Saturday, 29 August 2009

On feedback

A quick note to say how amazed I am at all that response. First, I'm delighted that Andreas' class and approach provoked so much positive interest, since it is a style of dance I like. I think he has a 'pedagogical method' (to use Gustavo's phrase) that works really well. It isn't perhaps traditional: a teenager learning dance in Buenos Aires in 1940 probably wouldn't need to be told how to maintain good posture. Most of us have worked at desks so long that we need a bit of help. And I found everything he had to say was interesting, to the point and useful.

And this feedback makes even more apparent the value of the internet: we can comment, ask questions, get answers, with a kind of ease that just wasn't possible until recently. All this and watch videos too.

A quick point: I think Andreas called what I wrote a 'review', which seems to suggest 'a reviewer', a distant expert passing judgment, which isn't how I see myself. I make notes for my own benefit on things I've experienced, in order to formulate thoughts and to remember. Even if I write for my own benefit I'm glad to do it in public because I value the feedback.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Andreas Wichter at Carablanca

I always think there's a difference between teachers of dance, and teachers of steps. There seems to be a good number of the latter, and they tend to encourage students to be 'step collectors', '...the kind of tango dancer no one wants to meet...' as Oscar Casas remarked witheringly.

Teachers of dance teach steps too, but they also teach you to dance, a much more complex and complete teaching.

Andreas talks more than most teachers, but it was all to the point, and interesting, and he was listened to attentively. He started by talking about good posture, the vertebra between the shoulder blades pushed forwards, the chin pulled a bit back, so the chest leads. Then walking with good posture to the music, on the beat. Then walking in single and double time. It had never occurred to me that double time can be led through the shoulders: for want of a better idea I'd always pushed ahead and just hoped my partner would step back fast enough. Then the close embrace, walking in close embrace, and finally walking in the embrace in single and double time. All well-explained, reasonable, practical.

Talk of the social dynamics of male and female in tango. We were recommended to try to use the cabaceo, since that removes from the woman the need to refuse a dance to a man hovering in front of her.

It was a good evening. The class was well-attended, particularly for a warm Friday evening in mid-August, and there was a good crowd right until the end of the milonga too. Very impressively, Andreas was there throughout, dancing with anyone who was interested. I've never seen a teacher do that before. If they don't already know, it gave a fair number of partners a taste of how good close-hold salon tango can be, I'm told. It was the first of two lessons, but I hope he will be back in the autumn, as he lives and teaches in Totnes now. He learned from the late Gavito on his visits to Switzerland. He said that technically Gavito wasn't a good teacher [ed. I've misrepresented his remark: please see the Comments for a clarification by Andreas], but he was an inspiring one, he changed peoples' dancing lives.

Carablanca feels good these days. Even around the edges it's beginning to look a bit like a Buenos Aires milonga, plates of hot empanadas going around, (vege and non-vege) and wine at a reasonable price. A place where you can go and relax for an evening, have a bite to eat, meet friends, chat and dance.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Sin pensamiento!

I spent a few happy hours with Tete and Silvia in Buenos Aires last winter, struggling to get through things I ought to have learned earlier, and laughing a lot with them. I took away material I'm only just beginning to lead confidently in milongas, as well as a few phrases Tete likes to repeat. Silvia was translating, so I wasn't paying attention to the original, but I'm pretty sure he said 'sin pensamiento' – 'without thinking!', she'd translate. 'You are thinking' he'd observe: 'Don't think!' 'Piensas! No piensa!' – I guess that's what he said. It was a small room and it was hard not to worry about whether there was room for that new line of steps, but he was always right. I was thinking, rather than... rather than dancing, I guess.

There's a wonderful basic Buddhist meditation. After reminding yourself that you aren't doing this to develop superpowers for your own selfish ends, you sit comfortably and stare at a blue flower. (Why blue, or even a flower, I'm not sure.) The first experience is 'the waterfall': you try to stare at the flower but suddenly you find your mind is overflowing with thoughts. They were always there: you just never noticed. If you persist with the flower you find your thoughts are like ocean waves, one after another then, much later, like occasional ripples on a lake. Finally you are 'sin pensamiento', calm water.

