Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Sunday at Pavadita

Two good things: it was a hot day, and England won! The third ODI, that is, a bit of a nail-biting finish, but well done. Not the same Australian team that thrashed us for years, and a well-organised English team that even seems to have worked out how to deal with the few seasoned Aussie players. Two ODIs to go, we've won the series and we're beginning to wonder about a whitewash. Can this really be happening?

& on to Nikki's new Hammersmith milonga, La Pavadita, at the Hammersmith Club in Rutland Grove, five or 10 minutes walk from the underground. The most ideal place for a milonga I've seen in London. Beautiful, a tall, rather narrow building with a stage at one end, and a bar with a balcony over it at the other. It feels spacious, high-ceilinged, with windows close to the roof. Even on a hot evening it was bearable. (I was told that at the Crypt the previous night it had been 33 degrees inside: the place reminds me of an enormous brick bread-oven, and must have been close to turning out human pizzas.)

The dance floor at Pavadita is long and fairly narrow: you can see across it easily, which is great, but subtly confusing because it feels like a cabeceo situation, but it doesn't actually work because no one is expecting it. The opening night a few weeks ago was comfortably crowded, but last night it was a bit sparse: a hot, late-June evening. The building is well-maintained, and the lighting is quite good, a nice change. An excellent wood floor, and space to move in between the tables and the dance floor. Perfect.

Last winter, Cacho Dante insisted that I must not step forwards with a leg bent at the knee: I realised afterwards what this does to posture. In fact, straightening the knee produces that flick forwards, that little kick you notice in a good tango walk. When there are few dancers on the floor you tend to notice individuals, and individuals who lead without looking confident often step forwards with a bent knee. They may be confident and even have quite a range of steps, but someone who confidently leads a wide variety with bent knees simply looks weird. (& I wonder how my posture looks these days, after years of bad posture, some years of yoga and pilates, a few years of tango, and a few months since Cacho's intervention. These days it feels good walking down the street, but once you get on the floor things can change. Some months since I last dared film myself dancing.)

And a couple who dance and teach 'fantasia' tango in London was there. It surprised me how irritating it can look. It kept catching the corner of my eye, and seemed to go against the grain of dancing there, which was otherwise pretty much salon, some of it very practised and good. It was certainly going against the music: it was with the beat of course, but seemed to ignore completely the emotional charge of the music. I like Golondrina's comment about following this kind of dance: '...it can feel like a cryptic word puzzle – elusive and just out of reach'. It's meant to look good, but by comparison it actually looks rather trivial.

Anyway, welcome Pavadita, and best wishes!

Monday, 28 June 2010


Free Open Air Performance
1-4 July
Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court
Somerset House

'Come and watch a powerful all-women cast, made up of five extraordinary professional dancers and fifteen of the UK’s exciting emerging talents brought together especially for this unmissable event. Shobana Jeyasingh's dramatic choreography, together with the unique talents of designer Ursula Bombshell and sound artist Cassiel, promise an intense and water-inspired dance performance for visitors to Somerset House.'

Thurs & Fri at 18.00 & 19.00
Sat & Sun at 12.00, 13.00, 15.00 & 16.00

Friday, 25 June 2010

The beautiful game...

The footwork! The precision! The timing! The control! The fluency! &... the musicality! No apology, we're still in the land of the midnight milonga. In Maipu 444 to be precise. Just take a look at this! Please! (I can't embed it.)

Too bad so many videos of milongas show the ceiling, and the torsos of dancers. There are many reasons why it's not easy to film in a real milonga. (I suggested that someone should try to find funding to set up a temporary milonga in the city, where the best old dancers could, if they chose, come and be filmed: I hope someone's working on that right now!) This brief clip has got it absolutely right: it shows where it all comes from, where the energy starts, the floor. Just watch these magic feet dance together! & for a brief moment, their faces. & see how much music you can make stuck in a small corner of the floor while the other dancers are still chatting.

