Sunday, 29 August 2010

Watching dancing

Sitting watching the dancing at Carablanca on a recent Friday evening: it's started to look and feel really good. A good proportion of the couples were in close or close-ish embrace for most of the time, they moved round the line of dance well, and the dance in general is beginning to look quite smooth. In general I enjoy watching social dance a lot more than I enjoy watching 'demonstrations', especially when it's fluent, and it looks intimate and suits the feel of the music.

Carablanca has a long history in London tango. It started at the Welsh Centre in the early 1990s, and moved to Conway Square recently. I'd really like to write a history of it, with the tango stories of the people who work each week to make sure we have a good time, as I'm sure there are some interesting ones there. Maybe in the future. It's developed, with the thoughts and suggestions of many people over the past year or so, into something that's beginning to look like a traditional BsAs milonga, and the dancing is going that way too.

But just so we don't get too many illusions about ourselves, it's worth delving into the archive Jantango is building up, just as a tango 'reality check'. One thing that's amazed me over the past year is just how many wonderful older dancers there still are. It's wonderful that video can reveal to us people whose names are little known and who still look amazing. Here's such a couple, dancing oblivious to what seems an unsympathetic background. They show skill, playfulness, great elegance and real enjoyment... isn't that cool?

& of course this is the kind of milonga I'd really like to see, although this was filmed nine years ago and sadly it's no longer possible. Jantango identifies Ricardo Vidort and Muma, Carlos Gavito, Miguel Angel Balbi, Elba Biscay, and others I've not heard of. I thought I spotted Mimi there too. Wonderful to watch all these great tangueros on the floor together.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Pedro again!

It's the 75th birthday of Pedro Sanchez on August 27th. Feliz cumpleaños, maestro!

& to judge by a couple of recent videos he's in fine form. One video is an interview, a 'Pedro talks' in his upstairs room, but there's no translation with it. & then there's also a brief, all-too-brief, video of him dancing. I love this: it's probably totally incorrect to laugh while you're dancing, but you can laugh after you finish, so why not during the dance itself?

Great video. Two people really enjoying themselves. A pity part of it shows waist level, rather than heads or feet, and mirrors are an opportunity to show the full picture in a confined space, but it's one of the most joyful tangos I've seen.

& when I found this I also came across the teaching videos Pedro made in 2005. I heard about them a few years ago, but couldn't get hold of them. I meant to ask in Buenos Aires, and completely forgot. Anyway, they appeared recently on YouTube, which is great news. However, I can't help feeling that they're a bit limited since Pedro teaches without a partner. It's actually a bit frustrating, trying to work out what he's leading, and where he's leading his invisible partner. I guess it's possible to work it out, but it could have been so much clearer if she'd been visible. I just wonder if he could be persuaded to revisit with a partner the material he covers in those videos, because it would be incredibly useful. It could be slotted into the existing videos, or uploaded as a separate piece. His explanations are simple and clear, and really deserve a more complete translation, and with a visible partner this could be excellent teaching/learning material.

There are also three wonderful dances with TangoCherie, but I don't think they necessarily cover what he taught in the class sessions. Probably not: more likely he's responding to the music, and would find it hard to dance something to order. It really is great to have the three classes, and three more tangos from Pedro available to watch: there are too few.

&, as ever, what he says is wonderfully clear and to the point. He starts the very first class by saying, first of all, feel emotion! Tango milonguero is very emotional! Emotional, not theatrical! & then he starts to talk about posture, very simply and straightforwardly. I assume that when he says the dance is very emotional he means that it is a response to all the emotion in the music: I hope someone out there can clarify this. To me, emotion distinguishes the golden age tango.

& this is what I was trying to clarify to myself in an earlier post: we are not so familiar with the emotional language of tango music, the 'cadencia', so this emotion tends to be lacking in European tango. You can be taught steps, but '...nobody can teach you the feeling', as Gavito said. But at least it can be pointed out. Unlike Pedro, who talks about it at the beginning of his first lesson, most teachers don't even refer to emotion. Many of us are drawn to tango because of the music, but responding to the emotion in the music isn't so straightforward, particularly if it's not pointed out to us as really important. Pedro's dance is clear and doesn't look elaborate, but one of his regular partners told me that there's constant flow of emotion in his lead. Or perhaps that should be; his lead is a constant flow of emotion...

These are the teaching videos: tango 1, tango 2, milonga. & the dances are: tango, tango vals, milonga

Video thanks to milongueromateo. & the classes were uploaded by Macfroggy. (Macfroggy? I wonder who that could be?)

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Am I missing something?

OK, I think this image would cause howls of protest...

