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Flash Review, 6-1: History
Ass-hugging Skirts, Plunging Cleavages, Crippling Stilettos -- and Authentic Dancing from Tango por Dos

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2006 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Tango has had so many re-inventions and revivals world-wide, that you might expect it to have lost some of its original Argentinean 'pizzazz' and become a light-weight tourist attraction. Not a bit, at least as demonstrated by Tango por Dos's "La Historia," seen May 25 during a limited run at the Peacock theatre in central London.

Under the directorship of Miguel Angel Zotto, tango choreographer, dancer extraordinaire and internationally famed teacher, Tango por Dos, fresh from Buenos Aires, traces the colorful history of tango, right up to the present. 16 dancers, six musicians and two singers showcase the movements, dancers, teachers and musicians crucial to the development of tango since its inception in the late 19th century. The first act of "La Historia" consists of extracts from the company's previous shows, while in the second Zotto pays homage to composers Astor Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer, and experiments with some previously unseen modern sequences of tango.

An actor who introduces the first act, and talks about the main players in the history of tango, makes for a lame beginning to this otherwise dazzling and seductive show. The first duo stars Zotto himself with the impressive Carina Calderon, who simply move with tango inscribed all over their bodies. In these first few minutes the intense appeal of tango is enough to win over even the most English, cynical members of the audience. Passion in bucketfuls is mixed with astounding technical precision and absolute control. The satisfying shapes that are made by the bodies of this man and woman as they hold their upper torsos fiercely upright, while their legs move below like highly efficient tools, make this riveting movement to watch. On these two experienced bodies, and indeed on all the dancers, steps, gestures and emotions are compactly performed; each partnership seems to move so perfectly in sync, that even where the couples look physically different they dance as one body. While the male traditionally leads in tango, here both men and women hold the same amount of power and charisma whatever the subtext.

Different historical trends of tango are captured through film, costume, technique and music. For example, the original tango danced only by men to attract the attention of women; the simple, unfrilly traditional tango of the early 1900s; the languid glamor of the '30s style; the American-influenced tango invented by Hollywood and performed by the likes of Rudolph Valentino and Natasha Ramboya; the light-hearted playful tango; 'back-to-front' tango which emerged from improvisation in Buenos Aires in the '40s; and the tango danced in Parisian nightclubs in the '40s. Other scenes recall the 'milongas' (tango clubs) of Buenos Aries in the '50s. Each episode seamlessly flows into the next.

Music, of course, is the core of tango, and in this production is as sophisticated as the choreography. Soulful or playful tangos are sung by Maria Jose Mentana and Claudio Garces; instrumental compositions, interpreted by pianist German Gonzalo Martinez, first violinist Alejandro Schaikis and first bandoneon player Pocho Palmer show just how talented every artist seems to be. During Act I, the musicians play on a balcony above the dancers, which emphasizes the significance of their presence and is an effective way of integrating the music with the dance.

As each dance unfolds, the forceful character of Argentinean tango makes its impact, from the slow, 'stalking' tango walks to the languorous leans and slides between couples, to the awesomely fast, sharp stabbing of limbs to the gentle enveloping of one partner's body by the other's limbs. Legs and feet are used as knives, slicing through space, as levers to balance on a partner or as tentacles to trap a partner. This is the real thing. While some of the time dancers perform cheek to cheek, at other moments they are less close but still cover an impressive terrain of extreme emotions. From love to hatred, from cool to impassioned, these physical conversations make for compulsive viewing. ŠIn the more modern and experimental tangos, as the dancers gain confidence they seem to fly through the air and their footwork is dizzying with its tempo and articulation. As an audience member sometimes I just want to stand up and shout because this is such damned good entertainment.

The Act II tribute to Piazzolla and Ferre offers many highly charged and fabulous moments and the dancers give their best, but the look is more commercial and for me less engaging than Act I. Some of the costumes here verge on the ridiculous and degrade the women. For example, in an homage to the bandoneon, one woman appears wearing nothing but a huge bandoneon, and of course is manipulated shamelessly by her macho partner.

Tango relies on stereotypical gender coding, men and women representing exaggerated versions of themselves in their stance, make-up, hairstyles and costumes. At times it looks even tacky -- the slit ass-hugging skirts, plunging cleavages, and crippling stilettos -- but when dancers portray this amount of expertise and chutzpah the clichés inherent to tango merely increase its charm. No wonder middle-class professionals in London are forsaking the gym and running to the tango dance floor instead.



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