Saturday, 29 November 2008

Tango and the city

The city seems to function well, in need of repair but operational. Pavements often need mending, but the roads are OK. Priorities. Guide books make jokes about the traffic, which is hectic but actually pretty orderly, and no worse-behaved than city traffic in Europe, although pollution is a problem. A ban on smoking in public places was introduced recently, and seems to be working well. Taxi drivers -- taxis here are saloon cars -- all seem to wear seat belts: perhaps a better record than minicab drivers in the UK...

I've been glad of every minute I spent listening to Spanish language tapes: people often know a bit of English, but some basic Spanish including numbers is really helpful, and once you have a bit you can build on it. But pronunciation isn't quite as in the language tapes. I knew that 'll' is pronounced somewhere between 'zh' and 'j' (you'll hear 'Cazhe Corrientes', Corrientes Street, in tango songs), but an odd one is 's' pronounced 'k': 'dos', two, sounds like 'dok'. '(Turn) left at the corner' sounds like 'ikkierda al ekkina'. I learnt 'esquina' for corner. 'Jo soy del barrio de tres ekkinas' you hear in the D'Agostino/Vargas song, 'I'm from the three-cornered barrio', well, triangular, I suppose. But he doesn't sing 'trek ekkinak', so I remain puzzled. Why 'dok' and not 'trek'?

Confiteria Ideal is the famous old cafe and milonga, familiar to anyone who saw Tango Salon on the BBC a few years ago, with Geraldine and Javier, and some older dancers and denizens of the milonga. The upstairs, where the programme was filmed, no longer seems open. Downstairs is much the same, but is rather a tango tourist trap than a place where you see milongueros. But it's just down the road and Unitango was playing there last night, so I went around 11pm. I'm beginning to like the timetable. It makes sense: if you work you have time to eat and nap and go out for a few hours too.

'In need of repair but operational' also applies to the Ideal, a cavernous, dingy place, built when the city was one of the wealthiest in the world, the walls all mirrors and dark wood, teak I'd imagine, the floor slabs of marble. Four central marble pillars define the dance area, the rest is tables. Unlike El Beso there's no separation of men and women, not last night, anyway. Whole families at the tables. A few obvious tourists, but generally it seemed local, but more of a family party than a serious club. The disrepair is sad, actually a bit shocking: at some stage fluorescent strip lighting was screwed into the stucco mouldings on the ceiling, and then later ripped out, leaving holes in the ceiling and the dark traces left by the lights, and the ceiling is dull with decades of grime.

But the party at ground level was pretty lively. The dancing was hardly up to the level of the dancing at El Beso, but less intimidating too. There was the old porteno who drags young tourists onto the floor and gives them a taste of tango with his large midriff -- watch out, ladies, you wouldn't want to be tangoed: a couple who I assumed were visiting tango teachers working on their ganchos, boleyos, barridas: dancers with various strange attitudes and complicated moves: three or four guys in their 30s, serious dancers, who moved very smoothly, a kind of dance I've heard described as 'nuevo milonguero', observing musicality and the close hold, but trying to extend the style and the range of steps: then there were some kids from a tango school who gave a demonstration and who later danced around pushing people out of the way. All in all much like a quiet night at Negracha.

& at last I got a dance. A young Argentinian woman at Oscar's class had kindly and patiently tried to help me get my milonga lead going, and she turned up at the Ideal. We got onto the floor, and after the first dance she laughed and laughed and said something like: 'How come you're such an idiot at milonga when you can dance tango like that?', and laughed some more. It really was a good dance. I'd watched her dancing earlier with one of the serious dancers, and seen how much straightforward walking they did, and how expressive it could be, so I stole that one and found it very useful. Apart from that I kept it simple, nothing I can't lead easily, as you do in another country, in public, and with someone you've not danced with before. & it seemed right.