I remember the waterfall when I first started trying to dance tango: is the floor slippery, what's my partner thinking, it's warm, what do the people watching think, shall I do the class tomorrow... it was endless. These days it's a lot quieter. I wouldn't want to suggest that Tete might be a Buddhist sage, or that tango is really a spiritual path, but 'sin pensamiento' might actually be a great accomplishment, in dancing as in meditation. Following the music through time and space, without thinking. The mind can give up words for a while, and it's a relief!

PS I'd be grateful to anyone who can correct my castellano...

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The three-minute question

There have been some interesting discussions on music recently. Jantango, who is close to the source, got an answer to the three-minute question recently.

So is a tango three minutes because records lasted only three minutes?

Well, records never needed to last three minutes. They could have been bigger or smaller, they could have revolved faster or slower. In fact it looks as if they were designed to record three-minute songs. It was a convenient length, it was the length people wanted, and still like. My memory of English folk songs is pretty distant, but it wouldn't surprise me if they are three minutes long, mas o menos. Perhaps the precursors of recorded tango lasted about three minutes too.

What do we get in three minutes? Most tangos, and most songs generally, are A-B-A in structure. It's a structure people seem to like, it works well musically and in a song. 16-bar blues follow much the same pattern. In practice, we get three segments of around 16 bars each. 16 bars to a minute, mas o menos, 48 bars start to finish. 48 bars of four beats each, that's 192 beats in three minutes, which is... 64 beats a minute. A familiar number. 192 heart beats to a tango.

& some hard evidence: I've got the piano version of Sur here, 'Letra de H. MANZI, Musica de ANIBAL TROILO'. It's in two pages: A and B. There are three verses, corresponding to A-B-A. A has 17 bars, B has 18 bars.

Jantango writes that Julián Peralta, who teaches at the National Tango Academy in Buenos Aires, was a member of Orquesta Tipica Fernando Fierro and is presently with Orquesta Astillero, gave this answer to the three-minute question: '...a tango is a synopsis rather than a novel. It says what is necessary musically and sometimes with words, in a couple of minutes. It is complete with theme and variation.' Which I really like. He says that it gives us everything we need. & if we need more, well, we just play three or four of them, one after the other! What would a milonga be like if each tango went on for 12 minutes?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Astor Piazzolla: In Portrait

A lot of thanks to the BBC for two documentaries in the early 2000s. Tango Salon, about the Confiteria Ideal and the people who go there, has some wonderful material, including Geraldine and Javier at their best together, Gerardo Portalea, 'Pupi' Castello and others, although it spends rather too much time with less interesting people. Astor Piazzolla: In Portrait, now re-issued as a DVD, is a perfectly-focused biography. It introduces us to Piazzolla and the people around him, family, musicians, friends, all remarkable, and it's wonderful to spend an hour in their company.

The DVD includes interesting interview material that didn't fit into the biography. Whenever his son, Daniel, saw him he was sat at the piano from 7 in the morning until the end of the day. 'He provoked inspiration: he sat at the piano with zero inspiration and sooner or later the music was coming.' But his hands were deformed from playing bandoneón since childhood: he was a good pianist, he always used the piano for composing, but couldn't play professionally. He had '...manos gigantes de bandoneónista, manos enormes. He could play chords that no other bandoneónista of the time could play' says Fernando E. Solanas.

Pablo Ziegler sits at the yellowed keys of his old Steinway, plays a piece of Piazzolla's characteristic 3/3/2 rhythm, and then the same piece in the old tango rhythm: 'It's this very square rhythm' he says, laughing, but making us hear how closely the two are related. He plays a few bars of the familiar adagio in La Muerte del Angel, very moving, and then breaks off and points out its relation to jazz; you suddenly realise it is familiar Piazzolla, but it could have been Errol Garner or Art Tatum.

French accordionist Richard Galliano played with Piazzolla, and talks about Piazzolla's free phrasing with a solid beat, about the modesty and honesty in his music, beautiful phrasing without sentimentality. He also talks about the beauty of the single line, comparing Piazzolla with Miles Davis, a similar deep sensitivity, and wonders what could have happened had they played together. (They played on the same stage, but not together, at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Both controlled their bands very tightly: perhaps there was no way they could ever have played together.)