...while this image might well be illegal as a poster...

but this image is a movie poster we've had to look at for three weeks now:

In any other field this might be suspected as product placement. & why is it assumed that glamorous, wealthy stars waving guns will attract people to see the film? It's bad enough that guns are so high profile in films. The gun = power, strength, solutions; it's as if you don't need to think, all you need is a handgun. A bad message, a dangerous message. But should handguns be visible like this?

Incidentally, I came across the US poster for the film: it's a decent piece of graphic design, sort of late-1950s: there's only one gun and then only as a silhouette.

Monday, 16 August 2010


I've been listening to Troilo a lot recently. There are some 40 albums available for listening online, but so little information is given that it's hard to know the date of the original LP or 78 releases(1). The album-cover photo usually gives a clue: the chubby-faced young man with slicked-back black hair becomes heavier-faced until we reach the unmistakeable 'El Gordo', hair no longer so black, but still slicked back. Some of the recordings are in stereo, another clue. & the later recordings, from the 1950s onwards are often as a quartet, since dancers were abandoning tango, and orquestas are expensive to run.

I could recognise the music of D'Arienzo, Di Sarli and Pugliese early on. Pedro Laurenz I discovered late one night on the commute back from a London milonga three years ago, when my ear picked out Paisaje from some mixed tracks, and I played it over and over, amazed at the orchestration. But although I recognise pieces by Troilo, until recently I've not found his music so easy to distinguish.

& for dancing he's definitely not easy. For a start, those rhythms are complicated. 'Makes me think of Joaquín' a partner remarked recently during a Troilo tanda, thinking of a few hours spent with musician Joaquín Amenábar exploring how the same rhythmic phrase can get repeated, with variations, within a single track. Milonga is directly rhythmic, closer to 'steps' and to our own dance background, with less phrasing, fewer melodic lines. Robert Farris Thompson (2) talks about the rhythmic intensity of Troilo's 1962 recording, with his quartet, of the milonga La Trampera; '...habanera at fast tempo, jazz bass, art guitar, even a phrase from old samba...'(3). & it rocks, in an elegant musical way. A pity it didn't stem the tide of rock 'n' roll!

Troilo's rhythms are complex, but on top of them in his tangos there's sensuous lyricism in the phrasing, which demands a different response. Phrasing is the aspect of tango I have most difficulty with. Rhythm is a common dance experience, and keeping a basic beat is hardly a problem, but phrases in tango mean thinking in terms of melodic sequences of more than a few beats, thinking ahead to the end of the phrase, with variations of intensity and speed within it. Phrasing has never been mentioned in any class I can remember: I first came across it in Tangoandchaos, the idea of dancing with the feet to the rhythm and with the body to the melody, the phrases. We learn steps and sequences, and if we're lucky we learn about rhythms, but phrasing may be too indefinite, too subjective, for classes. Maybe Joaquín could teach it, alongside rhythm, if he had time. I think it's a feature of good Buenos Aires tango, which doesn't mean we can't live without it. And yet.

& it's difficult. Just watch those milongueros and see how smoothly they follow the phrasing of the music with their upper bodies. It looks wonderful, and very satisfying too, but unless you know the music really well, a phrase can be half finished before you get your feet in place to respond. Rhythms are easy to recognise, but without (and even with) some musical background, particularly in the Italian folk and opera traditions, which were so important to tango, it's hard to respond to those singing phrases that follow the breathing of a sung line. Almost all tango starts as song, and watching the old dancers is like watching singing with the body instead of the voice. (& maybe with the voice too...)

Until five years ago, to watch Buenos Aires social dancing meant a long and expensive trip: these days it's beginning to be possible to to see how social tango looks simply by logging into YouTube. Unfortunately these days we never get to see or meet these older salon dancers in London, although they visit Europe regularly. Ah! I'm re-re-repeating myself...

Here's Troilo and his orquesta. I guess this was a few years before his death in 1975.

Video thanks to elmundoalreves1.

(1) On Spotify. The dates are of the UK CD releases I think. (2) Tango: the art history of love, pp. 132-3. (3) On the 1962 Cuarteto Troilo-Grela album, Pa' Que Bailen Los Muchachos. (Apologies for the footnotes!)

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Learning tango

All tangobloggers write at some point about learning tango. Here goes...

I've just read Arlene's post admitting her difficulty in remembering sequences, choreographies. Me too! Some people have an amazing facility for remembering, many of us don't. But I've learned a lot from video, and successfully worked out on the floor what I've watched. When I watch on screen I find it easier to break a sequence down into individual steps I'm familiar with. I don't think there are that many different steps in tango, but it's extraordinary how they can be combined and recombined. (By 'step' I mean one single step, not a sequence.)

