Monday, 25 June 2012

Eleanor Powell

Eleanor Powell (1912 – 1982) grew up as a ballet dancer and gymnast, but found work hard to get, so she took up tap and became one of the most successful US tap dancers, starring with Fred Astaire in a couple of 1940s films, like Broadway Melody. Because she came from the aerial style of ballet and gymnastics, she found that learning tap wasn't easy, and according to IMDb '...she learned to tap by wearing army surplus belts with sandbags attached, to ground herself.'

Well, a good many Profesors de Tango Argentino also come from a ballet and gymnast tradition, and even seem to regard it as a recommendation for teaching tango. Maybe we need to start an international fund to buy them army surplus belts with sandbags attached, so they too can learn to be grounded, and leave that aerial style outside the milonga.

PS: Just how athletic she was, just how much she needed those sandbags, might be clear from this, but the action doesn't start until about 1.30. & an incredible sense of timing, too.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Profesors de Tango Argentino!

Google threw this site at me while I was looking for something else. Wonderful! Did you know that with just 450 hours of theoretical and practical courses in France (and a quick visit to Buenos Aires as well!) YOU TOO could become a Profesor de Tango Argentino, with a Diploma to prove it! Sadly, I can't afford it, but I think we should all look out for those Profesors de Tango Argentino with their Diplomas.
So we can do a quick 'giro', maybe with the tiniest 'voleo', and then an urgent 'caminata' in the opposite direction...
Seriously, though, isn't it sad? Worse, it's a scam. Or... well, maybe not. After all, yes, you could learn some stage choreography in 450 hours, and you could learn how to pass it on, too. But at the end of 450 hours, could you dance tango! (Technically it's a question and should have a question mark, but it's a joke, so it has to have an exclamation mark.)
I'm pretty sure there are schemes like this in Buenos Aires too. & it's a terrifying prospect for the future of tango, all those Profesors with their Diplomas. Hopefully, no one will take them seriously, but you never know.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The controversy

The recent arguments on Tango UK about classes have been a source of entertainment to many of us. This blog was mentioned in flattering terms, but the reference might have suggested that I agree with the views of one of the participants, which I don't. I thought of replying, but Tango UK is intended as a listing and it's been a bit swamped with controversy recently.
I don't agree that classes are evil, futile and a waste of money. Not all classes, anyway. Some no doubt are useless and misleading, and it's obviously a problem for beginners, who have to come to grips with a new kind of social dancing, unfamiliar music, and a layer of hype, as well as the misinformation from TV dancing series. But just because some of the best social dancers of Buenos Aires, born some seventy and more years ago, never attended classes, isn't quite proof that therefore we should avoid classes. From an early age they were passionate about the music and the dance, they grew up in a tango environment and they've also had a lifetime of dance, which no doubt explains their dancing, rather than the fact that they never went to formal classes. 
I realised early on that being taught 'figures' and learning to dance weren't quite the same thing, although figures can be a starting point for learning to dance, but no more than a starting point. I went to every class available, simply because there was always something useful there: in fact that is how I came across a class with Ricardo Vidort, which gave me an idea of the tango of Buenos Aires, and that's what I followed. With tango classes as with anything else it's 'caveat emptor'. There are people out there who will take your money in return for something that looks good on the surface, but isn't much use in social dance. & there are people who'll inspire you with the warmth and openness of tango and the tango culture, too.
I found pre-milonga classes useful when I was less certain of myself at milongas, not so much for what was taught but because that was where I could find out who I might approach for a dance – and who I knew I should avoid. There are classes before many of the traditional milongas in Buenos Aires too, and they are also a good opportunity to find who might look in your direction when the dancing starts. The classes there are more likely to be attuned to the social dance of the milongas: they'll probably begin with simple walking and warm-up exercises, and give plenty of time to actual dancing. A simple figure will be taught, often with possible variations, so it's less like a rigid choreography. These sessions are more like relaxed practicas than high-powered choreography classes: low-key and enjoyable, they are a good beginning to an evening, especially if you're a visitor. Hopefully classes like these will become more common and popular in the UK.
For me, one valuable thing came out of the debate: Andrew RYSER SZYMAÑSKI's recollections. 'I remember when Susanna Miller & Cacho Dante came to London [1995?] they caused a furore, ostensibly because they danced so close. They gave a few classes, not a lot compared to the numbers now being peddled by a plethora of gurus, local & imported - but they changed, in a few weeks, the way tango was danced in the UK. Susanna was no step-merchant, and I can safely say that in one general class with her I learned more than in 20 with Gavito. Actually she was a newcomer to tango at the time, but she had the knack of picking Cacho's brains for all he knew as a seasoned milonguero.' 
Wish we could get Cacho back to London! 

