Argentine Dance and Drama in NYC

January 20, 2009

The first thing that struck me about Guillermina Quiroga’s “Tango, Historias Breves” (Short Stories) Saturday, January 17th at NYU’s Skirball Center was the scent of the audience: Porteño.  I spent much of last year living and learning tango in Buenos Aires, so the presence of colognes and perfumes popular there immediately triggered nostalgia and excitement. Porteños (denizens of the Argentine capital) seriously know their tango.  I figured such a savvy-scented audience must portend good things about the show.

This expectation was not disappointed. The connections between the couples were authentic and strong. The musicality was deeply felt and passionately conveyed.  Complicated arrastres (in which a dancer’s foot encounters that of his or her partner and sweeps it along with its step) showed off particularly clearly the precision of these dancers’ footwork.  These were consistently concise, often en l’aire, and not a hair outside their place in the music. The gyros (turns) were exhilarating. The secadas (in which a dancer displaces his or her partner’s leg by stepping into its place) were graceful. The boleos (when the leg is carried by momentum to transcribe an oval either behind or in front of the dancer, depending on the direction of the momentum) were sensuous. The ganchos (“hooks,” in which dancers hook their leg around their partner in various positions) were exact. These have to be specifically placed and timed to avoid disrupting the other dancer. They were that, sometimes teasing (like playing footsies with thighs) and sometimes gripping (aesthetically and literally, in that many lifts depend on the woman’s holding on/balancing herself with a leg hooked around a part of her partner).

The music, mostly performed live by the on-stage Cacho Acuña Quartet and singer Hernan Frizzera, combined with the smell was powerfully transporting to my favorite tango halls in Buenos Aires. All of the tango itself was entirely up to the standards set by an expectant audience of tango aficionados.

But there is nevertheless a curious sense of exaggeration when an essentially social and improvised dance form is transposed to the concert stage, and I occasionally found that distracting.  Danced in its natural setting (milongas, dance halls/gatherings devoted to tango), there is no choreography. There are few milongas in which lifts, jumps, or showy extensions (which are furiously disruptive to the other couples on most dance floors), are not taboo. And there is no narrative other than the answer of the two dancers to the music and each other. Yet I admire Guillermina Quiroga’s vision and ambition in facing this challenge in conception and staging, and have not seen it done better. Quiroga wove Historias Breves around poems (“Which is the most to blame, she who sins for payment or he who pays to sin?” asks Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, on whose words the second piece was based) and questions of humanity’s relation to destiny, God, and each other. “Historias de Tres” (Stories of Three), in which the patterns and permutations of four dancers represent the relations between Two Lovers, Another Man, and Fate, was especially well conceived and executed. Nevertheless, I would have loved to have seen work that broke more free of the archetypes of (to my very fortunate perspective) out-dated gender politics and tragic romance in which men and women are usually doomed to cycles of seduction, submission, temptation, and betrayal. 

That said, it is surely impossible to divorce the sense of melancholy from tango. To Quiroga’s credit, she also acknowledged the lighter side of life with the inclusion of “Festejando” (Celebrating), which depicts a wedding party celebrated by dancing couples who appeared happy together. While this piece parodied certain clichés of Porteño culture, it seemed to allow that culture and the tango idiom to pursue beauty and happiness sin tragedia.  Having many friends in Buenos Aires, I found that uplifting, and overall enjoyed the evening immensely!