It may have been a mistake to see Tanguera with someone who was born in Argentina. The tango is so embedded in the culture and consciousness of the Argentine that I’m told the military dictatorship banned it in the 1950s to avoid the dance becoming a secret symbol of support for Juan Perón. The greatest of tango composers, Astor Piazzolla, narrowed the cognoscenti further when he said that one had to have been born in Buenos Aires to be able to really feel the tango. Well, my companion was born in the Patagonian province of Rio Negro and she didn’t feel it, at all. I was born in Bedford, so what chance did I have?
There is no doubting that this long-running show (fifteen years and still touring) contains awesome tango, particularly when resembling a milonga. More than a dozen attractive dancers attacked a series of set piece dances, seemingly improvising steps with emotional intensity while walking through the music. At times, the dance and the music (played live on a raised platform, behind the dancers, by an excellent sextet) were outstanding.
But, these arresting occasions were too few and far between; since this was great dance, struggling to overcome bad theatre. The storyline is of a young Frenchwoman, named Giselle, arriving from Europe in early 20th century Buenos Aires and, barely having stepped off the boat, she meets and falls in love, mutually, with dockworker, Lorenzo. Problem is that she has already been trafficked (to borrow modern parlance) by a crook called Gaudencio and is destined for thinly-veiled prostitution as a sleazy nightclub dancer (the tanguera of the title). Needless to say, the prolific presence of knives and booze on stage means that it all ends in tears; and when the next boatload of European immigrants arrives at the docks, to end the show, (spoiler alert), Lorenzo is no more.
This story sounds a lot more interesting than it played out on stage where, for me and my Patagonian friend, at least, it was one long bore, punctuated occasionally by some arresting dance sequences. If the theatre was an excuse for the dance show, then why not just dance? A point, in a sense, that was proven by the remarkable turnaround after the curtain call.
Suddenly, the dancers – now out of character – let rip in four consecutive ensemble dances that were unconstrained by the limitations of a blunt story and it was – by a very considerable margin – the highlight of the evening. I hadn’t warmed much to Giselle (Melody Celatti), Lorenzo (Esteban Martín Domenichini) or Gaudencio (Dabel Zanabria) in character; but stripped of those responsibilities, they, and all the other performers, were scintillating.
Two other things concerned me, one of which had nothing to do with the stage. First of all, I wondered how well this type of performance now translates to modern-day Britain. The misogynist aspects of the show bothered me. I’m not comfortable seeing women routinely grabbed by the scruff of the neck and dragged around the stage. The male-on-woman and male-on-male violence in the show is routine and knives are flashed at any – and every – opportunity. This is all for theatrical purpose, of course; but it seemed unnecessarily exaggerated.
The second issue has nothing to do with the creative aspects of Tanguera; more to do with the rudeness of some of the audience who went to see it. There is nothing more irritating than a bright, white mobile screen flashing in one’s line of vision. It happens, occasionally, at any show, of course. But, here it was an epidemic. A guest in front of me consulted her ‘phone, overtly, every few minutes throughout the show and countless other screens were regularly visible, all around the stalls and not one usher intervened to ask people to stop. And, yet, at other shows in this same theatre, they are regularly shining lights into the audience even if someone is simply trying to snatch an iPhone photo of the curtain call. Why the sudden relaxed attitude? Even more remarkable was that people who couldn’t keep away from their ‘phones during the show were among the most enthusiastic responders’ at the end, even though they obviously hadn’t seen great tracts of the performance.
But, let’s return to the best thing about Tanguera. The ensemble dancing was sometimes spectacular; mixing several forms of tango with flavours of other Latin dance styles (salsa, rumba and mambo were certainly in the mix) within Mora Godoy’s flamboyant choreography. Dancers regularly punctuated their exaggerated walk with every specialist step and move in the tango catalogue: ganchos (leg hooks), golpes and golpecitos (toe taps), elevaditos (lifts), and boleos (wrapped legs). The velocity of the movement occasionally caught the women off-balance and unable to transition into the next step
I recall the gutsy singing of the veteran tango diva Marianella, from the show’s last iteration here at Sadler’s Wells, some seven years ago; where the highlight was the appearance of tango legend, María Nieves, in the role of the nightclub Madam (played here by Carla Chimento). I was glad to read that Nieves is going strong and still performing, in Buenos Aires, aged 78. She claims that her interpretation of Argentine tango is all controlled by the heartbeat. Well, this tango had plenty of heart, especially in that feisty epilogue; but it was packaged in such a clunky narrative that it lacked theatrical soul.