You happen upon it almost by accident. Tucked away in a corner of the Tiergarten in Berlin, close to the Brandenburg Gate, sits a tranquil pool. It invites contemplation and a moment of reflection – but the large glass panels which run alongside it, inscribed with a timeline of facts, are anything but peaceful. Opened in October 2012, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism documents the mistreatment and murder of half a million people during the Holocaust. It’s a fairly safe bet that many of the people reading those panels, myself included, were learning about their fate for the first time.
Two months after that monument opened, flamenco choreographer and dancer Israel Galván delivered his own tribute to the gypsies who found themselves on Hitler’s list of undesirables. His reason for creating Lo Real, however, had little to do with their lack of historical prominence – it was far closer to home.
“Until recently, there was not much known about them as a group – they had not been recognised,” he says. “But I didn’t create this because there hasn’t been a lot talked about it, I did it because it’s very close to me. This touches me personally, because my mother is a gypsy. And even though I performed the piece in 2012, the idea started in 2010 – a time when there was a re-emergence of the ultra right.”
Back then, Galván decided that although the subject matter is brutal and tragic, the delivery need not be. Joined onstage by a large group of musicians and singers, and two fellow dancers, he wanted joy, rather than pain, to be the defining emotion. Alongside original music created for the show, Galván uses the Antony and the Johnsons’ song, Hitler in my Heart – a key line from which is “from the corpses, flowers grow” – a sentiment which chimes with Galván’s vision.
“My intention was to depict the deaths of these people and how that happened – because it’s important that we don’t forget,” he says. “But at the same time, and more importantly, I wanted to pay tribute to them through happiness. I didn’t just want to portray sorrow in the piece, I wanted to show that yes, they can kill you and take the physical element, but joy and the soul, survive.”
Although there is no specific narrative in the piece, the metaphors speak loud and clear. In particular, a section in which Galván tries to give voice to those who were silenced, and those whose story has remained virtually untold for so long. For this, he uses a piano which, when you press the keys, makes no sound – so he reaches inside it.
“What I’m trying to bring out, from the innermost part of that piano, is its voice,” he says. “So I’m saying that even if they close your mouth – from inside, you can still have joy. And that’s something else that inspired me to produce this piece: the inner strength that human beings have to survive.”
Growing up in Seville, Galván says the movements and gestures he saw on the street were like “a never ending choreography”. His work is a direct result of living in one of the birthplaces of flamenco, where he was taught to dance from an early age by both parents.
“The way people talk in Seville, and the way they use their body to make gestures, is very specific to that area,” he says. “And I’ve tried to repeat everything I see and experience in Seville, ever since I was a child. If I hadn’t been born there, I wouldn’t have been able to create the work I do. I think it’s important for us to always carry our roots with us wherever we go, otherwise we’ll all be the same and we’ll lose our own identity. So I carry Seville inside of me.”
Flamenco is in Galván’s blood, it’s how he expresses himself – and for him, it was also the perfect vehicle for communicating the story of the Roma and Sinti people.
“Flamenco has a great deal of expression and blends really well with drama,” he says. “It is as though the flamenco singers and dancers can show with their soul what they are expressing.
“There is a lot of depiction of death in this piece, but there is a duality because flamenco also has a great deal of joy, so we change that sadness into happiness. It was also a way to pay tribute to the gypsies, because about 50 per cent of flamenco musicians and dancers are gypsies.”
In a twist of horrific irony, the movement and song of gypsy performers was popular with Hitler and his closest allies –something which Galván taps into during Lo Real. Part of his research for the piece involved watching the 1938 musical Carmen la de Triana, one of several Spanish-German films which glorified gypsies, made with enthusiastic support from the Führer.
Galván was especially interested in German filmmaker and dancer Leni Riefenstahl, whose rustic melodrama Tiefland (Lowlands) was made in 1941, while she was heavily involved in Nazi propaganda films. Tiefland used gypsies from central Europe as extras, most of whom were then taken straight to concentration camps and killed.
Riefenstahl denied knowledge of, or responsibility for, their deaths until the day she died in 2003. She was tried a number of times by various post-war authorities, but found to be a Nazi sympathiser rather than actively involved. A bank of evidence suggests otherwise, and lawsuits from pro-gypsy groups were pending right up until her death, aged 101.
Galván brings Riefenstahl back from the grave in Lo Real, portrayed by dancer Isabel Bayón. Pushing a large spotlight on wheels around the stage, Bayón goes on to dance one of Riefenstahl’s own solos, found by Galván in archive footage.
Research also came in the form of long conversations with the Jewish philosopher, art historian and good friend of Galván’s, Georges Didi-Huberman. Then, of course, there was that deeply personal connection.
“My parents are very religious,” explains Galván, “and many different groups of people were killed during the Holocaust – including lots of people who belonged to the same religion as my parents, so that also affected me. They used to talk to me about it when I was younger, because they didn’t want us to forget about what happened.”
Despite that, once he steps on stage, there is a part of Galván that has to be pushed aside: “I try to switch off my fear of death when I dance,” he says, “and even in the context of a terrible death, find joy when I am dancing.”
References to joy and happiness pepper everything Galván says about Lo Real – but what about his audience. Is there an expectation that we too will feel joy during the show?
“I don’t know how audiences will react,” he says. “But what I would like is that people will leave knowing or realising that human beings can go through difficult times, through crises and so on, and come out the other side.
“I would like them to see that even though they might not have money or might be going through a difficult time, there is still joy – and we are not dead, we are alive.”
l Lo Real , Festival Theatre, 19-21 August