British pianist Joanna MacGregor, who played Piazzolla's music with two of his musicians, observes that '...there really is a psychological and emotional depth that you don't find necessarily in contemporary music... and a sort of darkness' in his music.

There's also an interview with Amelita Baltar: a short, amazing extract of her performance of Loco, loco, loco is in the DVD.

The DVD also includes an entire 45-minute concert, called Tango Nuevo, with the sextet, for a small audience: lucky people! A reminder that 'Tango Nuevo' was the term coined by Piazzolla for the music he himself wrote. Watching that entire concert suggests that playing bandoneón is a bit like simultaneous touch-typing on two very hard keyboards with different layouts, without being able to see either, while supporting and controlling very precisely a bellows in between them. In fact it's like touch typing on four keyboards, since the notes are different depending on whether you're opening or closing the bellows. It's an difficult, intensely physical instrument to play, particularly at Piazzolla's level. A remarkable composer and a great performer

A great many of Piazzolla's recordings are on Spotify. I was delighted to find the soundtrack to that haunting, haunted, dark Argentine film, Sur, by Fernando E. Solanas, for which he was awarded Best Director at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. The CD is headlined 'Astor Piazzolla' but in the film it's clearly not Piazzolla, but bandoneón player Nestor Marconi with a small, first-class band and the intense, damaged voice of Goyaneche, playing and singing throughout the film in the streets at night, music that is a direct presence in the film rather than background, arranged by Piazzolla and with one or two tracks composed by him, but not performed by him. Absolutely the best film with tango music, and the best tango music I've heard on film.

Also on Spotify is the Naxos CD of Piazzolla's complete music for solo flute and guitar, a wonderful fresh sound: baroque tango. (Joanna MacGregor remarks on '...all the counterpoint in his music. He's a man who really did study his craft.') & Piazzolla's opera, Maria of Buenos Aires, is there, and his recording with Gerry Mulligan...

Incidentally, there's a website, which has audio and video tracks, discographies, biography etc.

Sunday, 16 August 2009


...milonga, but hardly as I know it. Have fun!

A real treat

The riches continue to pour out of Marisa Galindo's archives. This (and a few others) appeared two days ago. For anyone who saw Mingo and Esther Pugliese at Carablanca a few weeks back, here's a reminder of how they were in 1991. Plus a charming little 'incident' involving Pupi Castello and Roberto Tonet...

Friday, 14 August 2009

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Tango and food

Tango al Fresco was its usual amiable self: all the fun of the milonga, but out of doors, surrounded by trees and gardens on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. We've been lucky this year: both events have been bright, but overcast enough to keep off the sun's heat. The floor was crowded, as ever, and people aren't really used to dancing in small spaces, but it was great. We ended up in a huge picnic, presided over by Paul and Michiko, with masses of excellent home-cooked food. (The pictures are from the event a few weeks back: this Sunday was much busier.)

A French woman who lives in London and plays musette, a smallish French button accordion, was at the picnic and gave us an impromptu concert. She plays, sings and runs a band professionally: check her out here. Since she likes tango music and the dance I asked her why they don't play tango, and she said no, it's too repetitive, not free enough, actually boring to play.

It's a strange paradox: the dance is improvised from start to finish, but the music is highly organised. The tango player lives with disciplined ensemble playing from written music scores, night after night. Would we continue to dance if we had to dance exactly the same steps, night after night? I've often wondered why tango never embraced the longer format of recording in the late 1940s, as did jazz, but jazz had always been a series of improvisations held together by choruses, and it was natural to extend the improvisations. Unlike tango dance, the music isn't improvised: if a band wants to play a seven-minute tango, someone has to sit down and write the score. Maybe it's beginning to change, but the golden age tangos were played from written music. I must recommend Rodolfo Mederas, Julio Pane, Joaquín Amenábar playing solo bandoneón, as they have complete musical freedom. Dancing to Joaquín Amenábar's solo bandoneón in London last winter, was a great experience. Maybe 'Fifi la Mer' could become 'Flor del Mar'...

