Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
at International Dance Festival Birmingham 2014
23 May 2014
The inverted exclamation mark says it all. If I were to explain the title in the style of a contestant on Call My Bluff it might go something like this: Milonga is a place (or an event) where tango is danced and the upside-down punctuation to take the place of the “i” both borrows from the Spanish language, where written exclamations are generally enclosed within a pair of such marks, the first of which is inverted, and also indicates plainly through its interjection that something not quite tango is the happening at this event.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is gradually working his way through an interpretation of all kinds of genres (from the Shaolin culture and martial arts of Sutra to the graphics of manga in TeZuka and much more besides). Here he puts the art of argentine tango through the blender of his unique focus on contemporary dance and the mix that ensues is a sultry Latin smoothie that grabbed my attention throughout just as surely as if one of the ten superb tango dancers were to have periodically hooked their legs around my neck!
It is a whole evening of tango but not as we know it. Cherkaoui succeeds in expanding the horizons of the dance form, not just through the simple device of injecting two contemporary dancers within the ensemble of twelve but in the way in which tango is danced. Thus, the whole affair begins in a duet for Bruno Gibertoni and Maricel Giacomini, where they dance together just as passionately as any tango dancers but not generally in hold: they mostly face away from each other, partnering back-to-back. Their tango style is as inverted as that exclamation mark. It’s still all about touch and the closeness of embrace but opens those statements out to a much broader enquiry. And it works ¡superbly!
This splendid opening is made more emphatic by the remarkable set and video designs of Eugenio Szwarcer, adding layers of richness to the sense of place (Milonga), notably through the blank cut-outs of figures in various perspectives, onto which are projected the images of actual people, creating a happening into which the real performers mingle; as well as mirroring the swirl and swivel of tango movement in a reflective spiral of kaleidoscopic imagery. Given that each pair has their chance to shine in a series of duets that range from powerfully dynamic to wistful comic caricature, the set also moves around to provide the intimacy of attention on each couple, while always holding onto the reference that others remain in the background.
From time to time, we escape La Milonga to travel through the streets of Buenos Aires through a moving set of images, which – at first – are manipulated around the screen as if scrolling through pictures on a smartphone. These included stills from vintage films to set the context. It was all very expertly integrated to break up the dance sequences and enabled a solid 90-minute performance of pure dance to flow as seamlessly as the syncopated rhythm of these performers’ phenomenal footwork.
Another key ingredient to this successful adaptation of tango is a brilliant score, which pulls together familiar tango argentino music with a series of new compositions by Cherkaoui’s regular musical collaborators, Szymon Brzóska and Olga Wojciechowska, plus others by the show’s musical director, Fernando Marzan. The impact was a journey through tango music that embraced “greatest hits” populism while departing along new contemporary tributaries. Frankly, this show could have degenerated into a Strictly Tour-style “special” of 25 separate episodes of dance but it succeeded in sustaining the framework of a single cohesive, even linear, performance without showing the joins!
Twelve dancers each bring something different to the show from the dynamism and power of German Cornejo (known as “Nikito”) and Claudio Gonzales to the gentle humour of Gabriel Bordon and Esther Garabali. Martin Epherra, Viviana d’Attoma and Gisela Galeassi epitomised the machismo, passion and outright sexiness of tango while Gibertoni, Giacomini and Julia Urruty (a late addition to the cast to replace an injured dancer) burned on a slightly slower fuse but with no less elegance and style. As the event unfurled, we became more aware of the two contemporary dancers (Silvina Cortés and Damien Fournier), initially on the outskirts of events but gradually absorbed into the tango crowd – literally, in the case of Cortés as she became temporarily enveloped in a tango duet (like the filling in a sandwich).
Cherkaoui and his team have succeeded in delivering a most challenging enterprise, making a full-length show (without an interval) out of the dynamic energy of the tango, focusing on the essence of two people dancing together and drawing out the intimacy, strength, gymnastic and even comedic potential of the hold, whether as an embrace between lifelong partners or people thrown together by the social network of La Milonga who may never have met before. They have managed to bring Milonga into the theatre while still keeping one leg firmly hooked around the bars of Buenos Aires.
This was a tremendous show with which to close the Birmingham International Dance Festival of 2014. Putting it bluntly – and borrowing that old advertising cliché – I’ve been well and truly tangoed!