PS: ...and, yes, a lot of good sense was talked on all sides, too. There was probably a lot more agreement than was apparent from the war of words, as so often happens!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


Carablanca has another extended evening, with guest DJ La Rubia from Argentina. Dancing 8 - 2.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Nur Du and Viktor

I've been looking forward to Nur Du since late last summer when I managed to book just before it sold out.
Pina Bausch met Tete in Plaza Doriego one Sunday afternoon in 1994, when he would dance with anyone, and she suddenly found herself dancing Argentine tango. She decided to include tango in Nur Du, and invited Tete and his new teaching partner Silvia to Germany in 1995 to teach her company. When the piece was performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Pina danced with Tete on stage.
There's actually only one tango in Nur Du. No doubt she could have watched social tango for five minutes and remembered enough to teach her cast, but she respected the dance and invited them to teach it. Dancers are 'movement junkies' as someone said, and the experience of tango isn't quite like any other dance, so it extends the vocabulary, so to speak. & no doubt she knew the stage tango, 'tango fantasia', pioneered as a stage show by Copes to such acclaim in Europe in the 1980s, and it must have pleased her to show social tango, 'real world tango'.
Nur Du is made up of moments, the longest perhaps no more than a few minutes. A succession of moments, poignant, funny, absurd, breathtaking. In subdued light, a woman dances to a sorrowful blues, then the lights come up and she wanders around desperately seeking for the exit as another woman recalls the routines she used to perform in high school as a cheerleader. The two overlap, comment on each other. Perhaps then (I can't remember the sequence) a man and a woman stand on a chair (lots of chairs in Pina Bausch), he holds her carefully by the hair, she steps forwards off the chair, suspended by her hair, and is lowered gently to the ground. Perhaps that was followed by a sequence I remembered from the film: a man, desperate on the floor, and when his friend returns he flings himself half way across the stage into his arms. There is no plot, no story-line. So how did something so fragmentary hold together? There seems to be a very clear control of time, a sculpting of time (Tarkovsky's phrase), and of emotion too. You suddenly notice there's been no laughter for a while. There are moments of intense activity, then subdued intense passages. The perception of time is manipulated.
But most of all I thought that the fragments are held together by the dancers themselves. Pina Bausch said she was not interested in how dancers moved but by what moved them. You can imagine many very accomplished dancers being turned away in favour of those that Pina found truly interesting, and she made work out of their creativity, anxieties, fears, probably their dreams and nightmares. (Picasso is supposed to have said: 'Many people painted apples. But what is interesting about Cezanne's apples is Cezanne's anxieties'.) Her method was to seek out what was interesting in her dancers, so essentially they are not performing roles dictated by the choreographer, ('Romeo', 'The Sleeping Beauty', 'the Black Swan'), they are given the opportunity to be themselves, and at the curtain call you look on them as people you have met that evening, remarkable people you were very privileged to spend three hours with.
Nur Du had a number of dance sequences. I saw another of her long pieces, Viktor, a few evenings earlier. It's also fragmentary and episodic, with less dance in any conventional sense: Viktor is the only contemporary piece I've seen in which the women wear heels, the men shoes, throughout. It's quite a dark piece, it seems to highlight the way men tend to treat women. It also has wonderfully absurd and comic moments: an auction of live dogs, for instance. Two live sheep are led on stage at one point, and the first part ends with a real on-stage mess: earth, sawdust, broken biscuit and a slice of veal, probably more. (The veal? The dancer in the film who puts veal into her ballet shoes: that's a sequence from Viktor.) For the most part the dancers aren't dancing in a conventional sense, they are 'performers'. 
There's more obvious dance in Nur Du; the tango (Mariposita) memorably warm and familiar, but other sequences, two men staggering around all over the stage holding a heavy table with one hand and a glass in the other, laughing and shouting: it's not dance as you know it, but it demands the strength and co-ordination of dancers to do it. Her performers are frequently put to the extreme, but that's the nature of dance. In one instant, out of nowhere, a man walks on stage with a chair and stands by the seat. Then in one extraordinary sideways leap, he's over the seat, clears the back of the chair, and is standing at the back of the chair. Blink and you miss it. I still can hardly believe I saw it. A quick point, something that wakens, energises, your perception. 

