Monday, 11 September 2017

Un Tango Más - Film Review

So, I was invited to a screening. I think tango people will be interested in this movie.

It is the story of Maria Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes, who met in 1949 (as far as I can work out) when they were 14 and 17 respectively, and danced together, on and off, for about fifty years.

Copes – as it is presented by both of them – invented tango escenario. In the early 50s, the social dance was already on the way out as a mainstream activity; he dreamed up the escenario idea and he made it happen, to worldwide acclaim. He calls Maria Nieves his Stradivarius. She, at least at the beginning, was in love with him, whatever that means; at any rate it seems that for her, the enterprise was about him. But apparently he missed her enough to restart the relationship after a world tour without her, when she was already with somebody else. To what extent was she the one the people came to see? She doesn’t seem to know. He must know, or at least think he does, but he isn’t saying.

The director has dancers in the same business play the protagonists at different points in their lives, using some unusually inventive, expressive, and short choreographies. The film-maker’s standards and sensibility mean the dancing is remarkably well-used, certainly much better than I’ve ever seen on stage. It serves the story, rather than hold it up, it’s expressive, comprehensible, and clever, with a soundtrack provided by Sexteto Mayor. But then, in the interview sections, it’s the cast themselves who ask the questions, in the context provided by the sets. This central device works beautifully; the effect is sympathetic and also entertaining.

Our Last Tango © Gabriela Malerba
As a whole, it’s beautifully shot, gorgeous to look at, rather touching, and interesting in the way it’s done. I think it offers some insight which a lot of tango people will be interested in – scroll down for spoilers – but a general audience will also enjoy it, so don’t hesitate to take your Mum. Nothing very dreadful happens, it’s just an interesting human story. It’s in Spanish with subtitles, which are mostly okay, with some errors (“no lo siento” does not mean “I don’t feel it” – it means “I’m not sorry”, which is rather different). The translation of the title - "Our last tango" instead of "One more tango" or, maybe, if you want, "One last tango" - is strange.

☆☆☆☆☆ - I really liked it. Un Tango Más, documentary by German Kral, 85 minutes, released in the UK on 22nd September. Already available from on-demand services in most of continental Europe. Cast includes Maria Nieves Rego, Juan Carlos Copes, Pablo Verón, who I had forgotten about, Alejandra Gutty, who gets to wear some amazing clothes, Ayelen Álvarez Miño, Juan Malizia, Pancho Martínez Pey and Johana Copes. Also contains umbrellas, for your tango cliché bingo card.

------ SPOILERS BELOW (and what I learned) -----

Eventually she manages to see him, too, as a means to an end, and she talks about having become a better artist; but, happy as she is to have provided for her family - having started cleaning houses at eleven years old - she never seems to claim that end as truly her own. She wanted to have children; that was sacrificed to their work, along with a happy relationship, while he made no such sacrifice. That injustice is the heart of the movie, and it’s very moving.

Nieves does most of the talking; Copes says very little, but I’m impressed they got him to say so much. He escapes self-destruction into what appears to have been a happy and lasting marriage with a sensible woman he still actually likes. For Nieves, it was already too late.

Towards the end we see Copes dancing with his grown up daughter. She says that, of course, she was a “clone” of Nieves at first. Not quite the same thing.

Our Last Tango © Personal Archive María Nieves
But here’s what I got from it on the subject of tango. If tango escenario was constructed in the Fifties on the basis and by the instrument of this personally toxic, cruelly sexist, unequal and inauthentic relationship – could that possibly explain why it has so very little to say, and has gone nowhere since? If this is still revered by the people who might, otherwise, be creating something newer, more interesting, and more beautiful, is that part of the reason they don’t?

As tango people always do, they talk from time to time about emotion in the dance, about passion and feeling; but with the implicit proviso that it doesn’t actually matter at all what the woman feels. Anger or terror, or nothing at all, will do just as well, in practice, as anything else.

It reminds me of the judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous observation on gay marriage. When marriage is a property transaction in which the woman is as much a chattel as her goods, the idea of gay marriage is pointless. When it is a voluntary, severable partnership of legal equals, any purpose in limiting it to a man and a woman just disappears.

