Saturday, 28 July 2012

El Beso

Jantango made this comment to my post on El Beso:

' posted the announcement on July 26 that El Beso will reopen in August. No specific date was mentioned. All the milongas are returning home.'

-- which is good news. Being somewhat sceptical I'd assumed that a relatively undeveloped property, only two floors in a city increasingly of high-rises, at the central intersection of two major thoroughfares, was probably the subject of real estate negotiations for humongous sums of US dollars. I'm happy to be wrong, but I'm curious about the return of all the milongas. Maybe larger, less crowded floors aren't so attractive, or maybe they are just more expensive. Maybe the expansion of dancing over the last decade or two has levelled off, and larger floors simply aren't needed or economical. Or maybe there's a concensus that this intimate dance is more at home in small venues where people are closer, both on and off the floor. Cachirulo successfully managed the move from Maipu 444 (small) to Villa Macolm (large), but maybe the event becomes more impersonal with a lot more people. I'm in no doubt which of the two venues I prefer, and it's certainly not the larger one.

Monday, 23 July 2012

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

I guess we all have a sense of who we think of as the greatest living human, and Nelson Mandela must be at the top of most people's lists. I can't argue with that, but Daniel Barenboim comes extremely close for me. He's one of the world's finest concert and recital pianists, he's also general music director of La Scala in Milan, and of the Berlin State Opera.

He also argues passionately for Palestinian rights, and has been called a 'true anti-semite' by bewildered Israeli politicians. With the late Edward Said he set up the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of Palestinian and Jewish youths playing music together, which he directs (in addition to all his other careers). It's wonderful that the BBC invited the orchestra and Barenboim to perform at this year's proms – and to perform all nine Beethoven symphonies, the entire cycle, two each night this week, with the ninth on Friday coinciding with the opening of the Olympics. It's an extraordinary accolade.

I'm pretty sure I saw the orchestra from the top of a bus this morning, a large group of cheerful-looking young people with instruments in cases outside the old Commonwealth Institute, obviously waiting for a coach to take them somewhere, presumably to the Royal Albert Hall to rehearse Beethoven's fifth. What a week for them! I heard part of the broadcast this evening: it sounds like a smaller orchestra than any of the great Philharmonics, but the equal of all of them for intensity, enthusiasm and commitment. It sounded great.

Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires and tango was some of the first music he heard. He records that it was his parents' music when they relaxed and went out dancing, the songs they sang at home.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Nightmare on the streets of Buenos Aires

I awake from a nightmare on the streets of Buenos Aires. I've arrived back in the city, and it seems to be a future time. There's some kind of revivalist milonguero festival on, and everyone is concentrating on Estilo Milonguero, as in 'What was the correct Estilo Milonguero way for the dancers' hands to meet?' I see people arguing about the exact hold: no no, the guy's left hand used to be like this! Qué pesadilla! What a nightmare! As I wake up, perplexed and groaning, I'm thinking; so where am I going to get a dance tonight?

A dystopian vision of the future, or was it a sly subconscious comment on some aspects of the present? I don't want to imagine what Buenos Aires might be like in 100, 150 years. &... oh no, a dream about Buenos Aires! The city with the greatest concentration of analysts on earth! (Or so it's claimed.) What will they make of me?

In the cold light of morning I think that if the soul goes out of tango people will stop dancing, and if they want to start dancing again there's at least an archive of video: between video and the music, the dance can be re-created. A pity to have no contact with that era when kids grew up with the dance and later went to milongas where Troilo and D'Agostino played, it was that much part of their lives, but you could get by and learn to enjoy the dance and music from video. You could get by, but 2D video tends to give a rather weightless impression: if you look hard, and especially if you use slow motion, you can work out how weight and momentum are used, but you don't feel it as directly as when you watch live bodies dancing. But at least the videos will show nothing rigid about the form of the dance, so there's hope for a hypothetical tangoless future.

I should say I avoid the 'm' word: I have a strange aversion to the way it gets used to define and package a particular style (as if there was a particular style), and an apparently elite, exclusive group of tangueros. For some reason I've always felt the reality to be a bit indeterminate, a bit indefinable. Maybe that's just how I'd like it to be, but sometimes things are safer if they aren't defined too precisely. So I myself dance... tango. (At least I hope it's recognisable as tango.) To be more precise, social tango (as against, anti-social tango.) Perhaps even 'tango salon'. I hope there's no such thing as 'salonero', or would it be 'salonisto'? Never, I hope!

