Tango, Hot and Dangerous
There were opportunities to feel uneasy during the early portions of "Forever Tango," the Argentinian music and dance revue first seen on Broadway in 1997 and now brought back for a two-month summer run, through August 29th. The self-consciously artsy opening number, with a sleek pony-tailed man rising from a giant bandoneon on the floor and sweeping a sultry, sensuous woman into tightly coiled, elongated partnering moves, did not start things off with any of the grit and raw intensity one associates with the tango. And the first group number, in which a preening tough guy pimp sported his ladies of the evening on his arms and flaunted them to potential customers, felt forced and kitschy, especially given the women's painfully cheesy wigs. The high glitter quotient of their dark dresses also suggested a need to placate a Broadway sensibility rather than any notion of authenticity.
But the first suggestive, melancholy meanderings of the four bandoneons and the first full, fierce blast from the fantastic eleven-member musical ensemble went a long way towards enveloping the audience in the moody, edgy darkness of the tango and its power to transport us. And the majority of the two-by-two displays of male-female partnering the constituted the bulk of the program seemed less about Broadway glitz and more about the heat and danger of their encounters.
Conceived and directed by Luis Bravo, the show features "Choreography by the dancers,' according to the program's title page—so one presumes this means each couple provides its own choreography. While not as seasoned and un-glamorous as the "Tango Argentino" couples who were the first to awaken Broadway audiences to the mysterious pull of the tango, these couples look mature and sophisticated compared to the group performing the tango-meets-ballet-plus-Martha Graham composite that was served up in "Boccatango." For the most part, they are enveloped in each other as they dance—whether testing, competing, enticing or seducing—and do not play to the audience.
The men display severe expressions and times appear almost stolid; this dancing is serious business, they seem to say; we're not here for your amusement. The women vary from the slender to the more voluptuous, but while some display delicious curves, they also maintain an elegant line. The dark dresses (costumes designed by Argemira Affonso) are consistently mesmerizing—clever and imaginative in their cuts and material, evoking a wide range of moods within a palette ranging primarily from black to smoky grey.
The basic outline of the tango—with its close face-to-face intensity, the legs flicking dangerously and rapidly, the backs held taut and proud—has almost become a cliché, but its essence is found in the fragrant, evocative music to which it is danced, music which one wants to call "soulful" if that term hadn't also become so clichéd, because it really can grab you in the gut. When those driving rhythms get going, and the meandering melodies (which always seem to veer towards dissonance and then pull back) assert themselves, one feels put in touch with something elemental and ferocious, with danger always lurking around the corner.
In the show's best numbers, the dancing met the challenge of the music, with bodies exploring unexpected angles and degrees of intimacy, limbs carving through space around each other, and torsos and hips reveling in their lush possibilities. I enjoyed the severity and intense focus of Carlos Vera, who came across like a thuggish businessman, and Laura Marcarie, with her eloquent back and her ability to let herself be sexy without appearing to vamp it up at all. The two "comic relief" numbers performed by Marcelo Bernadaz and Veronica Gardella —fast-paced capers in which he portrays an over-eager, goofy young guy and she's the older sophisticate who decides to check him out—were almost frantic in their effort to please and delight the audience, but the two limber, playful dancers are so skillful and well matched that they kept the giddiness in check. One unfortunate sidebar to the proceedings was the empty and silly "Romance entre el Bandoneon mi Alma" in which Guillermina Quiroga preened endlessly and vacuously in a lacy blue-violet body stocking and matching high heels, and Jorge Torres displayed her in increasingly tedious ways.
"Forever Tango," aside from the more dubious aspects of its early portion and a few missteps like that one, is a well put-together, smartly paced show. The five primary couples provide plenty of contrast as well as finesse, and the show features just the right amount of purely musical numbers. The length of the show, which clocks in at just over two hours, feels right, and once they shed their forced bordello sequence personas, the dancers do get the chance to become familiar to us—at least as couples, if not so much as individuals. And kudos to the effective and well-balanced sound design, which never distorted or became pushy. When I found myself in a seat perilously close to a speaker, I prepared for the worst and figured I could always retreat to a seat further back. Happily, once the show began, there was never any problem with the kind over-amplification that is such a torment in most Broadway musical houses these days.