Thursday, 29 July 2010

South of the Border

I'm just discovering the huge changes south of the US border. Discussions on Latin American union have been ongoing for some years: with the EU as a model the aim is a common market, currency and parliament within the next decade. The UNASUR treaty was signed in May 2008 and the Banco del Sur was set up in September 2009 to support South American countries. Countries once dependent on the World Bank and the IMF are no longer willing to borrow from it, or to accept the conditions for loans; usually the deregulation of markets, which has lead to multinational exploitation of local resources. Argentina has been active, and in May this year the former Argentine president, Néstor Kirchner, was elected the first Secretary-General of UNASUR at a heads of state summit.

Oliver Stone's new documentary was written by Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot. Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C., and has been critical of globalization and of World Bank and IMF policies. He has supported the governments of South America in creating the 'bank of the south' to help achieve independence from the IMF. The film aims to counter the relentlessly negative media representations in the US, and elsewhere, of the south and its leaders by visiting them and allowing them to speak for themselves. We meet them as people and share their thoughts and aspirations.

What If Latin America Ruled the World? How the South Will Take the North into the 22nd Century is a recently-published book by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, a native of Colombia who teaches at London University. I know it through the Guardian review, where it's quoted as making the astonishing prediction of a Hispanic takeover of the United States 'sometime before the middle of this century' – that is, within the next forty years. He also claims that a sense of common ownership of land and resources is, and always has been, at the heart of the indigenous peoples' experience, and that radical, local economic models are being developed in Latin America to supplant the perceived exploitative nature of a capitalist system that, with bitter irony, developed on the proceeds of South American silver mines.

And back to Fernando 'Pino' Solanas. I've been able to follow the dialogue in his great masterpiece Sur now that it's on YouTube with English subtitles. (I wrote about it here.) It's a strange, poetic film with, I now realise, a strong political thread. The first section is called 'La Mesa de los Suenos', the 'table of dreams'; the dreamers being retired military men of an older generation who dream of an Argentine people fully in control of their own resources and using them to their own benefit. The military of the 1976-1983 period were American trained, backed and supported.

Sadly (to me) Solanas abandoned his poetic/political cinema in favour of a more directly political kind of film, which I don't enjoy watching so much. Typical of this is Memoria del saqueo 'A report on the looting', an Argentine/Swiss production that examines the 2001 crisis, and the poverty and wealth of Argentina: this is also on YouTube, as are some of his other films. I haven't watched it, but I assume the 'looting' is of individuals' bank accounts by central government.

In 2007 Solanas founded a political party, Proyecto Sur, 'Project South', with a radical agenda for economic reform. He was elected last year, and seems to have been controversial in office.

A Hispanic USA by 2050? It takes a leap of imagination, but just a decade ago it would have been inconceivable that Brazil would ever be mentioned alongside India and China as on the way to being an economic superpower. & fifteen years ago, neither China nor India counted for much economically. I wonder if we will we have a 'relación especial'.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

How do you continue dancing when the line of dance is completely static?

A milonguera who we'll just call Laura told us recently that the giro was invented when dance floors became very crowded.

So how do you continue dancing when the line of dance is completely static? Look here. & listen, too. Beautiful music.

Thanks to Jantango. To be watched many times with great pleasure, and especially before the next Tango al Fresco.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Slow Dancing 2

Slow Dancing is extraordinary. Slow motion can be very beautiful anyway, but to get a cast of dancers and choreographers like this – they include Trisha Brown, Karole Armitage, Dana Casperson, William Forsythe, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Angelin Preljocaj – in front of a very slow motion HD camera is incredible. The list also includes dancers world-wide: American Indian, Flamenco, Samoan, Capoeira, Balinese, Indian...

Five seconds of dance results in ten minutes of incredibly smooth slow dancing. Expanding time like this removes any sense of narrative or sequence. It's more like a moving photograph than a film. In film or on stage we clearly see a dancer preparing to leap. But in hyper-slow motion this sequence is so attenuated that cause and effect aren't clear, and the dancer simply seems to rise up. & these leaps are extraordinary because we see the body change shape, as the ankles start to hang from the legs, the legs from the hips and the hips from the torso; and when the body lands it visibly crumples, like an inhalation and exhalation. There's no horizontal line, no horizon to suggest ground level, just brightly-lit dancers surrounded by darkness, and the only indication of leaping is this change of body shape. & some of the leaps just go up and up. There's a strange feeling of weightlessness, and of effortlessness. Perhaps this is what dancing feels like at its best.