An interesting thing: teachers often say that you dance in your own axis, which can't be true, because if you are in close-hold your feet would be too close together. If your feet are the usual foot's-length apart and your upper chests are together, there is a slight lean out of axis. The effect of this leaning together is a slight pressure, a tension, between the two bodies. I've experienced this in London, but hardly ever for the duration of a whole dance. We learn complicated figures in open-hold, rather than how to maintain connection in close-hold. But here that pressure is maintained – and it's equal. Her pressure on me is the same as mine on her. Leandro and Romina go on about 'holding your partner tight', but perhaps it isn't a tight hold, which could be inflexible and uncomfortable, it's a pressure from leaning, a weight that I suspect the follower even more than the leader has learnt to maintain. In an odd sort of way it is her control, too. In one way she's leading her partner on: go on, push me! But she could also use it to signal, to warn if she isn't comfortable. I've found a lot of partners dance close but without that pressure, and it's just not the same, tho' of course height is always a factor.

We think of dance as leaping, gravity-defying. Nureyev was said to hang in the air a little longer than seemed plausible, and I saw something like that in a dance in William Forsythe's Impressing the Czar at Sadler's Wells recently. But tango, traditional tango, seems to accept and work around gravity and weight.

So I left around 1.30, feeling good. By chance I'd got my first dance, four tangos with a good Buenos Aires partner, and to D'Agostino, music I know and like. It's a good beginning: I'm sure we'll dance again, and I've been seen dancing there, which could lead to more dances. But the 'cabeza', the eye-contact that leads to the nod that leads to the dance, is still a problem. The Ideal is big and the lighting isn't bright, so it's actually difficult to see where someone across the room is looking. But it's an interesting custom that has stood the test of time: it allows dancers to say no to each other, ever so discretely, just by avoiding eye-contact.

I walked home at 1.30am; the streets are narrow and not well lit, but there are people around, and traffic. In the wider streets people are sitting out finishing a coffee after eating, so it all feels perfectly safe.

Friday, 28 November 2008

El Beso

It's dark, and the sun should be up: I look out in the gloom and see the red tiles of the balcony shining. Rain, steady but gentle, washing away the dust, pollution and heat of the last few days. I open the laptop, my portal on the world, and find news of flash flooding in southern Brazil, but that must be 800km away.

So I went to El Beso, not expecting or even looking for a dance. Reassuring, and interesting too. Yes, the guys and the girls sit separately and get together for a dance. But it's very much a social evening. Drinks and a bit of food: the guys want to sit and chat with each other, and so do the ladies. By 1.30 it's thinning out, and only dancing couples are left. It'll probably go on for another hour or two. El Beso is small, it's a large room rather than a dance hall, with a warm, friendly feeling. Everyone knows everyone else, more or less. So my aim of coming here to dance whole nights away might not happen happen at El Beso, because tango here is part of a social event. People come to meet up and chat, and dance too. For a good evening here you need decent Spanish, and it helps to be a competent dancer. At least up until 1.30, when I left.

A few dancers stood out by their simple ease in moving, particularly their smooth turns, sweeping partners through gyros. Three older guys, two fairly heavily built, had that effortless dignity and energy that really stood out. & they were sought out by younger partners, who had effortless skills to match. But nothing ostentatious. One of the three older guys in fact was notably slow in moving round the floor: he just seemed to pick his way through the music in a different way. Apart from that, most couples looked good without looking as if they were totally part of the music. ' can we know/The dancer from the dance?' wrote WB Yeats, which seemed to apply to just a few couples. One couple had some new stuff, but it was fitted well into the close-hold, relaxed, dignified feel of dancing, and was noticed and approved by a couple of guys standing near me.

I didn't count the number of couples: the floor didn't look crowded but I know it was crowded enough to seem crowded when you're on it, and require constant attention to space and movement. I saw two couples bump and laugh it off, as you do among friends. & I didn't look for or get a dance; I felt as if in some kind of auction, where catching someone's eye by mistake means a public dance with someone with 20 years' experience when I've only got four. So I sat at the bar and drank a bottle of water and watched. I left around 11.30 and walked back. A warm evening, whole families strolling around, young kids in twos and threes, teenagers, all very unthreatening, lively and gentle. & inevitably, everywhere, the 'cartoneras', who move in on the rubbish of the day, sort through it, divide it into huge bundles and take it away. Recycling.

Thursday, 27 November 2008


Not only does every building have at least one radio/TV mast (& they must be between 30 and 50 metres high, and some much more) but you start to notice that every building is connected to every other building with cables: roof to roof, roof to ground, ground to roof, across the streets, a real city-wide web of cabling.

