Tango x 2

at the Shubert Theatre, October 14-26

Shakti Chakra: The Energy Cycle

Natyakalalayam Dance Company

at the Harold Washington Library, October 10 and 11

Lakota Sioux Indian Dance


at the Josephine Louis Theatre of Northwestern University,

October 24 and 25

By Laura Molzahn

I know New York is the world capital of dance, but Chicago’s got to be a close second. Over a two-week period here I’ve seen classical East Indian dance, Irish step dancing, classical ballet, Argentinean social dancing, African and Caribbean dance, Native American dance, and a modern piece memorializing the Civil War. Yet over those two weeks I began worrying; all the performances I saw, however grand, could be perceived as wax reproductions of the once living. On the other hand, maybe that’s the nature of concert dance–to theatricalize customs that once played a vital role in their communities. Would we pay such high prices for concert dance, however, if as a culture we danced ourselves? Would we be better off dancing than working to pay to watch?

“Tango x 2” is a nifty little entertainment from Argentina devised by Miguel Angel Zotto and Milena Plebs and accompanied by a seven-piece orchestra and a singer. The tango began in the 1880s as the mating dance–the melting pot, if you will–of immigrants in the seething town of Buenos Aires. Practiced in bars and bordellos, the tango had the crucial function of bringing together members of the opposite sex. Or the same sex, for that matter–the dance was frequently practiced by men alone, supposedly to attract women, but who knows? This was the dirty dancing of the late 19th century.

In concert at the Shubert, however, the tango is something else. Dry ice stands in for cigarette haze and a painted backdrop for the raucous 19th-century boomtown of Buenos Aires, and not one of the excellent eight dancers genuinely needs a partner. In fact, each of the four couples has danced together for several years, and their choreographed routines are well practiced. The audience is being taken for a ride, to another time and place.

At least a Shubert ticket is cheaper than airfare, and you can drink the water. There are other advantages to concert performances as well. The dance is distilled and perfected, if somewhat stylized and artificial, placed on display by artists with an agenda that goes well beyond finding a partner for the night. It’s even possible that, because the tango is purified of its dross in concert, it reveals more; this evening of performance might be seen as an encyclopedia of approaches to the act of love.

The youngest of the couples, Erica Boaglio and Adrian Aragon, seem to wander half-knowingly, half-innocently into seduction: in their “soccer and tango waltz,” he tosses a ball and pulls her braids, then steals her hair band. The setup may be kitschy, but the payoff is dancing that surprises with its athletic, airborne lyricism. These two maintain a lot of space between them, yet they never break or violate their connection; their energy, however buoyant, whatever its centrifugal force, remains centered on each other. That airy but ever-present connection is even more visible in their Tango Americano, inspired by the dancing in the 1941 film The Pride of the Yankees: with some of the fluidity and diffidence of Fred and Ginger, Boaglio and Aragon create elegant loops and figure eights, overflowing with the impersonal energy of the young.

The two couples I thought of as middle-aged brought a quickness and efficiency to their performances that I associate with people who think they have better things to do than mess around in bed. Osvaldo Zotto and Lorena Ermocida in Libertango, a modern version of the form, caper around the stage like satyrs in fast motion, their legs flashing, flipping in and out between each other’s thighs like switchblades, almost faster than the eye can see. He’s essential but she’s the star, as he rolls her down the front of his body and tosses her back in the dance’s finale. There’s a greater sense of equality between Miguel Angel Zotto and Milena Plebs, partners whose coordination with each other is admirable but whose dancing sometimes seems a little academic; in El cencerro, which showcases the front-to-back style of tango, the two are almost prim. We admire the variety of steps, their execution, the careful placement of the head and torso, but we don’t get much feeling from these two.

We get plenty, however, from the “old” couple, Carlos and Alicia. I was almost embarrassed to watch them, so intense was their apparent need and intimacy. It was this couple that made me see something essential about the tango: in a way we don’t watch the dancers but the space between them. The most distinctive aspect of Carlos’s dancing is the way he encircles his partner, his arm placed delicately all the way around her back, barely touching her yet providing a sure support. At first this style seemed tight and overly formal. But I began to see his careful embrace as a means of creating energy between them–literally in the space between them. There’s no pretense of equality here; man and woman are from different sides of the moon, and that difference is what charges their interaction. Watching them, I sometimes felt that the statuesque Alicia was inside her partner, who seemed to enclose her without ever diminishing her force and individuality.

In fact the tango inhabits a kind of invisible cylinder, as the dancers maintain a certain distance between them, torsos rigid, turning around and around within the circle they themselves have created; containment heightens the energy, charges the air. The movement comes from the earth, from the lower half of the body, the legs kicking forward or flipping back in great, slashing diagonals. Tango dancers often seem in imminent danger of falling, of tipping over from the sheer force of the movements they direct toward each other, often without actually touching. One imagines the boozy, giddy real-life tango, the dancers’ steely struggle to remain upright and in charge. Meanwhile the orchestra of piano, violins, double bass, and bandoneon–so foreign and familiar at the same time–plays its music, plaintive as old-time hymns, piercing and modern as glass breaking.