For instance, in an ordinary salida the guy leads his partner by moving his weight to the left, then steps sideways with the left foot. Now here we reach the same position as in an ocho cortado. This must mean that we could continue an ocho cortado as if it was a salida, and vice-versa. I guess we've been drilled in salida patterns and ocho cortado patterns in classes, so this might not be immediately obvious, but it offers a simple way of giving our partners unexpected variety; a salida that ends in a cross, an ocho cortado that turns into a walk. The dynamic and the rhythm of salida and ocho cortado might be different, but the positions are identical.

This suggests a different way of teaching and learning. A few teachers sometimes offer puzzles to be solved in class: how many ways can you think of to step out from the cruzada? Can you invent more, what other possibilities are there? This seems a really useful exercise because it's an improvisational approach. Stringing memorised sequences, choreographies, together is a clumsy approach to learning an improvised dance: it's probably the cause of a good many collisions too.

A while back I assumed that the late Ricardo Vidort had cracked it. He claimed that to dance tango all you needed was eight lessons with him. I thought he might have identified eight basic positions, with an infinity of switches between them. & then I was told, yes, but he also said three classes with him, so I guess the next day it might have been six or ten! Dancing in general, rather than specific movements, must have been in his mind.

Laura, a milonguera from Buenos Aires, was in London recently, and it was a wonderful opportunity to dance with her for a while. 'What giros do you have?' she asked, then: 'I'd like to give you a giro': I liked the language a lot. The teaching method is familiar: it's as if a giro is a thing that can be passed on in its entirety. In an effort to simplify learning, the possibilities of alternatives at any step of the giro are ignored. However, this means that the giro is likely to become a brief, inflexible sequence of steps, whereas it is really a sequence of single steps each of which, I think, could lead in a different direction.

Laura talked of 'an old milonguero' who can dance only two (or was it three?) sequences, and yet he's the one all the women look forward to dancing with. (Ismael Heljalil maybe?) Of course, she still taught us new sequences, but the simple, practical advice she gave about leading, about making intention clearer, was certainly as useful as the giros she 'gave' me, and which I treasure. The classes in Buenos Aires I really valued were those where I got nuts-and-bolts observations about walking and body position. You can improvise sequences or if, like me, you're not that quick, you can work them out from YouTube or from classes, but feedback from an experienced dancer is gold dust. That's why I valued Cacho Dante's classes so highly: he took the trouble to watch me closely, and made valuable comments about the way I walked, and I think his advice was more useful than the sequences I was taught by other teachers. After all, what he told me applies to every step of every tango.

Tango teaching probably can't do without fixed sequences. However, if there is a small number of distinct positions vis-a-vis your partner, then a system based on memorising and recognising them might be useful. Memorise them so they are recognised when they occur, and learn some of the different ways to lead away from each distinct position. In theory this could lead to a more flexible kind of leading that can adapt more fluently to changes on the floor. Perhaps, after all, there are just eight distinct positions. Has anybody counted them?

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Picasso for free

Amazing what you can get for free, sometimes. There were three free dance events recently: I saw two of them and thought they were really outstanding. And now Picasso.

Gagosian is a big international gallery of the Rome/New York/London variety, and the business is selling big international artists. So it's quite wonderful when they put on a free exhibition that, as far as I can tell, isn't aimed at selling anything. Not only that, it's a seriously big and thorough show, almost on the scale the Tate would charge you £10 for. Insurance for bringing together all this work must have cost a small fortune; then there are gallery overheads, not to mention a platoon of black-suited security guards with wires coming out of their ears. & a free coats and bags room.

The gallery is in Britannia Street
, off Gray's Inn Road, five minutes from Kings Cross. The show covers Picasso's 'Mediterranean Years', painting, sculpture, ceramics, prints, drawings, from 1945 to the mid-60s. If you think art should never be playful, you won't like it, but behind the playfulness, in the furious scribbles of the paintings and the endless reinvention, there's an intent and obsession that is more than just playful. & there's a lot of painting, and a lot of sculpture too, much of it previously unseen since it's from private family collections. Rooms and rooms of it. Including the wonderful litho print of a bull or bison, which starts off as solid, realistic; the stone gets re-worked, and stage by stage the prints become a spare linear drawing. I've never seen the originals before. Plenty of people there, kids sitting drawing on the floor, too. I came out feeling I'd had a good holiday, and a lot more besides.

Larry Gagosian started out selling posters in LA in the 1960s. Wonderful; and many thanks!