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Geraldine, Gerardo and Gustavo

Thanks to Simbatango for the good news that Marisa Galindo has put a personal archive of her videos onto YouTube. A lot of treasures there to be enjoyed. Amazing to think that four years ago YouTube had relatively little tango. It's become very valuable.

Geraldine Rojas and Gerardo Portalea together first caught my attention. & it's such a wonderful dance, intensely tender and gentle. Even the way he steps seems to show care and respect for this gifted child who dances so beautifully, and he offers her space in which to dance beautifully. Portaleo late in his life and Geraldine early in hers: there's a sense that they recognise and respect this polarity. & the music comes across very clearly.

Geraldine Rojas and Gustavo Naveira together is very different. Gustavo is a true virtuoso, dexterous, lightning-fast, and capable of endless extraordinary variations. And yet there's something hard about it. She has to keep up with him, and dance to his music rather than having the opportunity to dance to the music as she hears it; it's as if she's in an exam and needs to find the right answers all the time. Instead of the sense of two human beings, they start to look a bit like speeding marionettes. And then there's that avalanche of 'steps' towards the end, which seems out of all proportion to the music. Too many steps!

You could say Gerardo Portalea is a very limited dancer beside Gustavo. He gets through a whole tango with fewer than half a dozen steps, he's slow, lacking inventiveness, energy, liveliness. It's probably just me, but I know I'll watch that clip of Geraldine Rojas and Gerardo Portalea many times, and still be moved by it. I can't say that of the clip of Geraldine with Gustavo.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Tango and Dreams

It seems strange to me, even perverse, that though I spend a lot of time in tango I have never, ever, in four and a half years dreamed about tango. If I spend so much time with it maybe there's no need, but it occurred to me that I do dream about landscapes I no longer live in. I used to work 3,000 feet up in the Himalayan foothills, and I had friends 7,500 feet up in a 'hill' station. The road between climbed a mile, along 25 miles of twisting stomach-churning switch-back grind in old buses. There was a path, too, which I used whenever I had time: a five-mile walk to climb a mile. It took a few hours, from the heavy summer heat below up into cool fresh air, or vice-versa and, either walking up or down, for me it's still the best walk in the world. & I don't recall ever dreaming once about it while I was there, but I do now. It's become a metaphor, a dream-world visual shorthand for difficulty, anxiety, with cheerfulness and comfort at the end of it. A few years back I had a bit of 'flu, or a seriously bad cold that went on for a weary long time, and I dreamed of struggling up that hill and getting to the top. I knew the moment I woke up that I was better.

This seems to tie in with thoughts about other people's tango stories. They are the real thing, but they aren't mine; the meaning I was told is in relation to the way other people see their lives. It's possible to compose a collection of other peoples' stories but it doesn't seem a very interesting or even honourable thing to do. What is interesting is to find something in those stories that is mine, and to make something out of that, in the same way that distance makes a hill climb into a metaphor rather than a 'real' thing.

All of this comes together after last Friday at Carablanca, a great evening because I enjoyed some good dancing, but also because I heard some extraordinary stories. There was also a demonstration which amazed me by the amount of arm-wrestling, his left to her right, something I'd been warned against from my first lesson onwards. It was also extraordinary for how busy and inelegant the dance actually looked, in contrast to the calm elegance of the music. I'm a bit sorry I didn't bother to film it, as I'd love to remove the tango tracks and try replacing them with... perhaps the sound of all-in wrestling? The groans, the cries, the cheers... Just out of curiosity. Soundtracks are so much the key to how we see film, it's always curious to consider changing them. That spooky corridor could become gentle and happy, and that tango performance could look quite different to a different soundtrack.

&, in the context of watching Ashes of Time, perhaps a milonga could be filmed in terms of the dance and all the fragmented narratives around it.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Ashes of Time Redux

I've seen Wang Kar Wai's films in reverse order: I saw 2046 first, and I've just watched Ashes of Time, one of the first films he directed after a decade of writing for the Hong Kong film industry.

Ashes of Time Redux is simply a staggering film, and it's hard to know where to begin; the acting, the story-telling, the cinematography, the music, the setting... Astonishing that when it was first released in 1995 it didn't create much of a stir. It wasn't until WKW, by then well-known, discovered that the original negatives had been so badly stored that they were disintegrating and needed restoration, spent time restoring and revising the film, re-recorded the sound track with Yo-yo Ma, and re-released it as the redux, that it's really come into its own. There's some question about how much digital enhancement was used, but that's not new: it's been used in films since the late 1970s.