The more traditional dances are quieter in gesture and movement, so ballet and contemporary come out well, as does flamenco, every moment of which looks amazing. But the faces of all the dancers took my attention. For a few there was an exalting joy in movement, but most faces were inward looking, mask-like, as if absorbed entirely in the dance. Photographer David Michalek, whose project this is, takes the concept of portraiture as a starting point.

Of many very beautiful performances one of the most extraordinary was dancer Alexandra Beller, who by most standards would be regarded as over-weight, but who makes an amazing turning leap that comes down to earth and then down to the floor, where her body subsides, her hair and clothing settling slowly around her. It's an astonishing image of aspiration and matter.

& unfortunately it finishes today, July 24, at 6pm. But if you're anywhere near east London, it's at the Village Underground in Holywell Lane, which is just up the road from Liverpool Street. (You might have passed by and seen underground carriages up on the roof.) It's free, just walk in, be given a programme, and settle down on cushions and beanbags on the floor, and be entranced. Many thanks to Sadler's Wells for giving it to us.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

RIP nuevo

There's a contagious idea going around: prophets of doom, Cherie, Irene and Man Yung, then London Tango, one after the other, all proclaim the imminent demise of 'tango nuevo'! (Sighs of relief all round!) I seem to be the last to catch it, but maybe someone will catch it from me. After all, it's such a good idea!

Some years ago it was pointed out that there's no room for it on most dance floors, and thus the End of Nuevo is nigh. Not always true, but tango actually feels best in big close groups, like our Tango al Fresco in London. If you dance at arm's length from the friend you're dancing with, and at leg's length from the nearest couple, you are very close to dancing completely on your own, and how long is that satisfying?

A few weeks back I visited the big Monday-night practica in North London: a friend I'd met in Buenos Aires was passing through London, and of course we wanted to resume our dancing. She'd learned in all the best places in Germany and has enjoyed tango wherever she's been which, since she's a non-tenured academic, is all over Europe. It was literally a heart-warming experience to renew our friendship over some good old tracks that were such a pleasure to dance to. But pause a moment, and look around. Milena Plebs had taught the class so there were a lot of people there, and it was mainly tango at arms' and legs' length. A strange disengaged, abstract, cold, detached (literally) sensation; there's something cerebral about it, as if the dancers are really wrapped up in some kind of puzzle, cleverly remembering fragments of choreographies, and assembling them, and remembering the appropriate responses to the lead. I cried for the cheerful ringing laughter of the late Ricardo Vidort. Or the passionate musicality of the late Tete Rusconi. Sin miedo! Sin pensamiento! Without fear! Without thinking!

Pablo Veron commented a year or two ago that 'tango nuevo' is doubly a misnomer: it's the name coined by Piazzolla to describe his kind of music, and moreover there's nothing new in the dance itself, which goes back to dance halls of the 1930s and 1940s. It's all old tango, its elements are tango history. In its city of origin the usual term for this kind of dance is 'tango fantasia': something that happens away from the crowded reality of the dance floor, tango for the stage. I can enjoy it if it's done with passion and musicality, and with a strong sense of the close-hold emotional commitment. Look at Javier and Geraldine when they were young and together: it's a wild and breathtaking dance, although I think they'd call it salon, but nothing like the fingertips-only-and-look-how-clever-we-are-dancing-tango dance that's the worst side of London tango.

Chicho Frumboli loudly proclaimed last winter that he had ruined tango with his experiments; that THE EMBRACE was what really mattered. I checked out some recent videos of him: well, poor guy if he thinks that's an embrace! And he even looks bored. Well, maybe he was; maybe he was thinking 'I'm Chicho so I've got to teach this stuff and dance it, but really, my dear, I just want to hold you close and dance properly!' I hope he'll shock everyone and do it soon!

