writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Two Ways to Tango

Smuin Ballet
Tango Palace: Tangos, Fados, and other curios
Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center
October 25, 2003
The Tango Lesson
Written and directed by Sallie Potter
With Pablo Veron

by Ann Murphy
Copyright ©2003 by Ann Murphy

Tango is one of those rare dance terms that sounds like the dance. Minuet, waltz or polka—none of these words signal what to expect when the music starts. Tango is different. The sudden shot of the "t" is followed by the nasally aggressive "a." These sounds pick up the "n" and together sail like a well-feathered arrow into the stolid "g" of the word. Tango begins as two dancers carefully embrace then slip warily into an opening figure. This innocent start quickly becomes a series of contests and confrontations about power and longing. Feet feverishly slice through legs toward the vulnerable crotch, or a leg encircles the partner's hips, hungrily. Born in bordellos and poor men's cafes and fusing various immigrants' music and dance styles tango became a fevered code of entrapment between pimp and whore, man and woman, and man and man.

But if tango were only concerned with aggression, the dance wouldn't still mark us so deeply. Sallie Potter wouldn't have made a film called The Tango Lesson. Michael Smuin wouldn't mount his own bordello suite Tango Palace. If we look at the word again, we see that the zing of the syllable "tang" is soon wrestled into a libidinous, ecstatic, and ensnaring "o," just as the combatant dancers come to be fused at the hips, like embattled insects whose fight has led to love. What moves us is that the dance is a perfect balance of struggle and surrender. We can even hear it in the word.

In her 1997 film, filmmaker and late-blooming dancer Sallie Potter found an apt, often ironic metaphor for modern existential discovery in the tango lessons that came to obsess her. What began as refuge from a stalled film script for a film called Rage turned into a tango obsession. It eventually acquired the outlines of a new film, primarily in black and white, with fantasy and imaginings rendered in color. What she ultimately created is an elegant, ruminative post-modern hall of mirrors as saturated with hushed wit and poignancy as her soundtrack is with dolorous guitar.

Although too self-conscious for many critics both here and in Europe, despite Argentine tango master Pablo Veron's soulful dancing and Potter's own enviable tango fluency, The Tango Lesson is a serene, melancholic gem about art, work, self, love and sublimation, among a host of other things. Fact and fiction are dizzyingly, beautifully intertwined. The combat in the dance, which is quietly rendered rather than loudly stylized, is made inseparable from the barbed battle of everyday life, and everyone, including the viewer, is drawn in both as actor and voyeur.

For those who have ever danced, there is the added glory in The Tango Lesson in how Potter renders the existential encounter of self, self and other, self and world in the very act of learning to dance and perform. Inevitably one falls in love—with the dance, with the teacher, with the partner, and then one arrives beyond that first love into a deeper passion. Veron, castigating Potter for not having let go as they danced during their public performance, exclaims: "Nothing. You should do nothing when you dance!" While it sounds like the machismo of the male partner willing the woman into the shadows and leads Potter to defensively contemplate the meaning of leading and following, performers, like mystics, know that Veron is right. One can spend years, even a lifetime, seeking the mastery that makes such "nothing" possible. Yet, like the dual nature of everything else in The Tango Lesson, we also know that Potter's struggle to meet Veron, the tango star, as an equal on stage, in performance, is no less valid. In the deepest sense, the film is her response.

Michael Smuin's new work Tango Palace is as presentational and polished as Potter's is vaguely bounded and refractory. Smuin in the program notes says his aim was to show off tango's lighthearted aspect. Luckily he does much more. Against a feverish backdrop by Douglas Schmidt of painted palm tree silhouettes and enormous slanting shutters, Smuin's palace is a darkened bordello filled with three women in garish call girl colors-sultry reds and shrill turquoise—and three men hidden behind fedoras and suits, all arrayed on chairs.

It could have been a set-up for a shallow gloss on the dance, but Smuin takes his milongas mostly to heart,and for 2/3rds of the work produces a sharply executed, often cheeky interpretation of the battle of the sexes as waged through the sometimes comic, machete-like combat of swiveling hips and flying lower legs. He even interjects cabrioles and jetés, cartwheels and cheerleader splits as a kind of punctuation that makes both the ethereal and the carnival side of tango visible. These physical commas and semi-colons add a layer of release to a form that can sometimes seem stiflingly involuted. In a similar way Pablo Veron breaks out by launching into ironic but gorgeous Gene Kelly-esque tap routines, as though to say that this is what happens to tango allowed to become a solo dance form.

Cecile Fushille Burke, partnered by sparkplug John DeSerio, was the Smuin dancer who best embodied tango's hauteur, something that is only fleetingly interesting to the reticent wide-eyed Sallie Potter. Fushille Burke's elbow jutted dangerously. Her face and head were under her strict authority, never revealing where her heart might be leading her. We see her first as the ice queen stingingly turning her back on a suitor looking for a dance. The suitor in turn finds solace in a duet with another man, an equation that would no doubt come as a surprise to most gay men. There's something comically reactionary in the idea that supercillious women get their comeuppance when men reject women for other men. But Smuin is too light-handed, and too tongue-in-cheek for anyone to think he would stand by this position. Meanwhile, the two men with their twists, lunges and turns played for laughs, perform like guys out for a beer together, not potential lovers. As though to further dilute the issue, Smuin followed the male duet with a pointless duet for two women, who were as disconnected from one another as two high school girls dancing together because all the boys were taken.

While Potter uses tango to take us out into a vast field of thought, references, images and feelings, Smuin employs tango to wend his way back to where he is most at home—the classically inflected bombastic duet in which the woman is the iconic other, the music is full of schmaltzy yearning, and something mawkishly unfullfilled takes over. With almost surreal insistence, Tango Palace decomposed before our eyes as two couples danced to Edith Piaf singing "Non Je Ne Regrette Rien," replete with 4th position preparations, pose turns and such wounded puppy looks you could almost hear the whimpering. I hadn't regretted much until then, but suddenly I wondered if everything that had come before had been as well-crafted as it seemed, or was I merely being woken from a delusion?

Sallie Potter, in a way, has an answer. Tango, with that libidinous O at its end, leads the dancer to seek unity in what is fundamental for her. For Potter that meant discovering the interpenetration of art and life, love and work, self and other. She presents a life deeply lived. For Smuin it leads back to the surface where bold assertions and big dance gestures can keep one safe from the edgy entanglement that comes with tango.

First:  Sally Potter and Pablo Veron, from the film, The Tango Lesson.
Second:  Sally Potter and Pablo Veron, from the film, The Tango Lesson. Georgui Pinkhassov
Third:  Robin Conwell in Michael Smuin's Tango Palace. Photo: Tom Hauck.
Fourth:  Celia Fushille-Burke and John de Serio in Tango Palace. Photo: Tom Hauck.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 5
October 27, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Ann Murphy




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last updated on October 27, 2003