Chinese films are often visually striking, but this one is in a category of its own in the use of image, and of the potential of film and filming. A lot of credit to Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, but it's WKW's film, his imagination, his way of working, his ability to use the talents available to him to get more than the best out of them.

A couple of visual moments: towards the end, at a transition point, WKW fills the screen with fire. I think it's a combination of the way the fire is shot, with the contrast of preceding scenes, dark, quiet, cool colours, that makes that fire like nothing I've ever seen before. (& I've seen forest fires up close.) & there's another moment, when the bandits appear, galloping across a foothill in the desert, against a blazing yellow background, sand, as flat brilliant yellow as a wall painted with emulsion. In long shot, of course, so they are flattened against the flat colour, and they keep rising up over the foothill: the beginning of the action part of the film, fighting, shown in brief blurred fragments. The background, the desert, is an important part of the film, and it looks amazing.

The film is amazing to look at, both the desert background and the faces in the foreground; the meeting of Ou-yang Feng and Brigitte Lin, for instance, under stunted trees in intense daylight, but this beauty is just the nature of what we're looking at, never a distraction. There are several stories, and they all interconnect, often in implausible ways. Ou-yang Feng (the late Leslie Cheung) lives alone in a hermitage in the desert as a fixer, usually 'fixing' the elimination of people for reasons of revenge. A perplexing couple, a brother and sister who want each other eliminated, but who are actually the same person, or are acted by the same person, a village girl who has no money, only a mule and a basket of eggs, are two of his clients. Sword fighters come to him looking for work: one survives, another doesn't. Desperate people. The end of the film isn't a climax to all these separate stories, but the discovery of how Ou-yang Feng came to be there in the first place, a story of love, of death, of nostalgia, a story about memory, loss, the seasons, a cyclic story...

In the extras, WKW appears, interviewed; calm, articulate in near-perfect English, eyes completely hidden behind the most impenetrable of dark glasses, like a blind seer. One can only wonder what visions he sees in there. The films are so moving, so intense and perfect, they might well hide tears, too.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

False Economy

I read this in a Guardian review of a recently published book, False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World by Alan Beattie: "'Just as good policies can make the poor rich, repeated wrong turns can plunge a first world nation into the ranks of the third world. At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was among the world's richest countries; the creation of a landed oligarchy and then Peron's myopic populism meant that, 100 years later, it was a serial bankrupt.' The book ends with a warning: 'If it does not address the flaws that brought its financial system into crisis, the US could end up like Argentina.'" Which is a breathtaking warning, not to mention a breathtaking summary of 20th century Argentine history.

I grew up with the notion of Argentina as an impoverished distant land of vicious generals in ridiculous hats, but we've got to remember that they (including Galtieri, and Noriega from Panama) were trained, indoctrinated, in the infamous School of the Americas, based in Georgia, USA, where they were taught to be paranoid and to use a wide range of counter-insurgency measures. There was a terrible distortion of Latin American politics as a result of the cold war, and the people have suffered greatly. All it takes is a couple of wrong turns, and then the global situation made it a lot worse. The country is getting back onto its feet; it takes time, but there's optimism and creativity, and a huge respect for creativity too.

Through tango, we're all implicated in Argentine history, in the economy that supported the production of up to 100,000 tango recordings, and also in the poverty and suffering of the second half of the 20th century. You can visit ESMA, the naval centre in Buenos Aires where until 1983 detainees were held and routinely tortured, and from which they disappeared, if only to get an idea of the background against which most of the older teachers, of their children who teach now, and of the partners you dance with in the milongas, grew up. Everyone wants to put it behind them, but it shouldn't be forgotten. If you lose your past, said musician Branford Marsalis, you lose your future. He was talking about music, but it's another warning.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Good news!

I've just spotted that Andreas Wichter and Monica Lopez will be teaching at Carablanca on August 21 and August 28 (the updated programme).

