Review: Akram Khan & Israel Galván - Torobaka - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 3 - 8 November 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 4 November 2014

Akram Khan & Israel Galván - 'TOROBAKA' Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez

And the beat goes on. Tapped, clapped and tutted by feet, hands and voice in this heavyweight contest featuring two of the most outstanding and charismatic dancers of the current generation. They are giants of the stage, rather than the boxing ring, although their arena for this event is actually a circular space, further evoking the flavour of a contest, whether between matador and bull, or two grappling sumo wrestlers.

Masters of their own universes, Akram Khan – the king of kathak – and Israel Galván –the flame in flamenco, trade metaphoric blows not only in an opening duet contrived from “shadow boxing” arms but throughout 70 pulsating minutes in their ongoing duel with rhythm. In Lyndsey Winship’s illuminating programme note, she quotes Khan remembering Galván’s words at their first meeting when he said “on stage, if anyone threatens me I’m going to kill them. There should be nobody on stage but me.” There are moments in TOROBAKA that you can see how much this fearsome performer meant it.

The truth is that so much artistry flows through these guys’ movement that it can only be truly appreciated when viewed in isolation and the solos they performed individually were the most absorbing parts of the programme. This is, however, far from being a two-man show and the mighty handful of supporting performers – credited as musicians but doing far more besides – are seriously impressive in their own right. There is a wonderful scene (without either Khan or Galván) where the five move out of the upstage darkness to gradually occupy the front of the circle with a singing duel between counter tenor, David Azurza and the deep, husky voice of Christine Leboutte (a frequent vocal collaborator with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in recent years) and then from out of nothing comes a sparkling firework of flamenco dance from the grey-bearded, pony-tailed Bobote, a wonderful palmeros (rhythm-clapper) who is equally a wizard at beating compás (flamenco rhythm) with his feet. This excerpt was one of many great moments in an extraordinary show but it happened while Khan and Galván were taking a well-earned break.

Kathak and flamenco share some very deep roots, with the latter embedded in Spain’s gypsy (Romani) families who had migrated across eastern Europe – or via the Middle East – from India. The core emphasis on percussive rhythm and precise metrics in the cyclical flow is common to both forms and there are no close competitors to either in terms of the harmonious correlation of music and movement: as the tabla, sitar and bols (rhythmic words) are to kathak, so the palmas (handclapping), guitar and cante are to flamenco. The stylistic similarities are so striking that when Khan puts on his ghunghru (ankle bells) you realise that here is just one element that has been lost in translation: maybe the flamenco equivalent is the castanets but I suspect that the deconstructional, avant garde nature of Galván would rather self-destruct than pick up those “little sticks” (palillos, their more common name in flamenco).

For Khan this performance – a UK premiere of a work already performed in France and Spain – continues his theme of collaboration (joining partnerships he has already enjoyed with Juliette Binoche, Sylvie Guillem and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui); whereas for Galván, hitherto always the boss, it represents unchartered waters. There is no attempt to imitate each other’s art but a seamless fusion of the spirit of kathak and flamenco – both musically and in movement – where each performer polishes the other’s discipline with the unique gloss of his own inimitable skills. They really are like warriors and, in that respect, it reminded me so much of Khan’s South Bank trilogy of the early noughties, which was inspired by the Mahabharata, notably in his portrayal of the great archer, Arjuna, in Ronin (2003).

These two men could probably turn whitewashing a wall into a captivating performance. I suspect that they could imbue any movement with meaning and mood. Some of their sessions were spell-binding, such as Galván’s first, long combative solo and a sublime sequence where a slightly out-of-focus Khan shimmers under a slowly expanding beam of light that flows down and over him. The expressive value of the lighting designs adds yet more kudos to Michael Hulls’ mastery of his art.

We see flashes of kathak and flares of flamenco in this mutual association of two classical dance forms, by two great dancers, but mostly we see and hear a shared command of rhythm. It is a conversation that few other people on the planet could have. See it, if you can. Either way, you can enjoy watching the unique creative process of TOROBAKA being developed through an interactive web-based documentary on . A must for every dance fan to dip into any time they have a few minutes to spare.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until 8 November (no show on Thursday – sold out Friday and Saturday)

Photos: Jean Louis Fernandez

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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