Michael Huls lighting design, so associated with his frequent collaborator Russell Maliphant, creates shapes that do not require a “set”. They establish their own meaning and can be quickly and elegantly shifted in a way that no physical set could. In his work with Maliphant, drawing from the traditions of classical ballet, Huls uses a language of straight lines and right angles. For this collaboration between Flamenco choreographer and dancer Israel Galván and the contemporary choreographer Akram Khan, who trained in the kathak tradition, it seems entirely appropriate that Huls has chosen a circular space.
The circle represents an arena and the combative nature of the movement is apparent from the start. The name of the piece derives from the Spanish words for bull (toro) and cow (vaca) and the circular arena reflects the bull ring, which has its own violent logic: there can only be one dominant male in this arena. The battling that Khan and Galván engage is one of the most ancient anthropological purposes of dance and there are modern day equivalents, such as b-boying competitions (also using a circular arena, often established by movement). Each movement has a parry or a response. It’s not enough to simply imitate your opponent. You need to show him what you can do and to raise him each turn.
This creates a perfect structure for Galván and Khan’s project. There are established links between the flamenco and kathak traditions, thanks to Spain’s Romani population who would have arrived from India via the Middle East in the 14th and 15th Century. These connections, reinforced by the music which finds tonalities blending classical Indian chant with Spanish sacred music, were not enough to get Khan excited about the project. It would not be enough, he is quoted as saying in the programme, to simply point that these connections or to imitate one another’s styles. This had been done before.
Instead, we see Galván exploring the language of kathak while Khan does the same with flamenco. Of course, neither is trying to dance as the other could dance but to find a kind of mutant mongrel form that only they could achieve with their own specific background and skills. There’s a specific quality to the sound of each dancer’s feet as well with Galván in heels and Khan wearing the ghungroo (bells) associated with kathak. The sharpness of the heel on the floor is in sharp contrast to the soft and resonant bells and Khan ends up in a placatory role to the more obviously aggressive Galván. His seems to be a float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee philosophy.
There are lighter moments than this intense combat might imply, kind of comedic interludes where we find Galván or the musicians on the edge of the space, as if giving variety sideshows. It’s a relief that the domineering, super macho Galván also clearly has a sense of humour and a slightly twisted one at that. As a collaboration, it’s a fascinating one to watch and really made me feel much more excited about flamenco as a form than I’ve ever been before. If you’re familiar with Khan’s work, don’t go thinking you know what to expect. Galván is the real star. He demands to be watched at all times and his movement, on the knife edge between flamboyant camp and violent camp is astonishing to watch. For Khan to hold is own in that bull ring is impressive enough.