Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Boring Performances

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a salsera friend about performances. I said that I see a lot of performances that are technically impressive, totally professional, and, to me, tedious and embarrassing. I don't think there's anything wrong with show-tango as such; it can be done well, and sometimes it is. I've seen performances I loved. But most of the time, I have every sympathy with a non-dancer who remarked that as far as he could tell, tango was a matter of flicking a few legs and looking a bit silly.

My friend pointed out that there is nothing special here - the same happens in salsa. Maybe the explanation is that dancing well is one thing, but choreography is quite another, and good choreography is very, very difficult. I have seen it done, but not very often. I mostly prefer performances that are wholly or partly improvised, because what they lack in spectacle they more than make up in expressiveness and taste. Perhaps that means good choreography is like a good referee; invisible. Everything flows, and looks as though it came naturally, right then and there. Just performing it is as difficult as saying “To be, or not to be” and giving the entire speech as though the idea had only just occurred to you, and Shakespeare never existed. And most of the time they're trying to write the play as well.

Anyway, I was trying to define to myself how it works; what it is in particular that I don't like, and what I do. The results seem, on reading them over again, to be quite useless. I have been present at shows that repelled me, shows sparkling (in my opinion) with unintentional humour, shows perfectly devoid of musicality, taste, or point, some of them by people who are famous enough that they ought to do better. And I have found myself surrounded by gushing, emotional praise which I could only presume to be sincere. I know what I like - but what can it mean to anyone but me?

I like:
Light and shade.
I don't like:
Continuous drama in a shouting monotone.

I like:
Elegance of movement and clarity of form.
I don't like:
No beat escaping unmolested.

I like:
I don't like:

I like:
The couple looking absorbed, interested in each other, or happy to be dancing together. Some people even manage all three.
I don't like:
The distressed expressions of a pair of breeding coots. Or, worse, the woman looks like a breeding coot and the man looks as though his mind is already on next year's female.

I like:
The woman getting to express her personality without having to SHOUT.
I don't like:
Indiscriminate knees-skywards action. She's a pro and wants you to know she can tickle his right ear with her left heel, both forwards and backwards.

I like:
Connection and intensity.
I don't like:
Broken connections, diversions, mere synchronisation, and fuss.

I like:
Interaction of two personalities.
I don't like:
Empty dramas about dominance and power.

I like:
Emotional content.
I don't like:
Crap acting.

I like:
Differences in personality and structure between tango, milonga, and vals. Differences between one tango and another. Even if I don't know the track or remember the tune, I am left with an impression of what it sounded like that is reinforced by my impression of what it looked like.
I don't like:
A show that has nothing whatsoever to say about the music, merely using it as a framework of the appropriate speed. I am left with the impression that whoever waxed her knicker line did a very good job.

I like:
A dance performed as though to be seen by an informed and intelligent audience, or no audience at all.
I don't like:
A dance performed as though to be seen in the furthest seat at the Millenium Dome, when in fact you are in a small hall in front of a very well-informed audience, many of whom who would really prefer that you got out of the way so they could talk to their friends or go on dancing. And some of whom, though physically unable and aesthetically unqualified to put their legs behind their heads for public entertainment, lead and follow better than you and are more interesting to watch.

Professional dancers work very, very hard for probably not much money. Some of those whose performances I like the least are also those whose business sense, work rate, and other abilities I most respect. But most of them aren't William Shakespeare. What's new?


Elizabeth said...

Well, Ms, Hedgehog, very good thoughts. Since, at the moment, Seattle seems to be the place where the Tango Stars go AWOL and decide to hang around and set up shop, I relate to what you are saying.
But really, people who are performance dancers, are not social dancers (usually) and have no idea what we are after when we go out to dance. As you say..."empty dramas about dominance and power" So, so empty. But possibly, in the business model, more lucrative than catering to those of us who simply look for a sweet night of connection and conversation in the music and the dance. We need so little, and we are not a good target market. O.K. Back to waxing my knicker line. Ha!

msHedgehog said...

To be fair, I also sometimes see the performers I like least, dancing socially. And of course, they dance quite differently then, although it doesn't necessarily make them worth watching. I thought about discussing the social/show distinction, but it's really another topic, and only comes into this one when you consider the function of shows as advertisements for teaching services. That's probably where they come in to the business model. Which is a whole different, interesting thing.

Anonymous said...

Ah Ms. H. That elusive "something" in show dance. I am likewise bored by 98% of all Show Tango. I can appreciate the level of difficulty and dexterity, but for me it has always been more about the relationship than the wardrobe.

Many folks can dance beautifully in a social setting. When we are not watched and we are dancing improvisationally for each other, we can be brilliant; once eyes turn on us, something inside us usually turns off. The ability to maintain that connection and "spark" in front of prying eyes is what separates the greats from the rest. And IMO there are very few "greats".

As a seasoned stage performer (acting, not dancing), it is only through enormous amounts of rehearsing over and over for many weeks does the scripted appear to be "natural". Most not-international-superstar performers who dance choreographed material do not rehearse it nearly a fraction of what it requires, thereby rendering their performance robotic, disconnected, stiff, and uninteresting. The need to focus on what they are doing instead of on each other makes it more of an aerobic routine than communicating even a mote of what tango is about.

My feeling about Tango Gods who are uninteresting is that they've lost their mojo and are just bored and going through the absurd motions.

Ghost said...

"A dance performed as though to be seen by an informed and intelligent audience, or no audience at all."

I guess the obvious question is how do you know ahead of time that you'll have said audience?* I mean presuambly if you actually did a Show Tango that was all flash and no substance to such an audience you'd be met by polite applause at best and soon no audience at all for future performances.

Yet they consistently get applause and rapture. Which to me suggests sadly they're probably correctly pitching it to the majority most of the time.

