Monday, 30 November 2009

Watching and hearing

Watching Ismael Heljalil dance, I find I'm immediately listening to the music with a new clarity, especially the melodic lines of the violins and bandoneon, as if my ears are suddenly opened. I guess he's been listening to this music, and dancing to it, for over 60 years, and his dance makes the music very clear, as if he shows, with a few quite simple steps, how it all fits together, how it works. Watching Alberto Dassieu, by contrast, I become aware of the rhythm too, especially the rhythm, and of the pauses in between the strong beats. He waits for the strong beats, and moves to them. Sometimes there are long spaces between the strong beats, sometimes there is a cluster of them.

Interesting. It's as if these dancers can make me hear what they are listening to: that's how it seems. Most dancers, teachers even, keep perfectly to the beat and use their steps to follow the patterns in the music, but somehow it's as if their dance gets in the way of the music, distracts from it, even. I guess from a dance point of view there's nothing wrong with that, but I could watch Ismael all night, I'd look forward to watching that undemonstrative and unassuming dance that makes me listen very clearly as I watch, and is effortlessly graceful.

PS: I should add that this apparently undemonstrative dance also attracts many of the best partners of all ages...

PPS: Apologies! I forgot to link in the clip. Now you too can watch!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

All in a dream

I dreamed I met up with Pedro Sanchez in a city where everyone greets with a kiss, right cheek to right cheek. We climbed stairs to a large room with a parquet floor, which appears to have experienced no treatment apart from a nightly rubbing by leather-soled shoes. Music blasted out to fill everyone with dance. 'Tranquilo' said Pedro, 'Just walk'. How can you walk with another couple 20cm away on each side? You have to stand up very straight just to have a bit of room. But all went well, and it felt really good. Later the room filled up, and I seemed to recognise many people. 'El Flaco' Dany, Cacho Dante, Pocho and Nelly, Oscar Casas and Mary Ann. I thought I caught a glimpse of 'El Cachafaz' with Carmencita Calderon, and 'El Fino' too, and there were many others I couldn't recognise.

& before I went out that evening, it seemed that Alberto Dassieu called and invited me to meet up in that same room the next night. When I woke up, it was raining shovels and horses.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Beyond the Clouds

In 1995, Antonioni made a film called Beyond the Clouds in which a beautiful young girl approaches a stranger in a cafe with a story she had read. 'In a scientific expedition in the Andes, the porters sat down and refused to go further that day. When asked why, they said that they needed time for their souls to catch up with them.' She and the stranger, who is in love with his wife, become lovers, and a tangled story ensues. The four short films comprising Beyond the Clouds are all about relationships: in the first, the relationship is affectionate, romantic and unconsummated, in the second it is instant and transitory, in the third, the story of the young girl and the stranger, ultimately violent, and in the fourth, also unconsummated, it turns out that the girl is entering a convent the next day.

Antonioni is wonderful at filming things, and people sometimes seem superfluous. There's a sequence of a deserted mediterranean holiday beach at midwinter which is full of thoughts and stories – until John Malkovitch walks in. Of course Antonioni is notorious for painting his scenes. He had all the leaves repainted in one shot in Blowup because they were the wrong green: perhaps that mediterranean beach was rather less striking before he arrived. (Digital technology might have saved him a lot of work.) He makes the bodies of his actresses look amazing too, which hasn't passed without comment. As it happens, the most memorable scene in the film is an encounter, fully clothed, between Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau that lasts all of four minutes. Their warmth and affection doesn't even have to be scripted. Her face is the most wonderful mix of humour, wisdom and affection. They were the life and soul of La Notte, 34 years earlier, which comes over as Antonioni's best film.

