Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
London, Sadler’s Wells,
7 November 2013
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is a chameleon who takes on the language and styles of his collaborators. He has approached flamenco in Dunas with Maria Pages, kathak stylings in Zero Degrees with Akram Khan, and his most successful collaboration was Sutra where he worked with Shaolin monks exploiting their skills in martial arts within a dance context. This time he has approached the tango, and his new work, M¡longa, at Sadler’s Wells is set on ten tango dancers from Argentina, plus two contemporary dancers as counterpoint.
The ingredients are great. There is a fine onstage band of five musicians delivering very varied tango tunes from Piazzolla, Fernando Marzan, Szymon Brzoska and others. The costumes for the women are chic without being tarty. There are are projections of Buenos Aires streets and landmarks which are cleverly done and evoke a sense of place. But these are ultimately overlong (though they give the cast time for costume changes. ) The tango dancers are fast and smooth at the same time. It’s a pleasure to see mature adults on stage. These, the men particularly, look to have years of worldly experience, and if their waists are a bit thicker than you might see in many dance performances, they are amazingly light on their feet and convey a juicy pleasure in their dancing..
Cherkaoui’s take on the tango is a dance of intimacy and warmth. It is not about flashy nostril flaring drama or overt sexiness heavily sold to the audience. This is more tango as a whispered conversation, tango as marital quarrel, even a comic tango of misunderstanding. The projections fall on cut-outs of the dancers, crowds , passers by. There is a sense that this dancing is quite private but yet observed by a wider community and part of it.
Cherkaoui’s collaborations seem to work best when his own fluid, boneless contemporary movement style is also present but smoothly integrated into the whole. In M¡longa this doesn’t quite come together as successfully as one would like. There is some great tango dancing, and his affection for the genre is obvious. There are some contrasting duets for the contemporary couple but there aren’t enough moments where there seems to be a real fusion between the two. The work feels long at 90 minutes and could lose 15 of those to its advantage.
There are moments where Cherkaoui does achieve a remarkable mix. There is a trio of men who dance together with remarkable flashing flickering tango footwork, coming together almost as a single entity and then breaking up again with jumps and lifts. The audience responded to this with enthusiasm. There is another trio of a man dancing with two women at once, with one sandwiched in the middle. Maybe there were three in that particular marriage. But the bulk of the dancing is tango couples exhibiting their particular kind of dance telepathy of interlocking limbs and entwined bodies.
There is just a hint of narrative about the piece, where the contemporary couple initially look to be not part of the tango community and wander across the stage, not integrated. There is a fine tender duet for them, where the man winds the woman around his neck like a scarf, and repeatedly across and around his back, before they both sink to the floor. After this point they join in with the tango couples, picking up the tango moves, becoming part of the community. The work seemed to have reached a conclusion at that point but it continued for another ten minutes or so. This is not Cherkaoui’s most successfully realised work but his affection and respect for tango shine through, and the dancers are a joy to watch.