Two performances, two standing ovations. 
There's an interesting piece on Pina's work here. It's from the company's website, which also includes a link to the LONDONblog, a day-by-day account of the visit, in English and with photos.   

P.S.  WARNING: this performance includes smoking. (Notice outside Barbican auditorium.) 

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Three voices

Sitting at a London milonga with two friends who have recent experience of Buenos Aires. It wasn't a great night; not a lot of people there and the dancing looked scrappy, bouncing around like clothes in a washing machine, to requote another friend's immortal comparison.
'When we got to Buenos Aires we were really saddened, frustrated, to find that the tango we learned in London wasn't the tango danced in the milongas there. What we'd learned was a simulation of tango, taught by show dancers. We just sat and watched. It was so amazing to watch those older dancers, how much dance they can fit into the space, how smoothly they do those endless turns!'
'& this is what we see when we get back!' We laugh – but it's not meant dismissively. It's just... what we're watching doesn't really look like tango! OK, it's tango, but not as we know it.
'The whole experience is so different. People come here for a fun night out... They have fun there too, but it's really different.'
'It's really part of their lives there, it's a real force, tango is a passion there. They really enjoy it and they are really serious about it too.'
'& their whole lives, half a century of life in Argentina, are wrapped up in it too. When you dance with an Argentine you really don't know just what experiences you are embracing.'
'Well, it's not our culture, not our music, but it's great people come here and enjoy themselves with this music.'
'& then we met Silvia, and we were really impressed by her. She left us both feeling pretty down about our tango: she leaves you with the feeling you have to start all over again. But that's great: that's what you need.'
'It's the guys here who need to change, and they are most resistant to change. We need teachers like Myriam and Silvia here.'
'& Muma.'
'One problem, there's just so much tango in London; a milonga one week can be quite different the following week because different people turn up. There's not so much continuity of community, at least in central London milongas. Perhaps that's one reason  why milongas outside London have a better reputation; there's more consistency.'
'& now you get teachers who claim to teach 'milonguero' – with no real connection with the Buenos Aires milongas and the people who dance in them. They come over here and teach something they call 'estilo milonguero'! Using the name to make money. 'Milonguero' has become a buzz-word here, and it's really sad we never get anyone in London who really has long experience of the milongas. But they might not be popular. They'd be speaking an unfamiliar language to many. They'd want to get people to do basic things, to walk well... people who already know dozens of giros with lapizes, saccadas and voleos! & even worse: they'd expect people to really listen to the music and dance with it.'
'It's not our culture, not our music. It's becoming part of our culture but it'll never be our culture like it's the culture, history, the life story of Buenos Aires. The music speaks to us, but not really the poetry. Tango song and music is everyone's experience there, even though not so many people dance it.'
'Traditions renew themselves or they die off, but we shouldn't assume that therefore we can ignore the culture as it is over there today. Ignoring all those years of experience doesn't make sense. It'd be so great to have a flow of visitors here who have lived their lives with the milongas...'