Flamenco Master in Silence: Was He Improvising?

June 17, 2008

On a terrace in front of the Hispanic Society of America up in Washington Heights (made famous by the musical In the Heights), Israel Galván walked out to dance on a small platform. Dressed in black, he started by clapping his hands in that special way (palmas), feeling the rhythm, building the rhythm. This usually happens when the dancer and flamenco musicians are setting up their rhythms together. But Galván was alone. It was quiet.

A woman from Dia Art Foundation, which presented the performance, said, when she introduced him, that he chose silence so that he could listen to his own body. And he did listen, by pausing every few phrases, but also by making various sounds: foot scaraping, heel tapping, palmas, grunts, and even a little spiral move of his hands in his mouth, playing his teeth like castanets. Every sound was crystal clear.

He would freeze in a position, either arched way back or a perfect Egyptian profile. But then he would come flat front and pierce us with his gaze. He often thrust his pelvis forward, in a wide second, scooping his hands at pelvis level. It looked pretty sexy, but only lasted a few seconds.

His flattened hands, when raised, looked like cobra heads, or a periscope. One time a single hand lilted in front of him like a falling leaf. Sometimes his hips pushed forward into an extreme hinge that erupted into a barrage of heel tapping. Twice he stepped off the platform, faced the stone wall behind it, and stuttered his heels so that his knees seemed to vibrate against the wall.

Toward the end, he sat down, took off his shoes and socks, and then walked to a square of pale color in front of the black platform. This square, it turned out, was a layer of sand. He scooped his feet through it and flicked sand behind him, making a softer version of the scraping sound from before. Then it was over.

Our attention was so intense for that half hour that we all cheered. He had captured our complete attention without music, lights, the magic of a theater, or people around yelling “Olé!” And the thing I most want to know is, Was he improvising, or was it set? The steps and stops looked so definite. And yet he seemed to be following his thoughts. Maybe “listening to his own body” is just another term for improvising.