So is 'tango nuevo' dead or dying? It's less popular on the continent than in London, and my guess is that its day here has passed. Europeans dance close, and do it well, and I think nuevo, or fantasia, will begin to feel to dancers how it looks to outsiders: arid, lacking emotional pleasure in its core. They don't really look as if they're enjoying it, so how can it survive? Dancers will split off into jive and salsa, which can be enjoyed very readily, and into salon/milonguero tango. Of course a few gifted dancers will continue to amaze us with 'extreme tango', and the 'n' word will be long forgotten. Eso espero!

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Gardel and Goyeneche

NuclearGirl set me thinking a while back when she commented that Gardel was her late-night listening: mine is usually Pugliese, like a good many people I expect. But there is another name, Roberto Goyeneche, who I know primarily from the wonderful Sur album, which is the soundtrack to Solanas' film of that name. It's an album I often come back to, and usually late at night. I wrote about the film earlier.

Listening recently to Sur I was struck that Goyeneche speaks rather than sings, speaks in tune, but it's hardly singing. It's said his voice deteriorated as he aged, but it has such emotional depth I'd not call it deterioration. & I couldn't help thinking how strongly this contrasts with Gardel sixty years earlier, whose passion for bel canto gave tango a new direction. By the time Sur was made, the cultural background of opera and the ordered, prosperous world that supported it must have been a distant dream. The music is so full of anguish, tenderness and loss, and so beautiful, that I never tire of it. It's music that aches with nostalgia for the whole nostalgic tango tradition of the golden age, and speaking, rather than singing, seems appropriate to this new, brutal and impoverished world, 1988, the years after the dictatorship. Goyeneche's style was always a bit declamatory: his voice was rich, expressive and powerfully direct, and his diction wonderfully clear, helped no doubt by better recording technology.

The performers were mainly Nestor Marconi on bandoneon, and Roberto Goyeneche. Marconi plays three solo pieces. The voices of the bandoneon and of Goyeneche complement each other emotionally. Sur, 'South', a tango from the 1940s, is a highlight of the soundtrack and the film, the archetypal tango topic of lost love. It's a beautiful poem and the last line, 'y amargura del sueño que murio' – 'bitterness for the dream that died' – seems to have an added poignancy, given the date of this recording. It's a very potent poem: when talking about emotions in tango, Pedro Sanchez quoted the opening lines of Sur...

'On the corner of San Juan and old Boedo, and all the sky,
Pompeya, and in the distance, the flood,
memories of your loose bride's hair
and your name floating in farewells...'

… and said how he'd identified with this when he was young, and that he dances to it with all his own emotions. I felt he was suggesting that a non-porteno couldn't relate to it, but I'm not sure: we all share emotions of love and loss, and the more we understand the words, the more our own memories and emotions are involved too. (The castellano, and a translation, with a link to Troilo's recording with Edmundo Rivero, are here: I re-worded that verse above from it.)

The album is ascribed to Piazzolla, but it's not performed by him: at most there are a few tracks by him. Most of the songs, such as Sur and Naranjo en Flor, are standards that Troilo recorded much earlier with Goyeneche and others. The film came out in 1988, five years after the end of military rule, when the revival was only just beginning. Troilo and Piazzolla had both been affected by the decline in dancing from the 1950s onwards: in the mid-50s, Troilo started to record as a quartet, while Piazzolla, like Pugliese, began to concentrate on playing listening music rather than dance music. Musicians have to make a living, and perhaps there was no longer the money in dance music. Albums were still being made but the future of that amazing 20th century tradition of Argentine tango can't have looked good at that time.

Roberto Goyeneche, 1926 - 1994.

I checked out YouTube to find if there was a track there of Goyeneche singing Sur, and found that someone has uploaded the entire film, Sur, in 12 10-minute segments. & it's the Spanish version with English subtitles; the songs are partially subtitled. I've seen it only in a version dubbed into German, which regrettably I don't understand. This segment is the opening credits: the music itself, Goyeneche singing Sur, begins about 1:56. Sadly, the uploader has screwed up the aspect ratio, making Goyeneche unrecognisably overweight, and the visual quality is rather poor. The credits attribute the arrangements to Nestor Marconi, and the incidental music to Piazzolla.