In the end, despite the beautiful young actresses, what stays in mind is Mastroianni the Sunday painter, painting Cezanne's mountain together with the cement factory that has appeared in the next valley, and Moreau looking at his painting with an amused shake of her head. That and the porters waiting for their souls to catch up with them, the feeling you get after a long journey, the worrying feeling that your soul might be getting a bit slow at keeping up.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The smoothness of tango

Back to the roots of Geraldin and Ezequiel, salon tango. It should be our 'default' dance, what we do on busy floors, but we hardly know what it looks like. It's OK to film performances in Buenos Aires, but filming the dancing in milongas, especially if you are a visitor, really isn't acceptable. So there's a lack of video of ordinary social tango, which is a pity because I think we can all learn a lot from it. There are good videos on Tango and Chaos, and I've just noticed that Jantango, who has lived there a long while, has recently been filming, and has uploaded several videos of two milongas. This one is at Maipu 444, one of the heavenly realms of tango, in effect no more than a large, well-lit room, with a parquet floor which appears to have experienced no treatment apart from a nightly rubbing by leather-soled shoes, leaving it smooth and soft like velvet. Don't your feet twitch in anticipation when you look at it?

But watch the dancing. How gentle, relaxed and effortless it appears, and with all the energy of the music. Couples dancing for the best reason in the world – each other. Nothing to prove to the world, just enjoyment of the music and of moving in the moment. It's fascinating to watch how they use available space, and how they give each other room: of course, the floor isn't crowded, and the music is slow. It's hard to think of anything else that looks this civilised: little can compare with the smooth, unhurried precision of social tango this good. 'Asi se baila el tango' as the song says: this is how you dance tango.

Of course people who learn 'steps' will say, oh, that's all easy stuff! We know all that! But learning 'steps' isn't hard; learning to dance with the music, your partner and the rest of the floor takes just a little bit longer. Thank you, Jantango.

Monday, 23 November 2009


'All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing.'

I'd be inclined to say amen to that, but it's a quote from Moliere. The BBC website quotes the words but not the context: more than likely it wasn't intended seriously. It could almost be a dance teacher talking up his importance...

But I'd still say amen to it.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Geraldin Rojas and Ezequiel Paludi at Carablanca Milonga, London 20/11/09

Here's the third of the set of four dances. There's also one, two and four.

Outside videos, I'd never seen Geraldin and Ezekiel, and I've tended to watch her from her days with Javier. But of course I wanted to video the event, which meant ignoring it and juggling tiny figures on a tiny screen. Watching the results a day later, I'm really impressed. They dance a display tango, a kind of stage tango, but they bring to it a lot of what I think of as defining characteristics of Argentine social tango. First, the smoothness. There's always a mismatch: from the waist down all is activity, which you'd never suspect if you just watched from the waist up. (Read into that what you like, but that's how it looks.) There also seemed to be a very real emotional content. It wasn't fireworks just for effect, or to show that they can do fireworks: it seemed to be a tender and passionate dialogue. Moreover, dancing close embrace seemed very much their default position: it looked very comfortable for them. In other words, for all the high kicks and elaborate turns, it didn't look as if salon tango was far away.

Before their performance the floor was crowded with what looked like would-be stage dancers; after the performance the dancing looked unusually calm, and rather good, for a short while. Perhaps that summed up their impact: nobody wants to try to imitate dance that good.

& I enjoyed their choice of music: contemporary versions of classics, except for the milonga, which was chosen by the DJ, and thus improvised. I'm sure the first two of the set of four are the Color Tango orchestra.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Returning from the Salon Room at Tango @ 33...

...I got a sneak preview of a new exhibition in Trafalgar Square. “A 'ghost rainforest' of huge tree stumps from the jungles of Africa is to form a dramatic artwork in London's Trafalgar Square” reads the press release. Huge stumps of naturally-fallen tropical trees were being put in place. One aim is to highlight deforestation, but bringing these huge natural things into that very organised square seems a reminder of a vaster reality. Conceivably trees like this once forested London: in ruins they resemble the aftermath of a global catastrophe, man-made or otherwise. & at midwinter, a strange time to do it. How might they look under snow? & what strange contrast will they make with the inevitable Christmas tree?

At least they will draw attention away from the fourth plinth, currently occupied by a bizarre-looking sculpture of a very brave WW2 pilot. Why it looks bizarre, I'm not quite sure. It's over seven feet tall, but that shouldn't be a problem. It's made out of fibreglass rather than bronze. Somehow, sadly, it looks terribly trivial.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Old and new

This came my way a few days ago and has danced in my head ever since. Call it an eyeworm, perhaps. I'm just wondering why.