One great thing of the last year has been finding out just how many wonderful older dancers there still are. Irene and Man Yung revealed a number of them earlier in the year, and Jantango's project is ongoing. It's wonderful that good quality, inexpensive video, and YouTube, have arrived just in time for us to follow some of these people from afar, for dancers in the future to look at stuff like this and say, 'Is that what it was like? Amazing!'

Monday, 21 June 2010

Here and there

I sometimes think it can surprise people in London to realise how much Argentines can bring to tango. That's not really intended to sound sarcastic, but I sometimes get the impression that even London dancers in a traditional tango style aren't that interested in Argentine dancers whose tango is traditional, that there's a feeling that we should sort out our own tango for ourselves, even that we might know a bit better than them. Maybe we should, maybe we do, but it's still wonderful when Argentines like Mimi, like Marcelo Rojas, turn up and really excite people with their passionate enthusiasm which, along with a sense of elegance, is really characteristic of traditional Argentine tango.

I heard a lot of very positive comments about the music the Buenos Aires DJ Marcelo Rojas played at Carablanca last Friday. People really liked it. In Buenos Aires I'd been struck how strong, proud, alive, the music often sounds, and how dull it sometimes sounds here. Tangoenelcielo pointed out that Buenos Aires DJs will typically play tanda after tanda of that strong proud music, a limited, often repeated selection of D'Arienzo, Biagi, Troilo, Tanturi, at the beginning of the evening. It's a good way to get a party going, but gets a bit repetitive. Later, Fresedo, D'Agostino, Pugliese maybe. I couldn't stay to the end, but that's the way the evening seemed to be shaping up. 'The music is so good this evening' was what I kept hearing. It certainly made me feel good, and quite a few other people too. Many thanks, Marcelo, it was great.

And I wonder how this couple, Argentine dancers whose tango is traditional, would be received if they visited London. 'Traditional' suggests a single style, whereas traditional tango is really individual: Osvaldo and Coca's tango, like the tango of everyone else of their generation, is unique. No two couples are alike. No other dancers move from humour to intense seriousness like Osvaldo and Coca, and always with impeccable musicality. They teach all over Europe in our summer months, but I wonder if many dancers would manage to to turn up if they gave workshops here. I've never seen tango as a competitive sport, so the idea of tango 'World Champions' always seems more than a bit off to me, but that's what they were, Campeones Mundial de Tango Salon, 2004. Even so, would many dancers go to their workshops in London?

& have I said all this before? & am I repeating myself? Sad, isn't it?

Video thanks to 2xtango (but it would have looked better without the logo), and thanks to tangocelebration for pointing it out.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Craneway Event 2

An astonishing feature-length film in which little seems to happen, and yet one watches in a kind of relaxed attention, oblivious to the passage of time. It just looks beautiful.

The 'event' isn't really a rehearsal: the dancers have already rehearsed, and choreographer Merce Cunningham is spending three days prior to performance locating the dance in the former Ford assembly plant, an enormous hall, glazed on three sides, right on the quay-side, separated from the sea only by the craneway, the iron tracks once used by the cranes. To the sides, the hills of San Fransisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. Ships; a container vessel inches past, yachts breeze by. The floor of the hall is huge, probably three or four times bigger than any stage, and covered with a semi-reflective surface of dance mat. The folding doors at one corner of the hall must be 20 feet high.

Three days, the fresh clear light of morning giving way to the diffused warm glow of late afternoon sunshine. The dancers work through their sequences; their pacing and angle to the audience are changed a little by Merce Cunningham, wheel-chair bound after, he has said, too many years dancing on concrete. But he was 90 when the film was made and sadly he passed away during the editing. The film does have an elegaic quality. There's no music, just the sounds of the dancers on the floor, occasionally of boats and the sea. It's very quiet. The cameras never move; no pans, no zooms, just cuts from angle to angle, long takes, the visual style of film-maker Tacita Dean, who was invited by Cunningham to film the event, although she chose rather to film these final rehearsals since Cunningham himself was present.