When a relationship like the one drawn was what everyone saw as normal, the Copes-and-Nieves-style tango escenario had an emotional, social and erotic charge that powered it to worldwide fame. Now, it’s just sleeping with someone you fancy but don’t like, which is generally considered trivial, if a bit immature, plus working with them as well, which is generally considered unprofessional and tiresome. The charge is gone, leaving stage shows that think they are still based on it empty and extremely dull, but unwilling to look beyond the zombie idea to any living possibilities. Except on the very rare occasions when someone imagines sincere emotions that make sense to the audience, and puts them on stage. As happens, in fact, in this film. The heart of which – a human being feeling she’s missed out on a family life and children – is the woman’s own story, which has never got into the shows.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

In Praise of My Friend's Legs

These few seconds of video show the stupendous legs that belong to my friend and colleague Monique, who has just moved away.

On the London scene right now, there's a lot of extreme, wriggling, windmilling, anxious, theatrical, babyish exaggeration in the followers. This is not that.

This is a sincerely musical tanguera with a beautiful embrace, solid technique, and amazing legs. They are a joy to watch: composed, sensual, expressive. The extraordinary grace of Monique's movement is the first thing I remember noticing about her, long before we were colleagues. Her legs are not yelling "look at me!", nor are they waving a flag - but if you, yourself, have the mind to look, you will be well rewarded. She is one of the first people I visualise if I feel I am a bit out of myself and not dancing well. Bonus clip that should work (sorry about the cut-off at the end):

I'll miss Mon, and I'll also miss seeing her legs dance past me, looking like a good coffee in a street of Starbucks.

Anyway, if you're around Edinburgh, she does yoga, Franklin Method and body-awareness classes, and also PRINCE2 project management. If you either wanted to move better, or you were a small to medium company in the region taking on a bigger project than usual and you could use some help setting it up properly and keeping it under control, you could find her at

Well, that's annoying

The movie people asked me to take down the review and repost it on another date, because they have an "embargo" they forgot to tell me about. I have no idea why anyone would want to do that; however, I don't want to cause them a load of trouble for the mistake. I'll put it on a timer so if you are still interested you can come back and read it in about ten days.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Developments in Live Tango

I've been wishing for a long time that there were actually-good, live tango bands. The ones I heard until recently were always either too classical in style and giving me no reason to dance, or too singer-led, and consequently boring.

But recently there have been developments. One is that there are now quite a lot of tango bands that are trying things and get booked for festivals and performances. This is important because - I think - you need this, before you can get noticeable differences of standard, and you need that before good ones can develop.

At some point in that process, we probably need things like a rather sugary stage version of Invierno from Solo Tango. I think the performance and the playing in that video work very well together artistically as a unit, but the interpretation of the piece itself - especially from 01:00 onwards, where the violin melody starts maundering around the general area of the beat - does not sit well beside the Canaro/Maida recording of 1937 with its perfect union between melody and rhythm.

In Alma de Bohemio, Podestá may hold the note for nine seconds and float down alone like autumn's first leaf, but when he does come down, he and the orchestra land together on the beat, with timing as perfect as this. The beat, even silent, is always the heart of it, and the singer doesn't fight it, because he's good and doesn't need to, and because, at that moment, it's not about him. I say this to explain what I mean by danceable tango.

So, the second development is that there are some live bands now who set out to play for dancers,  and understand what that means, and from time to time I can actually go and dance to their music. Dancing to live music is a special experience.

La Juan D'Arienzo, who visited Liverpool and London last week, are a substantial outfit who delivered what it says on the tin; their four bandoneons, four violins, piano and bass gave us a beat, and plenty of excitement. They felt perfectly danceable to me, even if I wasn't that motivated personally. I wondered if they could have got more emotional scope and heft by using more of their dynamic range, but it's hard to know.

I really bought my ticket to hear the opening act, Los Milonguitas. They are tiny - only a trio - but when I saw their performance of Silueta porteña on YouTube it seemed to me that they were playing it the way they felt it should be played. They weren't just trying to imitate a particular band of the Golden Age; they were experimenting with a variety of styles in imitation of different bands, and, in the milongas at least, sometimes daring to be themselves.

They were entertaining to dance to and would work for a real social dance event. They played tandas in different styles, they played valses and milongas in the usual proportion and place, and they rather charmingly played their own cortinas (Beatles, obvs) - none of which the larger band attempted. I really enjoyed dancing to their music, especially what they did with the bass, perhaps inspired by the lack of a violin.

