Yesterday evening marked my first foray into contemporary dance as both art and entertainment. A collaboration between Spanish flamenco artist, Israel Galván and Akram Khan, a British dancer of Bangladeshi descent, Torobaka had its UK premier at Sadler’s Wells.
I was aware of Khan from his work with Danny Boyle at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, but had not previously heard of Galván. The birth of their collaboration piqued my interest as part of the BBC series What Do Artists Do All Day? that follows the endeavours of artists working in a variety of disciplines.
In the programme, Khan travelled to Galván’s native Seville to lay the groundwork for what was to become one of the most curious and deeply resonant performances I’ve ever seen.
Khan’s discipline, Kathak, is an ancient form of narrative, story-telling dance with origins in northern India being passed down from generation to generation, with literary evidence of its beginnings in existence 400 years before the birth of Christianity. It differs from the more instantly recognisable forms of Indian dance primarily thanks to its more freeform style and delicate, twirling Persian influences, upon which Khan layers his own unique movements.
Galván’s style, while essentially derived from traditional flamenco, exists as something of an anomaly in Spanish dance. The testosterone-heavy jutting and strutting is present, but blended with an almost ego-free version of primitivism: a call of atavistic nature that has nothing to do with the flamboyance of flamenco’s image the world over.
That Khan and Galván do not share a common language is evident in the early opening of the performance, where Khan places his hand over Galván’s mouth, silencing a series of bird-like calls. The scene is set for the two dancers to communicate through the shapes they make with their bodies.
If anyone was expecting flawless, mirror-like mimicry of one another’s movements, they were to be disappointed. However, the minute and subtle differences in the placement of gestures and steps was, for me at least, the very essence of the piece as a whole: Khan and Galván, while seeking to create a new dialogue in movement, remained wholly, and rightly, individual.
Similarly, if the performance in its entirety seemed disjointed to some, the patchwork of scenes, all set within a darkly illuminated pool of stage lighting, served to illustrate both the coming together and setting apart of two very distinct personalities.
In one scene, Khan appears as a prescience of new birth. On his knees, with a pair of flamenco shoes on his hands, he writhes in creative emergence, tapping out a rudimentary signal. He seems as we all once did: human, though not yet sentient.
Large portions of Galván’s solo parts exhibited comedic elements far removed from the traditional character of flamenco. He shrieked and gurned, posing himself in unflatteringly bent positions. In doing so he too explored nascent aspects of an archaic human psyche.
Torobaka is not just Khan and Galván, were more than their talents required. They were joined by a mixed-up gang of drum-beating musicians, a woman singing liturgically-styled folk songs in a completely unexpected tenor, and a man singing way up high who looked as though he’d just rattled along in his gypsy wagon expecting to find his brigands huddled around a campfire, instead of being thrust into a blackened spotlight on a theatre stage in the middle of London. Best of all among their number is a patriarchal Spaniard, delivering time-honoured flamenco handclapped rhythms and providing a kind of umpiring service, counter-balancing the whirling and snapping of Khan and Galván’s evolution.
The show is an exercise in becoming: it twists itself into entirely new shapes, and throws fresh shadows onto the old ways of both flamenco and kathak. The real joy is in the knowledge that, despite Khan and Galván not sharing a common language, they’ve found an entirely unique way to communicate with one another.
To label Torobaka as contemporary dance alone is to rather miss the point. At heart, it neatly packaged up every difficulty we little humans have in communicating with one another, and handed us a peep at the best path to understanding: first, be curious.
Torobaka pings with natural, fluid curiosity and that oh-so human need to infinitesimally explore our own species.