Once upon a time I was on a panel with Jane Florine, an ethnomusicologist who specializes in the dance and music of Argentina. Jane’s topic was malambo, an old improvisatory percussive dance form of Argentine gauchos, now also a competitive form, with amazingly rapid in and out feet and knees and spectacular gaucho-based, revved up costumes, full of wide-legged pants–sometimes covered with long fringes, big ties, big belts, big hats. It is also sometimes choreographed, but the panel was on improvisation, so Jane focused on that.
Now Che Malambo is a spectacle that travels to theaters around the world, founded by and staged with choreography and musical composition by a French choreographer, Gilles Brinas, who also conceived the striking lighting designs. I was very curious about what it would look like. The choreography was developed in collaboration with the artists of Che Malambo, twelve Argentine men, multi-talented in the gaucho arts of dancing, drumming, and boleadoras spinning.
Lasting 75 minutes the Che Malambo show is quite spectacular, if unevenly so, it does without the spectacle of gaucho costumes, a disappointment to me. The men are all in black, wearing tight pants, sleeveless vests, some with glints of metal, and high-heeled boots. At the Joyce they dance against a black backdrop.
The show starts with the men, soon all of them, drumming the traditional malambo drum, while also moving in changing patterns while keeping those quick twisting feet going. Knees are bent in malambo and they twist, too.
With only one or two men drumming, the dancers show off their moves, glowering at each other to suggest a competitiveness fueled by too much testosterone. Their dancing is exciting, very speedy and sharp, knees in and out as feet move in and out like lightning. Sometimes a sharp swing of the leg is a reminder of a similar move between a partner’s legs in tango, also very Argentine and otherwise very different. There are also high kicks and rapid turns and jumps.
One dancer brings in a guitar, mostly playing cords, and when the others come in they are barefoot. Their moves are still sharp and percussive, but I liked this section the least since the guitar music failed to develop into something intriguing.
A dancer comes in whirling a single boleadora – the weight attached to a lengthening cord. We observe how good he is at this and then he adds a second bola, varying the whizzing patterns, which make percussive sounds as the weights hit the floor, along with foot percussion. And another man comes in with bolas, adding to the speeding, whirling complexity.
Back in their boots, the dancers join together and then, separately show off their most spectacular dancing. This was my favorite part of all. I don’t know whether anyone was improvising or all had already worked up prime excitements, but each comes up with variations of foot and leg moves, jumps and turns, adding new twists to an old form, alluring to all of us who treasure movement invention. They don’t need to glower to compete. It is a cutting contest.
As a cooldown a dancer plays a guitar and sings a song, joined by another dancer with a drum for a sung duet. It is a modest interval before a spectacular boleadoras event. The swinging of bolas begins. One man dances in front of whizzing bolas and then between two men with four whizzing, patterned bolas, like double dutch between weapons. It looks very difficult and very dangerous.
Everyone, except a couple of drummers, comes in with bolas, whirling them so rapidly that the circles they make are imprinted visually as full circles. Bolas are even swung behind a back or between legs. All kinds of patterns ensue, visual and aural, since the men dance as they swing, and feet and bolas weights hit the floor. Alternating arms with two bolas produce alternating designs, further complicated by how high and wide they are swung and how they interact with bolas swung by other men.
Needless to say, we also need some more pure foot and legwork and, of course, Che Malambo comes back to provide it. In a comic interlude, a short dancer appears before all the men as if to command them with his authority. Another short man keeps bursting into a solo of his own. The commander glares. And finally order breaks down and everyone shows off.
Che Malambo is the kind of troupe built on folklore transformed into spectacle that continues dancing after bows have begun, milking more fervent applause, but also signaling a kind of theatrical generosity, much appreciated.