It looks like a restaurant-bar where you'd get a set lunch. They wouldn't serve in the evenings, so family and friends, I'd guess, are hanging out there under the strip lights in the evening. Perhaps a few local friends might drop by for a drink and to chat on the way home from work. The usual tile floor, a piano, a few pictures on the wall, traffic passing outside in the dark. A few bored teenagers hanging around: they look as if they're putting off going upstairs to finish their homework. Or the restaurant might be their front room. General Las Heras is a town about 40 miles from Buenos Aires.

Someone's put on a track that was a hit nearly 70 years ago, and it fills the bare space with an extraordinary resonance. A couple at the back try to dance to it, a friend pointing out where he thinks their feet should go. They make a good attempt at the hold, but they don't really know what they're doing with their feet. Unlike the couple the camera focuses on. How old is she? Eight or nine? He's a few years older, and leads with a lot of flourish, but perhaps not altogether clearly. She's amazingly neat on her feet; she knows when to keep her ankles together, and her back cross/ocho/step, whatever we call it this week, is a swift, balanced swivel.

They both look at the floor, watching their feet, and their dance has a slightly tentative feel to it, but in a year or two they'll be very assured. It's magical that the camera has caught this brief glimpse of tango in action, tango in the community, tango in everyday life; kids responding with such musicality, energy, intensity, tenderness even, to the old music of Troilo's violins and bandoneon.

Thanks to Tordolh

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Friday, 13 November 2009

Nostalgia upon nostalgia

Sadly, I hesitate to invite women I don't know and haven't watched dancing. I have to hesitate: at worst I've had attempts at a close-ish embrace (even without actual body contact) repulsed, as if I were an unwelcome pest; at best there's merely a sense of condescending boredom at my lack of wild stage moves. So if I do invite a woman I don't know and haven't seen dancing, and it turns out that she not only follows close embrace but obviously enjoys it... what a bonus!

I met her again recently as I was leaving a rather dark milonga, lit only by coloured flood-lights: I hadn't noticed her inside. She was fuming about the pathetic wannabe stage-performer attempts of dancers. I had to ask where she herself had learned to dance... but the answer was pretty obvious by now. 'In the Buenos Aires milongas, sometimes the leaders just walk! Don't people here realise what a pleasure it can be just to walk? & they turn so smoothly...' Nostalgia upon nostalgia!

At least there are dancers in London who are sympathetic. London doesn't exactly have a name for excellence in tango, but good salon dancing is beginning to be welcomed, and 'specialist' milongas, like the salon room at '33' on Sunday night, are becoming popular. I can only hope that more people will start to realise how good considerate, elegant and musical dancing can be.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Sub-category errors

Technically, a category error means putting something in the wrong category or, according to Wikepidia, '...a semantic or ontological error by which a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property.' But there might be a slightly greyer kind of category error. For instance, 'dance' (as a category): we all know what this means... but what we know might not be true of both, say, tango and ballet. Similarly, within 'tango' (as a category) there can be mistaken assumptions, so perhaps this is a sub-category error.

Last night I was talking to a friend who'd just taken a workshop with a couple of well-liked local teachers, who said she was puzzled that an Argentine teacher had told her to keep her shoulders steady, while the local couple asked why everyone kept their shoulders so rigid. & I remembered a class with Oscar Casas, who descended on me with true Latin hyperbole one afternoon: 'Nonono! You KEEL your parrrtner like that!' He then reverted to his (usual) Anglo Saxon mode and explained: if you bend from side to side, so that your shoulders go up and down alternately, you throw your partner off balance, as you affect her axis. (I was probably trying to lead traspie: instead I was taught to breath in slightly to lift my partner slightly onto her toes. Surprisingly, I found this takes concentration.)

But I'm inclined to think that Oscar and the local couple were both right. Oscar was talking about tango in close embrace, the local couple about tango in open embrace. In open embrace you are free to be 'expressive' with your shoulders, but if you do that in close embrace, you create problems for your partner, and she'll find you uncomfortable to dance with. Close embrace tango is incredibly smooth from the waist up, which can be very difficult to achieve. I'd watched tango for four years, but I was still taken aback the first evening I went to El Beso in BsAs to see, over the heads of people sitting down, male-female torsos gliding round, and rotating as smoothly as if they were suspended on pieces of string. Nothing I'd seen in London prepared me for that...

