Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; November 7, 2014

Stuart Sweeney

Akram Khan and Israel Galván in 'Torobaka'.  Photo © Jean Louis Fernandez

Akram Khan and Israel Galván in ‘Torobaka’.
Photo © Jean Louis Fernandez

Nearly a decade ago, Akram Khan ‘s collaboration with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui created the memorable “zero degrees”. Indeed Khan’s entire career has been based on crossing boundaries and exploring new techniques as he achieved high levels in his studies of both kathak and contemporary dance, and then created his own style fusing the two disciplines. Following “zero degrees” both artists have pursued further collaborations and toured them around the world, but whereas Cherkaoui has enjoyed much acclaim in this direction, Khan’s success has been more varied.  Thus it was especially rewarding to see him return to a high level of achievement in his partnership with Israel Galván in “Torobaka”.

The possible links between kathak and flamenco have been debated: some placing more weight on the Romani link; others on the Persian influence on the two dance forms; and some on a Muslim cultural link. No doubt the debate will continue (there is more in this paper for those interested). Nevertheless, whatever the sources, there are clearly stylistic links with rapid footwork and whirling spins common to both dance forms.

“Torobaka” opens with the five musicians and the two dancers looking out at the audience from the back of the dimly lit stage, perhaps suggesting a new beginning and the programme provides some clues about the search for language, underlined by Galván’s wordless cries. As the two dancers encounter each other there is humour as they puzzle about the other’s actions. While their opening duet shows much promise, Galván was at an apparent disadvantage in bare feet alongside Khan. However for his first solo Galván had his boots, the machine gun bursts of his footwork showing his mastery of Flamenco while his arm and body movement and continued non-verbal sounds showing how he could move away from a traditional format. Most remarkable were his heel spins that matched even Khan’s fierce rotational speed.

 

In Khan’s first solo he was on all fours with his hands in boots tapping beats on the floor. But clearly this was a frustrating situation, as he tapped his head on the stage. When he stood, the boots stayed on and though the arms movements were as fluent as ever, I longed to see his hands. Eventually, the footwear came off and we could revel in the gorgeous shapes that his hands carved in the air. Perhaps that was the point of the exercise to emphasis the crucial part that the hands play in kathak.

The music provided a rich mix of European and Indian styles with percussion on tabla and drums supporting three singers. In the middle of “Torobaka”, the musicians take centre stage with a mix of songs and even some traditional flamenco dance from singer Bobote. David Azzura’s fine tenor voice was combined with Christine Leboutte’s remarkable baritone singing the lower parts in their duets.

As the programme notes describe this was not an attempt to turn Galván into a kathak dancer nor Khan into a flamenco one, but the two found ways to make the ensemble sections work while preserving their own movement vocabularies. Khan mostly danced in more of a pure kathak style than I have seen from him recently, his speed and fluency bringing back memories of his early solos in small venues around London. Galván pushed the limits of flamenco with his arms sometimes like a bull, the ‘toro’ in the title; ‘baka’ means cow perhaps referring to Khan’s solo described above. More crucially than any metaphors, these two fine artists inspired each other to fresh heights.