While we've struggled to dance like Tango por Dos in London, our friends on the continent have been getting on with social dancing. Andreas Wichter is now based in Totnes, and I think this is his first teaching in London. I hope there will be much more. It's getting harder all the time to get social dancers from Buenos Aires: they are the old masters, but they are old now, not so many of them ever spoke English, and enforcing UK immigration policy occupies so much more of the time of our border authorities that recently they failed to spot an illegal immigrant who entered the country underneath their bus as they returned from France. He ran off in Folkstone and hasn't been seen since. It's unlikely that he was a milonguero desperate to get here to teach us.

Fortunately there are now good dancers and teachers of tango salon on the continent. Andreas Wichter doesn't boast of years spent with Tango por Dos, nor of having choreographed Broadway tango shows. He says: 'We are salón dancers and teachers, not show dancers. So you will see neither choreography nor open embrace figures in these videos. We just dance pretty much as we would in an (uncrowded) milonga.' It's got to be a refreshing change of emphasis.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Pina Bausch

Pina Bausch was one of the great creators of contemporary dance, running her own company for many years in Wuppertal, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, which achieved international acclaim. She died at the end of June.

On a visit to Buenos Aires with her company in 1994 she saw Tete Rusconi dance, and they became friends, performing together. The whole story has been added to Tete and Silvia's website, with some good photos: it is here. On YouTube there's plenty of Pina Bausch, and plenty of Tete and Silvia, but sadly there's nothing of Pina and Tete.

Can tango change?

There was a comment a few weeks back that ''s not right to think that the dance cannot change', and I'm still not really sure what that can mean. On one level the dance is always changing. No two dancers dance identically; everyone dances their own tango, and that is how it should be, in constant renewal. We aren't choreographed show dancers who work hard to present simultaneous and identical moves; we don't slavishly imitate our teachers. Moreover, there's a limit to what two people in close, or fairly close embrace can do together to that music on a crowded dance floor. But my impression is that that limit had been very fully explored by 1950, if not earlier.

'Nuevo' dancers seem to suggest that they are the creative leaders of a new tango, of exciting new directions and new possibilities, but I wonder if that isn't just marketing talk. I have to admit I don't watch them a lot, but I've never noticed anything that wasn't explored by Todaro (1929-1994) (in this video of him and his daughter from the early 1950s) and 'Petroleo' (1912 - 1995), as taught today by Mingo and Esther Pugliese, a detailed exploration of all the possible ganchos, saccadas and barridas at every step of the giro. The style and presentation may change, but I'm not sure the core of the dance has changed.

Pablo Veron dismisses claims to a tango nuevo dance as deceitful, in an interview with El Tangauta in December 2008 (you have to create a login to access the material). 'Speaking of tango nuevo as a dance is difficult because the name proposes a division with the past, and that is very debatable, relative and deceitful. It is the definition of the music of Piazzolla, and to copy the name, as if that was enough to be equivalent and thus to be different, does not seem correct. It is as if they want you to believe that they invented tango. In that case: What was danced before? Tango is tango and has always been transforming itself since its origins, and if each renewal was a new tango, today we would have many new tangos. Tango was made by all of us dancers of all generations who contributed something, and this has been happening for more than 100 years!'

A rapid exploration of possibilities seems to have happened in cinema in much the same period of time. The language of cinema, the way stories are told with pictures and sound, was perfected between 1900 and 1930 and that language is still current. The way von Sternberg shows the stories of his two 1932 films, Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express, both with Marlene Dietrich, is totally familiar, even contemporary. The opening to Shanghai Express is one of the most memorable opening sequences ever, a classic piece of film-making. There have been technical advances, but the basic visual language hasn't changed much, and yet we still enjoy films.

Contact improvisation seems the only area in which a tango-like dance actually changes and develops, but there it starts to move into an area of contemporary dance. Personally I find there's a huge legacy in tango to discover, to try to perfect, and to enjoy. Dancing it well is most important to me: and it's important to enjoy dancing to the music, and I can only hope that as many partners as possible will enjoy it with me. & if 'change' means to be a step collector, what's the point? That's sterile, futile.

I recently came across this from Ney Melo: 'There will never be a step, sequence, or trick in tango that will come close to matching the power of the embrace.' Yes, yes, and yes again!