Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Miguel Angel Zotto at Tango in Action and Union Chapel Studio

Miguel Angel Zotto comes to London once a year and does this show about argentine tango. I didn't go, but a colleague of mine did. He enjoyed the dancing and even the history, but was deeply impressed by the suits and hats.

I was sufficiently curious to book myself into one of the workshops with Miguel organised by Stefano and Alexandra of Tango In Action. It was billed as a general-level class about vals, so I took along a friend (leading) who wanted some of that.

Well - live, he looks a lot more human and not nearly so desperately worried as he does in the show stills. He has a lot of presence and gives the impression of being a pleasant person with a passion for his subject and real desire that you should learn about it too.

I thought the class was intelligent, well thought out, and very useful to the social dancer. He doesn't really speak any English, which adds to the fun. [Edit: I was later told by people who have met him before that he can speak English well if he chooses, but on this occasion apparently he preferred not to.] Stefano interpreted most of it, but my smattering of relevant Spanish was quite useful. I was surprised how much I understood. It must be a like that at football clubs - given the common subject, fluency is far from crucial.

It started with some general advice about vals - dancing on the 'one', not trying to dance all three beats, and avoiding forward ochos because the pivot needed is to great and takes too much time. Then it was in three parts - an elegant turn with or without a sacada, a walking pattern using some linear back ochos and a cross, and then what I call a holding pattern, useful in heavy traffic. Taken together they added up to a really handy vals kit for the social dancer, plus some sensible advice. And all in an hour and a half - a very professional product. Not everyone there was equipped to take advantage of it, but most could get at least something.

My companion said the explanations were confusing because he kept changing things half way through, but it helped that they split the man's and woman's steps up. It makes it easier to see what's going on. I often have my doubts about that because sometimes it can give the followers the wrong idea, but I agree that it really helps visual comprehension. I was interested to find that the holding pattern was for most people the trickiest to get right. It only consisted of a long step and then three rapid weight changes, repeated in various directions; I think it would be a good practice exercise. Nobody I danced with got it exactly.

The main digression was a brief and businesslike talk about line of dance, when it became clear that some were strangers to the notion. But there was also a more interesting digression about history in which he suddenly said that the forward ocho was invented before the backward ocho. That surprised me, as it's quite difficult to avoid inventing the backward ocho accidentally in your first week of tango, but then he did a little demo resembling Canyengue, and I realised that if you invented tango by starting from something a lot more like Canyengue, which is what seems to have actually happened, a forward ocho would, indeed, present itself first. It wasn't directly relevant but it was very interesting, and he obviously loves to communicate this stuff.

I also went to the milonga in his honour on Sunday at the Union Chapel Studio. The floor there is extremely sticky, so if you ever go to the same place take a bottle of talc with you. It's very hard to pivot without wrenching your knees. Also, to get to the studio you have to walk round the back of the chapel to the left, and it's the first door on the right. They don't tell you that.

The first performance was a show by some students of Stefano and Alexandra, and was as enjoyable as amateur dramatics generally are. The second was by Stefano and Alexandra themselves, and I remember nothing of it except that part of her dress fell off and was picked up and flung in the Zotto direction by Stefano at the end*. And then later on Miguel Angel gave a performance with the same young lady he'd been teaching with. She was twenty, and very sweet and appealing, and she had endeared herself to me in the class by making the universal gesture for "please wait, I'm dizzy" after an energetic demonstration.

The performance was perfectly calculated for performers and audience. He excels at a very fast, balletic style which is not my personal favourite but is along the same lines as Stefano and Alexandra's, so it was certain to appeal to their students and fans. I thought it was an extremely professional, technically brilliant, committed performance. Afterwards he gave an emotional speech, interpreted again by Stefano, saying that performers live on applause, London was always good but this year had been better than ever, and that his partner (whose name, sadly, I did not catch) [Edit: Daiana Guspero] had a great future. Very nice.

You can see plenty of Miguel Angel on Youtube, dancing in more than one style - for example here (Gallo Ciego @ Salon Canning) and, in the stage style but with his previous partner, here. It's interesting to compare his brother Osvaldo Zotto, who is here and here (Gallo Ciego again).

Overall, I thought Miguel Angel Zotto was a complete pro, which was exactly what you would expect, and although it did not challenge me or give me anything new as a follower, I think the class was very well worth the money for a social-dancing leader at the appropriate level. He is passionate about tango and wants you to learn. I was impressed to find that the virtuosity of his commercial performances does not interfere at all with the usefulness of his classes, and if I were leading I wouldn't hesitate to go again next time he is in town.

* Paging David Attenborough ... Will Sir David Attenborough please report to the Incident Room ... Thank you.

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