There are other bands I'd be happy to try dancing to. Los Herederos del Compás also bill themselves "al estilo Juan D'Arienzo", which is a good place to start. At least they're not trying to be Pugliese. I love Pugliese, but I don't think it's such a good place to start.

Orquesta Romantica Milonguera, with three violins, three bandoneons, piano, bass and male and female voices, also seem to be pretty much being themselves, and danceable, although they do often sound a lot like Fulvio Salamanca (nothing wrong with that). I like the singing in this.

So, the next step, which seems to be maybe happening, would be for bands to have the ambition and confidence to be consistently and openly themselves, however humble.

The one after that (and I suppose tightly connected by the process of developing arrangements) would be, not only to play, tour, and record for dancers, but also to compose, arrange, and perform new tangos for dancing. That's when it gets real.

That would sound something like this:

That's Orquesta Típica Misteriosa Buenos Aires, with a new instrumental tango called "7 de enero", composed by their director, Javier Arias. And I think it's great. I love it. I totally want to dance to it right now; I think it's got something to say. I want to make a tanda with it. It starts well, it's got a delicious melody, it's got fun stuff without getting complicated, and it carries a slow, suspenseful energy right through to a satisfying conclusion.

Let's go!

Unfortunately, I find the rest of the album on YouTube disappointing. The singer is not a success; she doesn't stay with the beat, she's much too dominant, and the result is dull. There's another original composition; I would love someone to arrange and record the rather good milonga that's hiding inside it. The opening of 7 de enero also sounds much weaker than in the video, so the Youtube sound quality may have some problems; I'd be interested to hear the instrumentals on CD.

Their other two albums are not obviously better, but they're also earlier. On the other hand - this outfit have been around since 2008, and it's now 2017. If they haven't really delivered yet, will they ever?  I'd be so pleased if they did - if they delivered even one tanda of sharp, sensual, danceable tangos as good as the video above, where the violins are allowed to sing. What will it take to deliver that? Competition? Criticism? Ambition? Encouragement? A Patreon setup? They only posted that video two weeks ago. Could they continue in the same direction?

Will there ever be a Postmodern Jukebox for tango? (Other than the actual Postmodern Jukebox, who are all over cortinas everywhere).

Either way, I'd like to thank my DJ friends Karin Betz and Trud Antzee for drawing that video to my attention.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Following and information

Having the opportunity to learn to follow before attempting to lead - which women do by social right, and men once did for practical reasons - is not only a matter of having better information than someone who comes to it 'cold'.

It also allows you to solve about 90% of the big physical problems of posture, axis, embrace, balance, coordination, control of momentum, cognition and proprioception, before you start worrying about any of the much smaller number of problems that are specific to leading. 

For me, leading is mostly just one quite challenging problem, which is training my brain to perceive and command a lot of quite complex and unexpected movements that my body can already easily do. And solving that one problem gets slowly but steadily easier with practice. 

Most of the other problems are relatively straightforward, when taken in isolation from the problems that are common to both leading and following. You can focus properly on the specific problems and solve them without confusion.

Another benefit is that you have already developed an accurate idea of what you might want to do, and why, which makes you unlikely to waste much time on classes that are not useful. I don't bother learning to lead anything I don't personally like to follow.

A third is that you have access to good followers and are in a state where you can avoid annoying them, if you have any trace of sense, and repay their investment in you quickly. 

And a fourth is that, with luck, you may also have found, or even become part of, one or more communities where the leaders behave nicely on the dancefloor rather than some combination of charging about like ants on coke, wrestling and pouting. This will reduce the stressful side, and also give you access to crucial information.

All these are blessings. But if you learn to follow well and then start leading and take it seriously, you damn well ought to be better than average in a couple of years, or you're doing it wrong.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Scenes of Working Life


I have no idea what I'm doing. A minute ago I thought I knew what I was doing, and now I don't.


Oscillation between those two states is the sign of a healthy learning experience. 
Thanks for that.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Perfect Things

There are things I want to be able lead and that I could go to a class and be told how to lead.

But they're things of the kind to which I have a deep-down awkward attitude that says, if I can't work out from first principles how to do them myself, I ought not to be doing them at all.