Forever Tango: The Eternal Dance

at the Royal George Theatre, through July 7

To Be Borne…

Martha Donovan, Karen Krolak,

and Kirstin Showalter at the Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center of Northwestern University, May 31 and June 1

By Laura Molzahn

We all speak, think, and move according to our time and place. My daughter’s smirks, shrugs, and eye rolling are nothing like my own generation’s Leave It to Beaver uprightness or hippie lolling and drawling. But the dancing in Forever Tango is an anomaly: definitely a product of its place, Argentina, it’s strangely out of its time, harking back to the brawling energy, the suspicions and hungers of 1880s Buenos Aires brothels, where immigrants from Europe and Africa fought, loved, drank, and danced. Added to this character is the patina of later generations: in the teens and 20s, when the tango became a popular Parisian social dance, it represented the height of sophistication and allure despite its bloody beginnings. Or maybe because of them.

The uneven power relations between men and women are what strike one first about the tango. The dance began as a stylized representation of the relationship between a whore and her pimp, and so we often see the woman draped over the man in a pose of dependence or flung away with violent disdain. Briefly during Forever Tango a woman shines her man’s shoes. In our era of enlightenment this imbalance makes the skin crawl, at least a little–and perhaps the skin would crawl too if the women were bullying the men.

What really brings the tango to life is a tension between stillness and swift, violent action, a tension repeated in almost every aspect of the dance: while one leg is still, the other flicks back forcefully from the knee; while the head and upper torso are still, the hips swivel with a life of their own; while the man is still, the woman revolves around him in a highly erratic orbit. Despite the dancers’ frequent aloofness–many couples in Forever Tango look at each other only rarely, and then not at the same time, and no one ever smiles–the connection between the man and woman is absolute and continuous. The suddenness of their motions, like the striking of a snake, implies danger–though it’s never clear whether the threat lies in one’s partner or in the world outside the couple. Whatever, this is a world where you watch your back.

The music–provided by an 11-piece orchestra in Forever Tango–is played on piano, bass cello, violin, and bandoneon, an accordionlike instrument imported from Germany. Like the dancing, tango music is characterized by attacks, feints, and lulling softnesses that burst unexpectedly into exuberant violence. The melodies meander, as in Satie’s compositions and free jazz, and the rhythms are eccentric–like the dancers’ rhythms, which often don’t quite follow the music. In Forever Tango the band plays several numbers alone (two of them accompanying a singer whose histrionics seemed extreme), but it was only during the bandoneon solo of “Adios Nonino” that I understood this instrument to be something more than a lugubrious joke: as played by music director Lisandro Adrover, the bandoneon is eerie and delicate, full of the false breathing of the bellows and capable of an ominous, despairing, almost nihilistic sound.

The six couples in Forever Tango are completely distinct: each has developed its own personality and approach to the form. Carlos Gavito and Marcela Duran stand out for the difference in their ages, perhaps 30 or 40 years. Yet they convey respect for each other, his expressed in a practiced chivalry, hers in a slightly awed seductiveness. A second couple, Carlos and Laura, are particularly aloof, Carlos almost cruel in his stillness and inaccessibility. By contrast there’s something demure about Guillermina and Roberto Reis, as if their good breeding and technical finesse came from a later era of the tango, when it was danced by high society. And Claudia and Luis come close to parody of the tango’s eccentricities: he fairly claps her into an embrace, while her desire is so great and awkward that she almost rips off his coat or pulls him down by the neck, like a wolf bringing down a deer. Luis leaves the stage with a glance at the audience, smoothing back his hair–a peacock preening.

But my favorite performers were Jorge and Karina, who’ve danced together for ten years. Despite four-inch stiletto heels, her feet are as soft and subtle as if she were barefoot. Both dancers allow their weight to sink into the floor, so that their look is grounded and natural. He gazes at her always, and their rhythmic attunement with each other and with the music offers us circles within circles, the hypnotic spirals of infatuation. When he places one hand in his pocket and slips the other softly down her breast, the musical retardation of their movement is palpably erotic.

The sixth couple, Miriam and Fabio, are clearly meant to provide the fireworks–they open and close the show. But I found their pyrotechnical feats rather ordinary in comparison with the artistry of Jorge and Karina: when Fabio whirls Miriam overhead in the splits or sends her tumbling down his front like some novelty toy from Hong Kong, it looks like nothing more than what it is, gymnastic tricks. Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction in which concert tango is moving, judging by the program (and guessing at the probable influence of our own country’s athletic, competitive “aesthetic”). In fact there’s something plastic and glittery–sort of eau d’Ed Sullivan–about the whole show: it’s no accident that many of these performers have honed their skills on TV. Their lacquered hair, heavy makeup, and elaborately fringed and beaded costumes may have something to do with the origins of the tango, but they also create a distance between us and the dancers. Or maybe it’s just the distance of the last century, as we peer through glass at the dusted-off, polished-up remnants of dangerous, lonely, starved lives in 19th-century whorehouses.

If “Forever Tango” has a little of the mustiness of museums, it also preserves a genre worth saving and showcases the skills of highly trained and experienced dancers. It occupies a niche compounded of the time and place of the tango’s origin and the current market for antique items. And what are we all if not niche dwellers of some kind?

Certainly Martha Donovan, Karen Krolak, and Kirstin Showalter, the three choreographers who presented “To Be Borne…,” are recognizable products of our time, their generation, and this place, Chicago. All are recent graduates of Northwestern University, and their concert had some of the pretensions of academic modern-dance circles: six “world premieres,” a press release noted, would celebrate “the cycles of birthing, learning, and dying.”

In fact what we saw were works by three young women who’ve suffered insomnia, taken tap dance lessons, and raided the Tibetan Book of the Dead for important themes. But who’d care about the subject matter if the approaches were clever? What I found most provoking about this concert was the assumption that whatever these young women and their dancers did would be interesting. My daughter might make that assumption when she dances for me in the living room, but what was any nonparent supposed to find amusing or involving here? The choreography was predictable, the use of props and costumes monotonous, the humor silly, and the dancing lackluster. Only Showalter’s To Be Borne… caught my interest, because it developed a kind of story and because Showalter’s dancing has a wonderful fey grace and playfulness.

Donovan, Krolak, and Showalter occupy a rather large universe: that of recent college graduates with artistic ambitions. But there are niches and there are niches. A good niche is earned, and it’s unique. It means not only talent but years of effort. Just look at Jorge and Karina.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Sohl.