I bought the album from Digital 7 (search under Piazzolla) as a download, but Sur is also available for listening on Spotify, which has expanded hugely since I last looked. It now has some 40-odd Troilo CDs you can listen to, ten of them released this year, about 20 Goyeneche albums, most of them released this year, and up to a dozen each of the Golden Age orquestas: some are compilations so they overlap a bit. i-Tunes has even more for purchase. Some of it isn't really music for dancing, but that's the era Goyeneche lived through: some of Goyeneche's albums seem over-generous with strings, and the crisp rhythms of tango aren't really there, unlike the albums he made with his close friend Anibal Troilo.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Tango al Fresco

The two Tango al Fresco events are always highlights of the London tango year for me. Interesting that for a day everyone seems close to being 'milonguero': the floor is so packed that there's no room to be extravagant, and everyone adjusts, more or less, to the crowd because everyone's happy to be there. & it feels really good. I hope the connection between dancing close and neat, dancing with a lot of people and feeling really good gets widely recognised! There were a few attempts at flying heels early on, but they either flew away in disgust or joined the crowd. & the weather was excellent. It always takes a tango or two to get used to the camber of the floor, but it's wonderful to be outside under the trees on a sunny July afternoon. There are picnics all around, milonga friends everywhere, and a warm and relaxed feeling. Devotees of the more serious Buenos Aires milongas might find it too relaxed and informal, but it's always a very enjoyable afternoon, and it always seems to show London tango at its best.

I made a discovery that really interested me. When you don't have space to do much you can playfully vary the rhythm, pause when you might be expected to step, step on the offbeats, create a sequence of rhythms that seems irregular and yet returns to the regular beat at the end of a phrase, which can make dancing with small steps in a tight space more interesting. It's never occurred to me to explore this before.

I watched The Limits of Control by Jim Jarmusch when I got back, an original and unexpected film, as ever. There's a 'making of' on the DVD; you can watch actors being ordinary humans one moment, and suddenly someone else the next. & how many people does it take to film one person walking down a street? & Jarmusch tells the old truth: there are just so many stories, but there are infinite ways of telling them.

& there are just so many steps, but there must be infinite ways of dancing them. Roll on 8 August for the second event. Here's 25 seconds of last Sunday.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Slow Dancing

High-speed, high-definition cameras recording at 1,000 frames per second have been with us for a while, showing astoundingly beautiful details of sports events. Artist David Michalek uses this technology to make video portraits of dancers, and shows them in installations using a number of screens, one per dancer. A short movement phrase of perhaps 5 seconds, is played back in 10 minutes of extreme slow motion, enabling the viewer to see the complexity of the simplest gestures, catching details that would normally escape the naked eye.

London has been a bit slow to catch up with showings of dance video made with this technology, but Slow Dancing is now in London in Trafalgar Square, from Tue 6 - Fri 9 July, starting at 9pm, and it will move on to the Village Underground, 54 Holywell Lane, London EC2A 3PQ, from Tuesday 13 - Saturday 24 July. The list of participants in this unique installation reads like a who's who of dance talent, including Wendy Whelan, Shantala Shivalingappa, Judith Jamison, William Forsythe, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Alexei Ratmansky.

This is another free dance event.

What fascinates me is that this use of technology completely removes choreography from dance. Choreography is something that happens in time, whether in five minutes or in the hour or two that a 'show' takes. This technique strips away choreography and shows us dance simply in terms of body movement. & (to me, anyway) the body in movement is one of the most beautiful things there is. There are choreographers I admire, but to me they are best when they show the freedom and complexity of movement. &, of course, my favourite dance is choreography-free! But nevertheless I find Slow Dancing a very beautiful and fascinating project.

Here's the 2007 installation at the Lincoln Centre. The video is the Sadlers Wells presentation for the project in London.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Some tango music films

Tango Salon, the BBC film about La Confiteria Ideal in Buenos Aires, was released on DVD in January. I've just rented it from my usual DVD provider, LoveFilm. It was made for general viewing rather than for the tango community, so bits of dance by the likes of Gerardo Portalea are intercut with talking heads, some interesting, many not. It also explores the political and economic situation in 2002. There are long takes of a youthful and exuberant Javier and Geraldine. Cutting up wonderful tango with talking heads is irritating, but I first watched it when I was just starting out, and I got a great deal about tango and about Argentina from it.

