The Gypsies’ Dance
By JONATHAN BLITZER
International audiences know Galván best for bringing flamenco into a worldlier register. Now, he has created a program as bracing — and important — for its subject matter as for its choreography: Earlier this month at Madrid’s Teatro Real, Galván debuted “Lo Real/Le Réel/The Real,” about the half million Gypsies who were murdered in the Holocaust. Dance lovers are not the only ones who should be taking heed.
The plight of the Roma and the Sinti peoples — known collectively as the Gypsies, a misnomer that has stuck — under the Nazis is still regrettably obscure. And their continuing woes throughout Europe are a glaring reminder that prejudice is still alive on the Continent.
In Hungary, the rightist Jobbik party, playing to populist bigotry, has instigated violence against the Roma. Some regions of Italy toyed with so-called “Nomad Emergency” legislation, which paved the way for a rash of evictions, until that was declared unlawful by a national court. In 2010, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France unapologetically deported about 1,000 Roma. And in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany, discrimination in public education consigns young Roma to life on the margins from an early age.
Galván’s show brings back into view the grim history behind these present slights. In 1938, Heinrich Himmler, head of the S.S., ordered Gypsies herded into concentration camps. It wasn’t until 1982, however, that the German government recognized the carnage against them as an attempted genocide. Last October, after years of delays because of artistic and financial hitches, the German government erected a memorial to the Roma in Berlin, designed by the Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan.
“Lo Real” goes much further, by staging without flinching how the Nazis’ violence played out personally and physically.
The show’s music, which ranges from popular forms like granaína and malagueña to a fandango-inflected arrangement of Antony and The Johnsons’ “Hitler in My Heart,” gives voice to diverse expressions of suffering. At one point Eduardo Bianco’s elegiac tango “Plegaria” plays over the words of the Romanian poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue.”
Galván also pushes flamenco to its corporeal limits. Rhythmic stamps and thrusts, trilling hand gestures and expansive spins eventually fray and splinter on stage, calling attention to the torturers’ perverse admiration of the tradition. At times, Galván’s body seems to be warring with itself, lashed by torment but bent on liberation.
Flamenco is an especially poignant form for such exploration. The musical traditions of the Roma vary along regional lines, but Spanish flamenco, originating in Andalucía, has become particularly emblematic. “The Nazis were fascinated by the music and dance traditions of the gitanos,” Pedro Romero, the show’s artistic director, told me, referring to the Gypsies.
The filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, a propagandist for the Third Reich, directed, acted and danced in a 1943 film called “Tiefland,” which used Central European Gypsies as extras: They were taken from concentration camps — returned there after filming and later killed. In “Lo Real,” Galván recasts Riefenstahl in a lurid cameo from beyond the grave. Played by dancer Isabel Bayón, she strides across the stage in a prurient sashay, pushing around a high-beam spotlight on wheels.
In the first part of the program, Galván and the dancer Belén Maya demolish a rectangular wooden box that resembles a piano. Then, they pull it apart across the stage. Five cords emerge, still affixed to both ends of the box: They look like the barbed wires of a fence, around a ghetto or concentration camp. But they also look like the lines of a musical staff.
In an arresting solo, Maya then entangles herself in the cords. It seems like an act of bondage, yet in her acrobatic writhing, she also incarnates musical notes pinging on the staff. Each movement of her body sounds before our eyes.
This is music borne of a body’s suffering. Watching that pain on stage, against the backdrop of continued discrimination against the Gypsies, it is impossible not to listen.