Maybe we need a new category ~ "Show tango for the discerning"?

* A gutsy strategy would be to test the waters with a long simple walk at the beginning and see how it was received. If you had a suitable audience then chuck out chunks of the "flash" and replace with genuine connected improv.

Joe Grohens said...

Dear Ms Hedgehog, and others -

I share your lack of interest in exhibition tango, generally. It takes a high level of many skills to create good "tango ballet".

I was never bored by watching Gloria and Eduardo perform. Or Gavito. The choreographic design is strong in their work. And the execution is animated by spontaneity even when the piece is tightly choreographed.

Choreography needs a structure, and part of the beauty of watching a performance is in the development of the piece.

Improvised tango performances can be just as boring to me as some choreographed ones because they lack structure and development.

But I guess that I always am more captivated by watching the dancing at a milonga, even when the dancers are not that good. Tango dance is inherently interesting when it is a conversation and when you can see the give and take between the partners. It's like watching at a distance two people having an intimate conversation and reading everything that they are saying in their body language. Endlessly engrossing. Of course, you only take it in by pieces at a glance. They are moving targets; it would be wrong to stare; etc.

Imperfection of execution is something that discloses personal individuality. I would rather see a dancer, or hear a musician, or listen to a speaker extemporize and make mistakes than have execution be machine-perfect. Error is the sign that we are watching a human process and not a canned product.

msHedgehog said...

@ghost, I think you get a certain proportion of polite applause either way, to be honest, you can't please everybody. And theres's a lot to be said, from the artist's point of view, for just pleasing yourself. At least then all your abilities and motivations are behind whatever it is you produce. On the whole I'm willing to assume that the performances I don't like are the way they are because the performers think they are right that way, rather than because they're pandering to anyone. And as you rightly observe - lots of people love this stuff. If I disagree with both the dancers and their fans about what is good, I don't think I can really point to anything measurable. What I can do is say that I prefer something else, and describe how.

@joe, good choreography is great to watch; but I can certainly think of several social dancers offhand who I get a lot out of watching, as you do. I think I edited out the bit I had about imperfection of execution - I was going to say that I like it when they do something that went a little bit wrong, because it was there in the music. But I couldn't quite pin it down.

ghost said...

I remember years ago someone trying to describe the japanese concept of "shibumi" (loosely speaking - "elegance") as being 'you wouldn't take a Rolls Royce and paint it neon pink'.

The elegance of a Silver Ghost Rolls Royce doesn't need over-stating, it just is. So for me, I would say you (and I) enjoy dances that have the quality of shibumi.

Pierre said...

I believe this might help, pinched from one of the numerous tango blogs I've been reading lately (Alex Fuego I think):

So it seems like enjoyment from the dance is a function of our expectations/experience and what you see/not see(subtlety). Thus, stage dancing for the public is very different from performing for discerning dancers. So, I think this is also true for different levels of dancers (req different levels of subtlety) and is probably true for differences between individuals (cant please everyone). As with everything, success would probably depend on being able to give something for everyone and being able to balance these different aspects... oops, I think I've overspent my quota of cliches for the day....

Mathieu said...

Thanks Ms. Hedgehog, your feelings on performances really resonated with me!

Another one maybe for your list:
I don't like: when one of the dancers become visibly annoyed because his or her partner has missed a step or made a mistake in the choreography.
I like: when some spontaneity trickles from the steps, maybe when a smile or a look on the face of the dancers show that they can still surprise each other.

@ghost: I like your idea of a introductory walk to test for a discerning audience. I have never been keen on the pre-worked drama scene that some performers deem necessary to introduce their tango.

msHedgehog said...

@mathieu, I'm not nuts about fancy intros either. They make me cringe. I have seen a curious sort-of-intro I liked, in which they danced together without touching - but the connection they had was spectacular and it was a brilliant effect. Little smiles are great.
@pierre, clickable version like this.

Pierre said...

Thanks, Ms Hedgehog. Still learning the html lingo. Thanks for an interesting topic as well. Now, if I may further impose and give my two cents...

I find that my taste in performances has changed over the 2 years I have been doing tango. In the beginning, I really liked the show tango stuff, as well as the other showy dance styles such as Modern Jive (Ceroc). Now, I find the same performances to be either vulgar, or just painful to watch. When I came across the article, the why became clear. My mind's eye can now see more as it knows more from experience. Thus, I enjoy the subtle impressions of good communication I see, which is two dancers harmonious and dynamic in their dance, as well as appropriate "surprises" (that is, surprises that make sense, if that makes sense).

At this moment, I really enjoy performances that use proper punctuation. That is, they reserve the big showy moves for when the music gets dramatic or frenetic. Nothing annoys me more than a performance where they fire off one big move after another. End rant.

msHedgehog said...

@Pierre, that research is certainly relevant and it seems plausible in relation to my own experience. I think my tastes have changed somewhat, too. But I'm not quite sure. For a long time after I started dancing tango I tended to be undecided about performances, because I didn't feel I understood them. So I would just find some particular feature that I liked or disliked and think about that rather than the performance as a whole. I still do that to a certain extent. Now I find I have much more definite feelings about performances than I did before, but I'm not sure that the content of the feelings has changed much.

ryszard said...

I, for a change, like Tango Shows. Have to say, I do like theater as well... and in many ways I like 'bad' performances as much as 'good' ones. Actually in many occasions 'bad' performances stimulated my imagination more, they left me with more reflections to chew. Clarifying ideas what are you looking for in Tango will help you in your own improvement as a dancer. Another thing is: start planing your own, 'perfect' Tango Show... this task will let you watch others doing it with different perspective and may help you enjoy that short break from your social dancing even more... And one day, maybe, even for small group of friends, try to execute your TANGO SHOW... and than write your reflections about this experience...