably love this and wonder what my problem was. Enjoy!