They say that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. Consider the tango: The hardened steel gaze of lustful surrender that cackles between the faces of tango dancers, while the music goes “Baarrrup ... bumbump ... bumbumpbarrup.” Legs and high-heeled shoes slicing and dicing across the stage like pairs of swashbuckling ginsu knives one minute, spent bodies wilting like heartbroken flowers the next. More than the original Dirty Dancing, tango is an exploration into the powerful and often conflicting forces that drive the human soul. In the words of choreographer Ana Maria Stekelman, artistic director and founder of TangoKinesis, it is about something even “more mysterious than love.”
Indeed, there is a dual nature to the tango, a fusion of elements both primal and refined. But it was not always this way. There was a time when there was nothing refined about tango. Before all the glamour and elegance of high society, the coat tails and velvet dresses and shiny black hair pulled back in a chignon, before all of that, there was the grind.
Tango originated in the dank underbelly of society, in the brothels that once lined the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires, where strangers fresh off the boat from strange lands came to ease their loneliness with booze and sex. They came primarily from Africa and Europe, some free, some slaves, and they brought their music with them. From this shadowy crucible emerged the rhythms and melodies of tango, which also borrowed from indigenous South American rhythms, the Milonga music of the Pampas Gaucho culture, Spanish colonial music, and the wailing, melancholy sound of the accordion-like German bandoneon. The lyrics of the early tangos made references to the characters and events of the brothel scene, and the dance was at once a reenactment of the relationship between prostitute and client and actual foreplay for the main event itself. Some of the early tangos also featured men dancing with men in a mock duel between challengers competing for the attention of the woman, sometimes ending in the symbolic death of one of the contestants. This helps explain the penetrating, praying mantis-like stare typical of tango dancers, a cold stare that embodies the life-and-death seriousness of the mating dance: “Maybe I make love to you, or maybe I kill you.”
In 1912, the lower classes of Argentina were given the right to vote. The right of suffrage had the effect of including the lower class into the mainstream of Argentine society, legitimizing some aspects of their culture, including tango. This adoption by the mainstream caused the tango to shed some of its raunchiness, but the structure of the dance remained intact. It soon blossomed into a worldwide craze. Even Americans were doing it, although true to our prudish ways, women often wore “bumpers” strapped below their belly-buttons to prevent their male partners from grinding too closely. But nobody embraced tango like the Parisians, who added their own Je ne sais quoi to the mix, elevating it to an obsession. The blessings of the French propelled tango even higher in the esteem of Argentines, who in turn gave themselves to the tango like never before. But during most of the 1930s, following a military coup, the Argentine masses were again denied many rights, including suffrage. Tango, the voice of the people, was largely silenced. By the end of that decade, many of their political and personal freedoms were returned, and the tango once again flourished. In 1946, Juan and Evita Peron were dancing the tango in Argentina’s capital.
TangoKinesis continues the tango’s history of incorporating outside influences while not diluting or straying from what makes it the tango. Ana Maria Stekelman expertly blends a mix of modern dance, classical dance, swing moves, and even some Afro-Cuban rhythms, during which the dancers actually smile. The music includes classic tango tunes, such as La Cumparsita, La Cachila, and Ojos Negros, as well as some adaptations of Bach and Vivaldi classics. They also tango to the sounds of gunshots and traffic jams, recalling the tango’s bittersweet origins in the urban slums of Buenos Aires.
The dancers themselves are near-superhuman, and may give you the impression that you are overweight, stiff, sluggish, and more than a little lacking in the libido department. Better to not think such thoughts and just watch (which might do a little for the libido at least). Watch them as they tickle the floor with patent leather and high heels, performing pelvic swan dives into spinning full-crotch straddles with exaggerated drama and all of the precision of Disney cartoon dancers or synchronized swimmers. Watch as their bodies convey the range of emotions between love and hate, joy and sorrow, betrayal and forgiveness, frustration and satisfaction, tension and—oh, yes—resolution.
This production is truly first rate—even in Buenos Aires, people are thrilled with TangoKinesis. The orchestration, the choreography, the timing, the athleticism, the costumes, the music, the barely harnessed and inadequately concealed passion. Don’t let TangoKinesis get away unwitnessed.