The truth in the cliché: it really does take two to tango. The dance may be athletic, the moves flick-knife sharp, the attitude so haughty it hurts – but tango is all about the relationship between the dancers. The synchronizing of those kicks, the cliff-edge excitement of the lifts, the torque of those turns: they are all an expression of the emotional energy zipping between the partners.
The tango dancers in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s touring production are probably the best you will see in or outside Buenos Aries. They stalk, spin and posture with a relentless precision and conviction until you start to believe they are a different race from the rest of us – or at least that their limbs are differently attached. Cherkaoui is half Flemish, half Moroccan and famous for his collaborative dance projects. Here the choreography credit in the programme goes to the Argentinian dancers as well as to the director and there is no doubting that we are seeing the real thing in all its dangerous extremity.
Against a dark, faintly dusty backdrop, the fine detail of the dancers’ movement demands every ounce of attention. Add in the superb live band led by musical director Fernando Marzan and there is a risk of sensory overload. In order to really experience those heart-wrenching strings, that sobbing bandoneon, I found myself closing my eyes then pinging them open again at the thought of missing a moment of that addictive visual sensuality.
But if tango is an intense expression of a partnership, what happens when you have twelve dancers on stage and a full-length evening show? Can tango sustain that scale of production – or is more going to end up being a dilution rather than a development?
Cherkaoui’s show does not attempt to add narrative to the dance. Latin passion ebbs and flows in partnerships of two and three but there is little attempt to engage us in character or story. Instead he piles on the excitement with clever use of projection and fly-by film of downtown Buenos Aries against which the dancers play out their brief encounters. Exciting and clever the first time, the device was less engaging when it came around again in the second half.
More interestingly, this show plays with ideas about the nature of the dance itself. Milonga means a tango dance party and there are several evocations of that brooding atmosphere where couples dance out their relationship in company and yet within their own intensely private space.
The first dance of the evening is a classic encounter between man and woman, moving so sinuously in the dark that it seems they are floating in water. Later comes an enchanting dance between three shirt-sleeved men; and then a moving exploration of the relationship between one man and two women.
One scene follows another in seamless sequence. Couples sit at restaurant tables-for-two while another pair carry out their mating dance in the foreground. In a telling stage effect, images of the dancers are projected onto cut-out white figures so that the dancers seem to be observing themselves. And multiple projections of the live dancers spill across a screen in super-lifesize, putting every flicker under the microscope.
This is more than pretty pattern-making. Tango is an external manifestation of things we normally keep under wraps: sexuality and extremes of emotion are codified into moves that thrill and shock but keep on the right side of decency. Milonga shows us not only the dance itself but our reaction to it. The personal and the public become confused and the dance’s eroticism is energised by a shiver of voyeurism.
Guest Reviewer: Julie Morrice