Friday 11 March 2016

Undead Tango at the Peacock, and scenes I'd like to see

So, one of the reviews said "you have to admire Cornejo’s effort to rejuvenate tango for 21st Century", and I think it would be a very good thing if somebody actually did try to reinvent the tango show for the 21st Century. So I thought I'd better go and see if it had been tried. I expected the reviewer to be mistaken, but I was open minded.

Content warning: some adult language.

It really was trying to be different. It contained things I didn't expect. They included a farthingale, a longish session of ballet pointe-work, a Disney princess and a lot of schmaltz. At least it realised it should try.

Its attempt to avoid cliché opens with "Tango de Roxane" in gold Kylie dresses. The first half continued with various slightly steampunk-themed scenes, musical solos, a wedding with a kind of Widow Twankey thing going on, then the Disney princess, an extended scene of one ballerina en pointe with six men as props, and a lot more that I don't remember. The tango was pouting, one-paced, unvarying, frenetic, kickety kickety kick.

The second half consisted mostly of what you would expect - a succession of the kind of single-couple choreographies that usually do well in the Escenario section of the Mundial. Mundane is what they certainly are. One of the couples paused twice and looked briefly at each other, rather than exclusively at the audience and into space. Then they did an endless turn through a long silence. That, and the obvious fall, were the only moves I remember.

The Widow Twankey bit came back with a clown scene all about the huge impractical costumes, which were pretty much the theme of the production as a whole. There was also the obligatory single scene of men dancing with each other, and of course they had to make it a play-fight, because two men who can actually dance, actually dancing with each other would be - well, what?

On New Year's Eve I was at a festival in France and one of the things I was privileged to see, when I wasn't too busy dancing, was two of the most truly charming and attractive men on the European tango scene dancing together socially and having fun. There's no video, because it was social dancing and it was about actually being there (although if you took video, you should TOTALLY send it right now. I won't tell). I got to dance with each of them as well, and they were both lovely.

This wasn't that. This was so utterly terrified of appearing remotely interesting, let alone sexy, that it threw a punch and ran for the hills. They had to bring a woman on to calm things down with the magic tits of pornobanality.

Tango is a traditional partner dance and a gender-role-play game. It's also a social dance scene in which women dancing together because they want to dance with each other is common, and normal, and often looks compelling and wonderful; and in which men dancing together because they want to dance with each other is much less common, and is also normal, and also often looks compelling and wonderful.

And I'm somehow supposed to be impressed by this on the stage at Sadler's Wells?

This production seems completely unaware that anyone, anywhere in the world, dances tango with another person because they want to. The 'tango' presented is an achingly narrow bonsai product. Irrelevant to its global practice, contemptuous of its audience.

I have no problem with anybody arranging Skyfall as a tango and dancing to it. None. I think that's a great idea. It has a pretty good tune. If you've got a good arranger and a good band, and the song says something you want to say, totally go for it. Dive right in if you think you're good enough. The more good songs get well arranged and well played as new tangos, the better; eventually some of them will be good enough to dance to, and to get there you have to experiment and practice.

I also quite liked the steampunk look. Why not? Long skirts are challenging for the cast, but if it means something to you, do it. Some of the costumes near the end reminded me of passing through Birmingham on a bus at 5am in 1997 on my way to the British Grand Prix, happy days. What they meant to the director is anyone's guess, but I have no problem with it. I just don't think it counts as innovation. Nor does ballet, and nor does rock-and-roll, especially if not very good.

There were moments of genuine emotion; the emotions were misogyny, transphobia, and the kind of sexism directed mainly by men at men which is often referred to as 'toxic masculinity'. The production seemed unconscious of these, so I can only suppose they were sincere.

I would have left the theatre indifferent, but not especially cross, if I hadn't seen the encore and read the programme notes. In the encore, they put on 80s 'fame' costumes and danced tango to 50's rock and roll. If you want to dance rock and roll in a tango show, I would like you to dance rock and roll, preferably well. As for the programme notes, I'll spare you.

It's possible that the costumes were intended to be the plot.

In fact, I'm not going to discuss the production any more. It met my expectations, which shouldn't be an excuse. Instead I'm going to discuss what a tango show should be. Let's make up some possible ground rules and just put them out there.