In a way it's unfocussed, or rather the focus is on everything. It's certainly not a film about a dance performance as it doesn't show us clearly all the dancers' moves. It's not a film about Merce Cunningham, who is present throughout but not as a character in a film or documentary. Or rather it is all these, and more too: it's a film about the building, about the birds, the sea and the ships, the bridge, the city and above all the wonderful light. It's a wonderfully calm film. At the end of the third day, there's a long take, looking from end to end of the hall, against the warm blaze of the setting sun, the dancers little more than silhouettes, the vast building full of movement from end to end, the floor reflecting the light and the dancers. The final rehearsal finishes, there's a little laughter, voices and relaxed movement, and with that the film ends.

Details of the screenings are here. Three screenings a day Tuesday to Friday, and two on Saturday, until June 26. & it's free. (& if you click on that link, have a look at the line of dancers in profile. Que postura!)

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Bridge to the Tango 2

At the beginning of April I posted about Daniel Trenner's blog and new website, and about his great series of videos, which he is currently re-releasing online. Later in April he uploaded some samples on YouTube. All go back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, and there are some well-known names among them. His videos are now the only record of some of the dancers who learned in the Golden Age.

The one-hour sessions seem expensive at $65 as downloads. I bought the two VHS cassettes of Tete and Sylvia a few years ago, and they were cheaper, even with postage and packing. However, Trenner says he also has hours of interview material as well, which is of little or no commercial value, and that the sale of downloads of the class material will go towards the free release of the less commercial material on YouTube and on the itangocafe website. If this includes translation and sub-titling, it's excellent value. & he points out that these prices are in line with the cost of private lessons.

If you search YouTube for itangocafe you'll find a number of recently uploaded extracts from Tete and Sylvia, Tomi O'Connel, Rodolfo and Maria Cieri, Juan Bruno, Pupi Castello, Victor Romero and Norma Galli, and Omar Vega, all well worth watching. The format isn't ideal: translation, rather than subtitles, adds to the length, but there's some inspiring material there.

I'll embed just one, the late Tete. It's said that he was dissatisfied with the two one-hour sessions. The setting is certainly strange: the potted plants and pseudo-Greek columns, a Buenos Aires studio, no doubt, an atmosphere miles away from the comfortable relaxation of a milonga. & there's a telling moment when Trenner asks him to demonstrate a step without music. 'Sin musica?' asks Tete, looking really puzzled: to make up for the lack of that essential ingredient he sings to himself as he dances. But if he felt that his 'performance' is lacking, at least the video is extremely clear, and the tangos danced in between the teaching demonstrations show something of the energy and musicality he is remembered for. This is one of them.

PS. 1.21 to 1.30: just what does he do there? But it's a totally unhurried lead, virtuoso without the slightest sense of a display, and Sylvia just continues with a couple of untroubled ochos.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Tango and Argentine football

BBC Radio Three has an excellent evening programme called Night Waves which manages to be interesting about a very wide range of material, from Paul Davies on the possibility of extra-terrestrial life to the latest opera productions, from IVF and the definition of a family to... tango and Argentine football. Here's a quick summary: you can listen online until 15 June here, but it might not be possible outside the UK.

As the city grew, the huge immigrant influx resulted in densely crowded barrios, where the national hero, once the solitary gaucho out in the pampas or the literary hero Martin Fierro, no longer made sense. Football started as the past-time of the large British expat community, but was taken up everywhere across the rapidly expanding city. Huge crowds turned up to watch, and English professionals visited on lucrative tours with their focused, disciplined, unemotional, organised and forceful play, the football of an industrialised nation. But Argentina wasn't an industrialised nation, and its football favoured virtuoso footwork, individuality, the turn, the dribble, the feint, over the mechanistic style of the English teams.