Before I came here I wondered about the outcome of this trip. The unrealistic one is going back as a really good tango partner. Or going back a lot more confident and with more variety. Or going back completely confused by having learnt so much (a friend said she knows someone this happened to). I added another one today, after a milonga class: giving it up completely and never even thinking of tango again. The kind of thought that comes to me after a milonga class, after a busy morning chasing round the streets to buy a mobile in Spanish (pre-pago, y sin contrato) and not eating. 1pm is an awkward time: I'd want to eat at 11 but there's not much around, so I tried leaving it until after the class, but it just didn't work. Two medialunas and a slice of toast at 10.30 don't give much support to a milonga class at 14.30. If the flat had a decent stove I could at least fix an omlette before going out; guess I'll just have to switch it on an hour in advance.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


180 degrees from my balcony: a dull morning but it doesn't look any better in sunshine. The forest of masts is hardly visible against the sky.

I step onto the balcony at night and immediately recognise Orion. The stars are surprisingly clear, given the street-level pollution.

Dawn on the balcony: every building, it seems, has a radio mast with a red light at the top. These blink at different rates like a sculptural landscape by Takis. A city reaching up into the ether.

The city is putting on a free open-air concert by the Berlin Philharmonic, this weekend I think, in the middle of the 9de Julio, underneath the Obelisco, the local Nelson's Column. One of their conductors is Argentinian. Would the Mayor of London put on a free Berlin Philharmonic concert in Trafalgar Square? But I guess the Berlin Phil is going to be more generous here.

But tango is why I'm here. I arrived nearly two days ago, and not a dance yet. Anyway the time change (two hours) still means early waking. I bought shoes from Darcos yesterday, a simple, light pair of handmade black shoes. They will be comfortable. & stuck my head around the door at La Confiteria, just down the road. I only saw downstairs, a dark cavernous hall, in need of redecoration. The staff seem indifferent. I sat for half an hour and watched a class without being asked to buy anything. The class was more or less tourist beginners: those in trainers and shorts, those who'd bought the flash shoes, all dancing at arms length. I went back later in the evening: still downstairs, more complex steps but still at arms length. I didn't feel inclined to join in, so I went back to the flat and sent off emails to Mary Ann to find out when Oscar's classes are, and to Sylvia, Tete's partner. Both replied by this morning. Tete's only doing private classes these days so I emailed for details. Oscar's teaching at 1pm. It's 11.30, so I'm off.

Oscar's class didn't disappoint. It's in El Beso, one of the more traditional milongas. Leading a sequence of cruzadas must be clear, and that's what it was about. He teaches in Spanish and English, which is interesting, emphasising the need sometimes to lift and sometimes hold down the follower to create a lot of movement in a small space. Mary Ann gave me reassurance about turning up at milongas, and his son and daughter were there to help out, so it was good value, two hours for £5, friendly, and I had some good dances. I'll do that again. Strange to see them in 3D after having watched so many of their teaching videos. Silvia emailed that their private classes are £60 an hour, so I'm going to have to think about that.

It's hot. Everyone says it's hot. About 30, I guess, not excessive, but hot, and humid. You avoid the sun. I'm told that this time last year was so cold you had to wear a sweater.

Google's gone Spanish on me. Instead of 'Did you mean...?' it says 'Quizas quiso decir...?' & I now 'Buscar la net con Google'.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008


Coming out of the airport, the heat hits you; not a serious disabling heat, but it's warm and the humidity encloses you. The girls in the taxi office, the young guy who takes me to the waiting taxi, friendly and busy. The driver gives a 'bon dia' and is off into the airport whirlpool of traffic. Pale violet jacaranda blossom. Then we're on the motorway into town. Landscape like southern Spain. Trucks pulled off the road into the shelter of a tree: it is 1.30 pm after all. I don't try to talk with the driver: I've been travelling 28 hours and anyway, my Spanish isn't up to it. American pop on the radio 'Listen to the song of the city: it's speaking your native language' -- good news.