(I also remember a London workshop with Pablo Pugliese, who complained about what he called the 'chicken-wing-flapping' style of some dancers: in this, both shoulders go up and down together.)

Perhaps the category 'tango' contains two sub-categories, 'close' and 'not-close'. 'Close' is a specific art form involving a quality of movement that could be described as 'quasi-feline': 'not-close', on the other hand, seems pretty varied. But problems arise if one assumes that, since they are in the same category, 'tango', what goes for one is good for the other. In other words, 'close' is not necessarily 'not-close' danced close.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Two period films.

The Weeping Meadow (aka Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow).

This is the first film of a trilogy by Theodoros Angelopoulos. Reflecting on the death of his mother, whose life almost spanned the 20th century, he started a script based round the idea of a woman's experience of the century. It grew so long that he had to split it into a trilogy; even so, it's still nearly three hours. It's the first Angelopoulos film I've seen, and it looks unlike anything I've seen before. There's no fast, sharp storytelling; single takes can be long, long zooms and tracking shots. But the visual quality of what you see is so effortlessly breathtaking that the film dictates its own pace and time. I regretted seeing it on DVD and splitting it over two nights.

It was written by Angelopoulos with Tonino Guerra, the legendary 20th century scriptwriter who has written over 100 films, including most of Antonioni's, and many of Fellini's. Everybody's Fine, his most recent, will be released in December. Weeping Meadow is a fascinating script: much of the story is omitted, as if: 'Well, we could think of an extra bit of plot and a few more scenes here to explain this, but why bother? What happens is what matters'.

What happens? Elena is an orphan, rescued from the ruins of Odessa after the Russian revolution and brought back to Greece by a Greek refugee family. The refugee Greeks are given land in Thessalonika where they build a village. Years later, a teenager, she has given birth to twins after becoming pregnant by her teenage stepbrother: the children are hidden away in adoption. Her foster father is widowed and she is forced into marriage with him, but runs away after the ceremony to join her stepbrother, a talented accordion player. They are adopted by musicians, and ostrasised by their village. The father dies. After a storm, the village is flooded, an astonishing scene and totally natural: miles and miles of water, and not a trace of CGI or studio photography. He leaves to tour America in 1939. Unable to return to Greece and Elena, he joins the American Forces and is killed in action. The two children die fighting on opposite sides of the Greek civil war that followed WW2.

Tragedy must be part of the Greek imagination in the same way that Shakespeare is part of us: we like our tragedy with history, politics, comedy and romance mixed in. With Angelopoulos it's tragedy pure and simple, unreasonable, inexplicable, inevitable, overpowering. One example of his scripting: Elena stands on the quay, a piece of unfinished red knitting in her hands, as he is about to take the liner to the USA. 'I made this for you but didn't finish it'. A red thread of wool inadvertently gets caught in his clothing, and as he's rowed to the liner, all she has made unravels in her hands. It's visual, and incredibly expressive.

There are a number of other films by him, including Ulysses' Gaze. They are planned for DVD release, but it seems a sadly slow process.

La Reine Margot

I first saw this when it was released eight or nine years ago, and got swept along with it, so I was curious to see how well it has lasted, especially the first 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes survive as strong as ever. An edgy, vicious world, so close up you imagine you can smell it, the days leading up to the massacre of 30,000 protestants in France, sweaty with fear. (The French seem good at making films so close up you imagine you can smell them: the recent TV police/judiciary series Engrenages, 'Spiral' in English, is a bit like that.)

But although La Reine Margot looks good throughout, the plot machinations of the rest of the film look increasingly unrealistic. The Queen Mother has married her catholic daughter to the protestant Henry of Navarre in order to end inter-faith struggles in France, but the wedding becomes the occasion of the St Bartholemew's Day massacre at which the protestant wedding guests are massacred. Henry becomes a prisoner at the French court, and his mother-in-law and brothers-in-law spend the rest of the film trying to assassinate him. In the end, the king is accidentally killed by his own mother in another failed attempt to assassinate Henry. This is Dumas, not history or even common sense. In fact, the king died of TB, and Henry survived to become Henry IV, 'le bon roi Henri', tolerant in religion, and one of the most popular of French monarchs.