& where had the Argentine footballers learned their more emotional style and moves? It was the time of the emergence of tango, which had been banned from the centre of the city, but thrived in the outlying barrios, where the footballers developed their skills. The sharp turns of tango, the rhythm of movement, were part of the same culture as football; footballers danced tango. Racing Club was written in the 1920s, and we still dance to it: I assumed it was about horse racing, but apparently it was about a football club. (Huracán, another well-known tango, I believe still is a team.) The 1924 Olympics in Paris and 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, where the Argentine football team took the silver, showed off the new skills. Football heroes took over from the gaucho as the new masculine icons of the nation, icons that could dance.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The window of opportunity

If this blog has one theme, it's how frustrating it is to be stuck in London in a sea of publicity for visits by young, mainly show-tango teachers, while some of the best of the older generation from Buenos Aires, with a life-time of experience, teach all over Europe yet never visit the UK. When I hear of such visitors to Europe I always draw attention to them – Osvaldo and Coca are in Europe now, and will be at Tango Retiro 2010 in Sweden in the last week of July, and Alberto Dassieu will be in Switzerland, also in July – in the desperate hope that someone can get them into the UK for a few days. Alberto I know for sure really hopes to be able to visit London this July. At one time I even fantasised about a London Milonguero Festival to which they'd all be invited – all together! – but I just happened to lack the funding... (I pushed out the idea in case someone thought, 'Hey, what a good idea. I'll do it!' – but I didn't think it was advisable to hold my breath.)

There are legal problems, yes, there are in most countries, but there must be ways for visitors to teach here temporarily: Los Ocampo and the Disparis manage to visit regularly for extended, well-publicised tours, as do bucket-loads of almost-identical teachers of showy tango. Surely by now there are enough of us to make a visit by some of those other wonderful dancers worthwhile? Because time isn't on our side. The window of opportunity may be just a year or two, if that. Not that their teaching will disappear when they go, but I happen to think that contact with all that experience is really important. Learning tango isn't just learning where to put your feet.

It was wonderful to have Mimi in London last weekend: the class was well-attended and, with a better understanding of what was possible with publicity we could have had better-attended workshops too. There was certainly no shortage of enthusiasm for her teaching. & that's just London. I think (hope) there's the realisation that 'milonguero' isn't just a style of tango, one among many, but that in its native form it has a big heart, and a life of its own, that it's a very profound communion between people.

In the meantime, if the prophets don't come to the UK, the only thing to do, it seems, is to go to them while they are still able to visit Europe. Italy is their no. 1 destiny, partly because of the language affinity, and several excellent dancer/teachers have settled there. You can make several trips to Italy for the cost of one visit to Buenos Aires: worth thinking about. See you in Milano/Venezia/Ferrara/Roma/Lecce/Bari next summer? Or do you think we could manage to get some good visitors to London by then?

Monday, 7 June 2010

Mimi in London

I really don't know where to begin this one. The Friday night workshop at Carablanca was big and a bit chaotic. Mimi, by no means young, nevertheless has unstoppable energy for teaching tango, and it wasn't easy to halt her voluble flow: moreover, Carole who was translating for her, only just had the voice (unlike Mimi) to fill Conway Hall, which is big and high. But someone with energy like that carries a whole crowd along with her. Soon we were dancing with coats draped over our arms (guys' left, girls' right) to remind us of the need to keep that side of the embrace open. It all seemed a bit basic and pedantic, until suddenly we were trying to lead a walk in parallel to the girls' left side, with a saccada.

And unlike some other teachers Mimi stayed to the end, and enjoyed herself on the floor, leading and following. She led a milonga tanda with Christine Denniston, which I'll remember for a while. & I know that she went on to another milonga when Carablanca closed, because I showed her where it is.

I think this is an aspect of tango we rarely see in London: this wholehearted, good-natured passion for the dance. I think Ricardo Vidort was quoted as saying that you should only dance if you're going to give it everything you've got, and not dance otherwise, and I think most of us were impressed by that spirit in Mimi. If it's worth doing, it's worth giving it everything.

So she left the milonga at 01.30 and was ready for workshops at 11am next morning. The workshops were a lot easier. For a start there were two excellent Spanish speakers in addition to Carole, and they all made a point of reining her in - 'Espero, Mimi, uno momento!' – so we could get the full translation. And stopping her so we could get a short break was really an effort! We're all more than grateful to those Spanish speakers for their help.