Bharata natyam, the classical East Indian form danced by Natyakalalayam Dance Company, has an entirely different purpose from the tango, a social dance for drunks (though they wouldn’t be welcome on the stage of the Shubert). In a way, bharata natyam has always been a concert-dance form: deeply tied to Hindu beliefs, its gestures and steps are codified in a 3,000-year-old treatise called the Natya Shastra. Bharata natyam was a religious tool intended to convey uplifting tales to the masses and raise consciousness–in the words of Natyakalalayam’s mission statement, “to entertain the laymen, educate the entertained, and to enlighten the educated to a higher spiritual understanding.”

While the energy for and meaning of the sensual tango come from the earthy lower half of the body, bharata natyam focuses on the spiritual higher chakras. In fact, of the three elements that make up this classical form, two relate to the body–nritta is pure dance, natya is mime–and the third, nritya, is devoted to the face. Bejeweled and framed by an elaborate headdress, the face distills the emotions of the cautionary tales the dancer spins. The arms and hands also tell the story, in codified mudras–positions of the hands and fingers spelled out down to the tiniest detail. Meanwhile the legs are characteristically bent, the feet beating out complex rhythms further complicated and amplified by bells on the dancer’s anklets. Imagine learning to move one’s eyes, mouth, arms, wrists, fingers, and feet in elaborate synchrony, and often in counterpoint to the music: clearly bharata natyam was to be performed by the initiated, and it’s quite possible that great artists did bring viewers to spiritual enlightenment.

But an essentially religious form of dance outside its host culture is going to have problems, and Natyakalalayam artistic director Hema Rajagopalan is well aware of that. “The challenge today,” she writes, “is to offer this art to a wider audience and to simultaneously protect its integrity to prevent its degeneration into just another form of entertainment.” The evening-length piece she’s developed with her dancer-choreographer daughter Krithika is an attempt to come to terms with this dilemma: Shakti Chakra: The Energy Cycle tackles the nature of God. In two hours, without intermission, the ten dancers of Natyakalalayam set forth the five activities of God, partly in stories revealing God’s beneficence and the obstacles men and women face in their spiritual evolution.

Bharata natyam, especially as danced by Natyakalalayam, is a wondrous thing, and a few times during Shakti Chakra I felt transported. Not by the unfamiliar stories, which for a Westerner go on at rather tedious length, but during the pure-dance segments. Sometimes when the percussionist and the chanter of nattuvangam (Hema) raced through breathtaking changes in rhythm, and the dancer (usually Krithika) responded with her own magnificent energy and steely control, I felt the top of my head blow off in a way it never did during “Tango x 2.”

Yet if I had to go to one of these two shows again, the tango would be my choice. Both are fascinating forms, and both were well done. But the fact that the tango is secular in origin frees the producers from any worries about authenticity or cultural meaning: if “Tango x 2” is just another form of entertainment, that’s fine by them. And so the dances are short and sweet, varied in tone and purpose, and intercut with musical segments that are themselves varied. If concert dance is to be a museum, let it be a theatrically clever one. And if the theater reduces bharata natyam to mere entertainment, perhaps it should return to more ancient sites–not only temples but churches and synagogues–where it can genuinely educate and enlighten.

In the 1840s my ancestors Samuel and Gideon Pond went to Minnesota to bring God to the Indians. And last weekend eight men and four women who may be descendants of those Native Americans–members of the Lakota Sioux Indian Dance Theatre from the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota–brought their gods to me, in the form of dances, songs, and stories.

My ancestors were not evil colonizing types. They lived peacefully with the Indians and learned their ways; they even compiled a dictionary of the Dakota language. And having watched the Lakota Sioux perform, I can see what a challenge living with Native Americans probably was for laced-up, proper 19th-century white folks. Sioux ceremonial costumes in themselves are fearsome: made up largely of feathers and fringe, they effectively conceal the human shape within–and often approximate the animal with astounding success, using horns, wings, and skins. (Where African dance, for example, seems to celebrate the individual and his or her unique talents, Native American dancing obscures the person performing it, who disappears within the whirling costume, the role, the repetitive movements.) Native Americans’ hoarse, high-pitched singing is hauntingly strange, and the monotonous beating of the drums seems to carry an insistent but mysterious message.

Like bharata natyam, Native American dancing is a religious form, but it differs in that everyone did it. Indeed, dancing–like peyote and tobacco–was a means of achieving an exalted, mystical state. It was meant to be done, watched only when one needed to take a break or wanted to see friends, neighbors, and family members dancing; as a result it’s a particularly poor choice for concert performance. My 11-year-old daughter and her friend were undeniably bored, explaining afterward that the performers “kept doing the same things.” I was intrigued for a while by the different energy different dancers brought to the same steps, and by the way their movements so clearly drove down into or lifted away from the earth; but I was a little bored too. These were not my rituals, and no pretense was made of inviting me or other audience members to join in.

The ceremonies and words of my Protestant forebears, which I learned in childhood, are for me more deeply stirring; unfortunately these don’t involve dance. Maybe in another life I’ll be born into a community that shows its faith by moving, and transport will come not by sitting in pews or in the seats of a theater but by dancing. For now, however, I learn the little bit I can of other peoples and cultures by watching performances of “ethnic” dance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tango X 2/ Shakti Chakra: The Energy Cycle/ Lakota Sioux Indian Dance Theater photos.