Then a brick shanty town, but by no means a slum, individually-built houses piled together, no higher than two floors, immediately like India, could be Delhi outskirts. High-rise housing blocks on the other side: the city begins. Soon the motorway reaches downtown and branches like a tree in different directions. I remember the city maps and know where we are. We enter a wide boulevard: 'Nueve de Julio?' I ask. 'Si, Nueve de Julio'. City traffic. Soon we pull into a maze of narrow straight streets, high buildings, an orchestra of horns from near-gridlocked traffic. A tough, bleak cityscape; nowhere in Spain would be this busy and developed, and so well-used and run-down. And nowhere in India, which it otherwise resembles, would be lacking in noticeable 'shrines'. Temples, obviously, but I'm thinking of the little reminders everywhere, images in the taxis, string tied round a tree, a few marks of pigment on a stone, little prints stuck on walls, signs that, like the physicist's wormholes, are portals to alternate, imaginative, magic worlds, and instructive too. None of that here. Then, caught up in a jam the driver reaches over and switches to a tape, and suddenly there's a gentle, warm sound, something familiar, but quiet as if far away, Cumparasita from the Orquestra Escuelo de Tango, followed by several tracks of De Angelis, what relief from gridlock! Recognising that music was a moment of arrival: in a taxi in Buenos Aires with Cumparasita playing. Struck me later the driver could be a milonguero, no energy to spare on needless conversation, apparently well-groomed, and yawning profusely on the motorway. But then it was a hot afternoon.

Some hours later, after getting the flat sorted, and solving the riddle of the local cashpoints I finally sit down to a pizza and a glass of wine, and watch the city go by. It's a hardworking, slightly desperate place, a tough urban environment if ever, but everyone I've met seems good-hearted. It's hard to think that this is the city of Borges, for instance, but then he didn't live downtown, and when you see the bookstores on Corrientes it begins to fit. A city that was one of the wealthiest in the world before the 30s depression, and you still see it in the architecture. The city of Los Desaparecidos, of years of terror that anyone over 40 must remember well. The city that has survived the economic catastrophe of 2002. & of course the city of the music called tango that developed from a mix of musical traditions (immigrants came from everywhere), and of the dance that evolved with it. Glimpses of Buenos Aires.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Bill Viola: I do not know what it is I am like, a feature-length film with a cast courtesy of a local zoo, and an actor. Le jour se leve: Marcel Carne on an absolute peak of pre-WW2 French cinema. Grizzly Man: Werner Herzog continues to make films out of what seems like thin air, but there's always a theme of extreme experience which, as in Little Dieter wants to Fly, he gets his subjects to relive. Here the grizzly material is all extraordinary but the man is rather less so, a bit of a misfit who finds he can tell grizzlies to stop, and rather revels in doing it, and in the danger, for his camera. In the end he miscalculates, and a hungry bear eats him and his girlfriend. But the additional feature is an hour in the studio recording music and sounds for the film, which entirely makes up for the man of the main feature. A real pleasure to watch the musicians working to make a sound that is spacious and harmonious, and yet disquieting. Pasolini, Hawks and Sparrows is hijacked by a talking jackdaw, or at least a jackdaw that strides alongside the actors: I suspect his lines were dubbed. Something rare and remarkable, a charming and amusing Pasolini film that winds through time along an open road, somewhere between Voie Lactee and Felini, but ultimately with nothing much more than charm. The additional feature tho' was Notes for a Film about India: Pasolini wandering around with the story of a raja who feeds himself to a tiger, deliberately, because the tiger is hungry, and trying to see how he can film this in modern India, a very recognisable India of 1968. What do people think of the story? How should his Maharaja look? He even talks to a Maharaja and his wife, wondering how they would feel and behave if they were in the story. An improvised, open-ended film that suggests many possibilities. Edipo Re arrived soon after, a very intense retelling of the Oedipus story that begins with the child in contemporary Italy and ends with the blind ex-king a beggar in contemporary Italy, with the rest of the film in landscapes of Morocco in the late 60s, clear strong light and intense colour.

During this period, Impressing the Czar at Sadlers Wells: the extraordinary intense fertile body and mind of William Forsythe. Worth more than all the films I've had from Lovefilm.