Unfortunately the BBC hasn't been reading Tangocommuter, or it would know that 'Extras' in the form of their out-takes, the full versions of the dances in the film, would be a big hit. There's not a single 'Extra', so if you've already seen the film there's nothing new. Which is terribly sad!

Color Tango seems to be available on DVD at Color Tango gigs only. It's a series of mini-lectures by Color Tango members, charting the history of tango, with musical illustrations. It would be a useful introduction for someone who knows little about the music. Good that Julio de Caro was given prominent mention: he introduced a musical sophistication into the relatively basic tango of his time. But the presentation of Color Tango is clunky at best. The mini-lectures are translated by translators rather than in subtitles, which slows the film.

Rodolfo Mederos has provided music for a number of films, but El último bandoneón ('The Last Bandoneón'), directed by Alejandro Saderman (2005) seems to be his first acting role. Ostensibly, the story is of how a gifted bandoneón performer, Marina Gayotto, auditions for a place in Mederos' new orquesta, but her instrument is useless, and her search for one that is playable takes her through the world of the bandoneón in Buenos Aires, the collectors, the repairers, the musicians. The dance appears too, with Geraldine and Javier, and a few of the older dancers, including Pedro Sanchez, talking about the tango world. But the musical focus of the film is the encounter of Mederos with a group of old bandoneón performers who get together regularly to play the old music. The film culminates with a concert with the new Mederos orquesta, but highlighting the bandoneón orquesta. So the storyline is rather mixed: the story of Marina looking for an instrument is an interesting insight into the world of the instrument, but provides little music. Musically, the group of old bandoneón performers is the focus of the film, but we don't see or hear a lot of them.

I've heard it said that there's been a prejudice against women playing bandoneón: until recently women have been welcome on the violin or piano, but not on bandoneón.

Mederos played with Piazolla and Pugliese, but went off in the 1970s to found Generación Cero, aiming at a fusion of jazz, rock and the music of Buenos Aires. By 1990 he had returned to tango. He was invited by Buenos Aires-born Daniel Barenboim to play in a tango trio that briefly toured Europe. This appears as a TV-only film, Tangos among friends. The tango is OK, but would hardly make you want to dance.

El otro camino ('A Different Way: Tango with Rodolfo Mederos') written and directed by Gabriel Szollosy (2008): another made-for-TV film. I watched it on cable TV late one tired night, so my impressions of it aren't exactly clear, but there's plenty of music in it, including several magical solo improvisations by Mederos. Unlike El último bandoneón the focus is much more on the music.

By far the best tango music film is Si Sos Brujo ('If you are a magician'), made by American-born Caroline Neal, who met bassist Vaurchensky when his group, El Arranque, played at a well-known London milonga. She was just finishing film school, and left with him for Buenos Aires. Vauchensky was trying to get funding for his great project (one of his great projects), the Orquesta Escuela Tango, so she was there, filming, at all the meetings and early rehearsals, and the film is an effortless, marvelous, fly-on-the-wall documentary.

At its centre is the wonderful Emilio Balcarce, who played with, and arranged for, many of the great golden age orquestas including Troilo and Pugliese. At an age when he might have expected to live quietly with his family he found himself on stage again, in Buenos Aires and on European tours, directing an orquesta of young musicians. Other surviving maestros of his generation are brought in to instruct the young musicians and to play with them: the meetings of experience with the energy of youth are extraordinary, and the music is exciting throughout. Not only is there plenty of good music, but the film is beautifully shot and well thought-out. This is definitely not to be missed, and it's the only one I can still enjoy watching again.

I'd like to say that this is the one to rush out and buy, but currently Amazon UK has only one copy - at £76. (We're assured it's in good condition.) I got it from them a year or two ago, and I think it cost around £20. Music Argentina advertises it for 18 Euros, but it would be imported from Argentina.

Here's the closing sequence, in La Ideal (where else?)