Ballet is not innovation. Rock and roll is not innovation. Gymnastics are not innovation, nor are they in themselves good dancing. Long skirts are not innovation. 80's timewarps are not innovation. Dancing to a Bond theme has been done rather better on Strictly Come Dancing nearly a decade ago. Same-sex dancing is not innovation. It may be striking, significant, beautiful, or even unusual on stage, but it is not new.

I would like to see innovation, ambition, and imagination in tango shows. I would like to see choreography that means something and says something. I would like to see things more like the performance that came second in the Mundial this year, which made me feel something. I've seen tango performances in the last twelve months that moved me to tears. It is totally possible.

Here are some things I would like to see in a tango show. Not all in the same show. These are just some ideas, some possible directions, in no particular order. They are not revolutionary. Most of them are extremely conservative, and would be tiny steps in relation to the format and traditions of tango shows. They're things that might give you a reason to dance tango on stage, rather than something else.

Innovation, in tango shows, would be literally anything that wasn't crap. But, how about:

  • A variety of styles and ways of dancing, chosen for the ideas they communicate. Tango is expressively rich, technically diverse, and global. Like Shakespeare.
  • A scene that tells the story of its music, in the sense of addressing its content. There are songs about gender violence, dead babies, loyal dogs, has-beens, falling in love, selfishness, poverty, crushes, breakups, second thoughts, pretentiousness, humanity adrift in a mechanical world, bad dancing, warfare, emigration, immigration, homesickness, money, church bells, and lots more. The content is sometimes difficult. Why not take it on?
  • If you're going to dance to 'Ojos Negros' as a vals, and you have a good band, a costume budget, and a talented arranger, why not tell some of the story of that tune? You could still have the Disney princess dress in there, if you wanted.
  • A scene that subverts, defies, or reimagines the content of a well-known tango, or uses it as a clever joke.
  • A scene that tells a story about travel and Europe and Japan in the history of tango. 
  • An ethnically diverse cast.
  • If (as it's clear this production does) you have total contempt for the very existence of European social tango, why not satirise it? I saw enough plastic Chichos at a small festival in France a couple of weekends ago to make anybody laugh out loud. I bet the cast could make fun of that. You could dance in vomit-green swooshpants, bare feet, a bath-ring beard and a man-bun. Hell, you could make fun of Noelichicks, Carlitoheads, Salonsters, bloggers, wielders of the Minirig, or dancing in airports. At least you wouldn't be insulting our intelligence, and it could hardly fail to be funnier than the Widow Twankey. Or show me the hilarious and touching things I don't know about that (probably) happen in Seoul and Shanghai.
  • Any scene at all that alludes to tango as it exists in the world.
  • Scenes of same-sex dancing that are more than displacement activity. Why not make it about love, or friendship, or teamwork, or learning, or solidarity, or society, or even, for fuck's sake, sex?
  • Any scene at all about about complex human feelings or the way people take care of and teach and support each other in bad situations.
  • A scene that shows someone wanting to dance with someone else. For any reason.
  • A scene about how dancing enhances people's lives. 
  • A scene that communicates how magical it feels to find that you are apparently leading because someone has decided to follow you, and how amazing that process is.
  • A scene alluding to the contemporary experience of tango tourism, from any point of view. Daring, huh?
  • A funny story about a badly-organised tango competition. Even more daring.
  • A scene alluding to the funny, complicated or stressful side of organising a social dance. 
  • A musical story that says something about the relationships between tango, jazz, blues, and rock, and shows off the versatility and knowledge of cast and musicians, without abandoning what music means to people.
  • A cast spending less time obviously out-of-breath.
  • If you're going to have a backdrop of random stars, why not have a backdrop of obviously non-random stars, with the Moon and Orion the Southern way up?

I don't think the explanation for all this is commercial. It looks commerically stupid to ignore the European tango scene. It has an absorbing hobby, it has time, and it has money. You don't have to limit yourself to standing ovations from randoms who have no idea what they've just seen. You could carry on pleasing them and still refrain from insulting the people who should be your fans and evangelists.

The show wasn't "Immortal Tango". It was undead. If you are a stage producer or choreographer and think you can revive it, please contact Sadler's Wells. Please.

[Review: Immortal Tango, Peacock Theatre, Sadler's Wells, till 19th March]