There was plenty of opportunity to work with a partner, and also to ask Mimi for particular advice and clarification. I wish I could remember more of the clarification, but a few points stick in mind. Firstly, stepping out of the cruzada: for a lady, make sure that the weight is fully transferred to the front foot by lifting the toes of the back foot, before stepping back with it. It looks good, and it ensures that the weight has been fully transferred before stepping. Guys are probably going to step forwards from a cross, so the toes of their front foot should be lifted by pushing up from the ball of the back foot. Then, when leading a saccada, try to lead it from the hip. It certainly works better, and it certainly feels better, more a nudge of the leg than a kick to your partner's foot, as the leg swings out from the hip, rather than kicking. Then just in walking, girls step back with a straight leg, guys step forwards with a straight leg, and onto the ball of the foot as much as possible. Try to think of the instep as you walk, and try to walk like a tightrope walker. & the contact of guy's left to lady's right hand should mainly be with the lower part of the palm: the fingers don't give a firm enough contact. (Although of course you don't lead with the left.) And she noticed too much 'clutching': with the guys' right hands in particular; and also the guys' left and the girls' right arms get pulled in towards the body. Practice with a coat draped over your forearm! And... And... (If anyone can remember more or correct me, please post a comment.)

There was a lot more, a huge amount more: about which muscles need to be used to make walking better and so on. My first impression of her teaching in Buenos Aires was amazement that dancing had been analysed in such detail. Normally, I'm opposed to classes with a lot of talking, and to classes with a lot of technical detail, but this was on another level. In fact, one participant told me she wanted to go to all the tango teachers she'd ever studied with to ask them for her money back: she'd been misled and misinformed so often.

We started with the parallel walk from Friday night, then a basic walk in cross system with two saccadas, and a way of linking the two. Then in the final session she said she'd been watching us dance and had seen plenty of walking but not much turning, so she taught us a very quick tight turn, a 'giro milonguero', a 'quatro baldosa' (four-tile) turn, since it can be done in very little space (a good many Buenos Aires dance floors are tiled). It actually feels more like a one-tile turn, it is so tight, the kind of thing you can do even when you are squeezed in between four other couples.

Mimi didn't really stop for a break, just slowed down a bit. & she was still teaching on the pavement outside as we left. & I know she was going on to another milonga that evening. This really is the spirit of tango. Come back soon!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Hats off...

...to tango organisers! As in so many things, if their work is well done, you don't see it. If you see all the hard work, then the result can look laboured. The same is true in dancing!

This occurs to me as I'm involved in getting together some workshops this weekend. Emails have gone out, and Tango-uk alerted. So if you are in London, I hope you can come along to Carablanca on Friday night, and on Saturday June 5 to The Room, 33 Holcombe Road, Tottenham Hale, London N17 where there will be two workshops, between 11 and 1 and between 1.45 and 3.45. A single workshop will be £20, and the price for both is £30. If you are interested, please email me (address on the right side of the page) as we need to keep numbers about the same.

Mimi Santapá grew up observing her father, Mariano Leotera, teaching the tango dancers of his generation. He developed a methodical way of teaching tango, and Mimi witnessed many great dancers pass through his workshops, including the late Carlos Gavito, and Juan Carlos Copes. When Mimi teaches she reminds us often: “These are the things my father taught me, with a few things I added through my own understanding of the body.”

She teaches dancers of all levels in Buenos Aires, and emphasizes walk and body position to result in a dance that looks and feels effortless. Too often tango is taught merely in terms of foot positions, but the position of the whole body in the lead up to a position of the foot can be really important. I've written about her a couple of times before: the entries are here, here and here

Mimi doesn't dance so much these days, but there is a video of her with one of her students at El Arranque in Buenos Aires. I've embedded it before, but I think it's well worth watching again.

Video thanks to Tangoyte.