A cow and bull story

A cow and bull story

dance quest

A cow and bull story

Incised into the stage by an unrelenting pool of red light, the bullring has a life of its own in Torobaka. To inhabit it is to consent to a precarious state. Entering this charged space, Akram Khan and Israel Galván are at fever pitch from the word go.

Percussive rhythm is the language they share, and they plumb its depths, pitting ghunghroos against steel-capped flamenco boots. Both are fast movers; Khan is compact, with a propensity for rounded corners, while Galván is angular, his knife-edged body language sharpened on the wheel of irony.

Locking their heads in combat, they are a defining image. Yet, Torobaka is anything but a battle. It was recently staged in six Indian cities as part of The Park’s New Festival. Kathak and Flamenco have intersecting genealogies. Yet, in dealing with forms that are at once similar and disparate, collaborative work usually skims the surface of this relationship, vesting great significance in rhythm and bravado as they are presently manifested in Kathak and Flamenco, thus losing the opportunity to delve deeper.

Seeking meaning

What Khan and Galván share is the desire to find personal meaning in their chosen idioms. Khan has not-so-fond memories of playing the tabla for tuneless aunts who sang through the night, and fonder ones of bunking high school to rehearse in the garage, where he danced Kathak for 10 hours a day. During this time, he made the distinction between “information” that came from the head and the “knowledge” he was unearthing in his body.

Kathak was his world, and it was with some shock and awe that he discovered contemporary dance, specifically, the work of Pina Bausch and the physically integrated dance company DV8 a few hours before a college interview. Through the act of choreography, he examines “what makes us human, pushing us to the boundaries of complete animal behaviour.”

For Khan, Kathak is not a “form”. “Classical dance is imprisonment, one that gives me ritual, discipline and devotion. It is a good thing, because I won’t know what freedom is until I experience imprisonment. Kathak is my religion,” he solemnly declares at a lecture in Mumbai.

Galván regards flamenco with the same gravity. In an online interview, he remarks, “Flamenco is a dance form where you leave a little of your life behind in each dance.” Born to flamenco dancers, he grew up in the theatres of Seville. His flamenco technique is impeccable, but that wasn’t enough. In his mid-20s, Galván started seeking an individual style. His family didn’t view these attempts kindly — in another interview, Galván’s father recalls sneaking out of the theatre after watching his son’s experimental work, his face covered to avoid recognition.

The process of working on Torobaka began when a common acquaintance suggested that Khan and Galván work together. Khan recalls an apologetic Galván entering his studio to tell him, “When I dance, I will stab you; then I will stab the audience,” alluding to the shared cultural attitudes of bullfighting and flamenco. With no spoken language in common, Khan and Galván had to draw on other resources to communicate. They were often lost in translation, making Torobaka, as Khan puts it, “a collection of misunderstandings.”

The name ‘Torobaka’ came from a Maori-inspired phonetic poem by Tristan Tzara, splitting into ‘toro’ (bull) and ‘vaca’ (cow). Given the bull’s symbolic connotations to flamenco culture, it seemed inevitable for Khan to don the mantle of the cow. But this was exactly the kind of trajectory he sought to avoid. The dancers chose not to follow a narrative, instead opting to build on the “series of accidents” that ensued during rehearsal time to create a 70-minute, plotless “celebration of dance.”

Their time on stage is carefully orchestrated. Rhythm is the medium of exchange, hammered out on body parts, one’s own and each other’s, and in the thunderous footwork common to both forms. It is used to make a point, to drown out contending sounds and occasionally, to complement. Galván holds his own in a solo, spewing a stream of words at the mic while his feet pound the floor. He retreats and then charges at the mic with ferocious intensity. The four musicians, percussionist Manjunath B C, singers David Azurza Aramburu and Christine Leboutte and palmero Jose Jimenez Santiago ‘Bobote’, bolster the evening from their spots on the periphery of the bullring.

Power-packed performance

Torobaka is part untrammelled displays of virtuosity, part segue into the long, exhausting process of getting to know each other. Occasionally, one tunes out of the “celebration”; there are moments that go on too long, till they seem like trifling asides, stretched too thin in performance. One finds consolation, however, in the constant, hyper-aware, hair-standing-on-end energy Khan and Galván carry in their eyes.

With Khan and Galván both at the height of their careers, the making of Torobaka is well-documented. Watching the slickly edited documentaries that follow its creative process, one begins to comprehend the joy of making — and more importantly — the uncertainties, disappointments and dead ends that trail in its wake. There are no enduring answers, but Khan and Galván find promise, and a premise in these disappointments and ruptures.

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