Monday, 9 July 2012

Dancing together, without big decorations

'I really like dancing with you but I want to do those big decorations I learned in the class. I never seem to have time to do them...'
...said the newcomer. Oh dear...
I explain tango fantasia, choreographed right down to the decorations, and 'real-world' tango, the social dance of the milongas, improvised and spontaneous because it's on a dance floor with other people. My partner can't see what lies ahead and I can't see her feet; if I have to change direction, she could trip over herself. (I've seen it happen.) Only if we dance at arms' length is it possible for a partner to insert big decorations safely, since we can look down and see all our feet are up to, but if you're looking down your balance isn't great, and you don't look great either, two people dancing at arms length and looking at their feet. It might be fun, but it's hardly elegant, and anyway I should be watching out for the other dancers around us. It's possible to decorate in close embrace dance, but decorations have to be very skilful, small and quick, not huge gestures meant to be applauded from the back stalls of a theatre. Less is definitely more.
'So why do we have classes where these big decorations are taught?'
& I want to say: just relax! But it's not so easy just to let go, and anyway, if my lead is clear and confident, then my partner will relax. The partners I regularly dance with know what I'm doing and what I'm probably going to do: unless I'm aware, lead and follow can go on auto-pilot, and the whole thing becomes just faintly boring. I have to make sure I really am leading every movement: no good just sticking my left leg out sideways without leading from the torso to put some energy, compulsion, some weight, into the lead. It's with a newcomer you discover how well you really lead.
Like many of his generation, the late Tete was a marvellously assured leader: there are stories of how he could take a complete beginner, one who moved clumsily even, and get her through a dance with him. He taught leading by getting you to lead him: if your lead wasn't absolutely clear he would find a way of doing exactly the opposite to what you hoped you were leading. I guess that's how he learned to lead. It was like trying to lead water if you weren't confident and exact.
Classes can teach you too much to think about, when the essence of dancing is a kind of surrender. Perhaps that's why dance can feel like making love: you just let the flow of pleasure take over. At the same time, the bodies that walk in off the street desiring to dance tango may well need to go through a period of attunement. If there's a shortage of marvellously assured leaders, they might need help with things that ought to be simple, like posture, like walking not only with the beat but also with the flow of the music too. In daily life we can be quite oblivious of our bodies, and when we come to dance our walk is likely to be stiff and awkward. Dance is a great way to become bodily aware, aware of balance and movement, but it takes work. & it takes realising that that work needs to be done. (Unless, that is, you happened to grow up in a porteño family in the 1940s...)
The newcomer's young adult daughter was with her one evening, just watching, entranced. 'It's so wonderful to see men and women really dancing together' she said. 'I mean, most of the dancing these days...' That actually made me very happy. & I'm happy to say that, yes, the men and women in the room actually were dancing together, perhaps imperfectly by the highest standards, but together. Without big decorations.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Photography, dancing and painting

I bought a film camera recently and it reminded me of my first camera, a present. My father sat me down and explained photography, explained the camera, the film, and how it should be used. I was about 11. But when I think about it I realise that he didn't teach me how to make photographs. That was something I had to learn by myself – and am still learning.

You look at photos, you read about them, you talk to other photo makers about their photos and yours. Even now, it still feels like an endless process, as if you take/make photos in order to find out how to make them, how to make them better. (Or 'take' them: the one real mentor I had in photography spoke French, and she always spoke of 'making' photos.) & if you put everything into it you might end up making photos that can be recognised as yours, and no one elses's.

I think it may be some kind of category error to assume that teaching or learning a practical, creative activity like dancing, painting, photography, is the same process as teaching or learning a theoretical or factual subject like history. I think very few of us were encouraged to learn by enquiry: we were passive containers to be filled with knowledge. So, now, if we want to know something, immediately we become students, all ears for our all-knowing teachers. It's a familiar way of learning.

But approaching photography or dancing this way really doesn't make a lot of sense. Sure, there's a certain amount of basic stuff you need to be taught in painting, but you can't solemnly file into a classroom week after week to be taught to paint: you have to go out and buy some tubes of colour and make a mess, and keep making a mess until you start to find something that makes sense to you and others. The same with tango. You've got to be released into the wild pretty early on to develop survival skills. A teacher can, and should, explain the skills you need, and demonstrate what you need to do, but you've got to go out there and join the community, learn by trial and error. & hopefully some wise old teachers, sympathetic partners, perhaps, who've been round the floor more than a few times, will be there to help you improve your skills and develop your musicality.'No! Put your foot there, not here!' or 'Con el cuerpo!', as Pedro keeps saying; dance with your whole body rather than just with your feet. 

There's a certain amount in tango that does need to be taught in classes of some kind, whether one-to-one, or in groups, and these days there are so many people who want to approach tango that group classes are the most feasible option. But it should be clear from the start that the real learning is done on and around the floor, preferably in practicas, by trying and by watching. That is learning, it's an active process, an activity, and it covers a whole area that simply can't be taught. 

As I've mentioned before, there's a real shortage of practicas in London. Chris left a link to a list of Berlin practicas, and as far as I can make out there are at least two every night, more some nights. In many ways I think practicas suit our relatively informal society better than milongas.