Is tango an art?

July 15, 2017 § 4 Comments

Let’s dance
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues
Let’s dance
To the song they’re playin’ on the radio
from David Bowie, “Let’s Dance”

When we think of dance as an art form many of us tend to think of classical ballet or the giants of modern dance: George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Trisha Brown, to name just a few. Dance—choreographed dance intended for the stage—like so much of modern theater, no matter how avant-garde, once its novelty or daring has come to be accepted (Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, for example) falls squarely within the category of the performing and fine arts. This much is uncontroversial. Alongside the history of culturally recognized dance, we have the entire body of folk and popular dance that has been with us, in one form or another, since time immemorial. Like pop music, yodeling, and kazooing, this has a very low probability of becoming part of the fine arts canon. It will languish, unloved and unknown, in the folder labeled “ephemera” or “folk art.”

Like other examples of the lesser arts, tango is (was, to be more accurate) a popular music and dance form, a social dance that rose from poverty to inhabit the world stage. From time to time, it has tried to cross over to the more rarefied precincts of the art world through staged and choreographed performances. Of note, is the highly popular show Tango Argentino, which had its Broadway debut in October 1985 and was the first and most successful of such ventures.

Tango Argentino began its New York City run at the Mark Hellinger Theater in June 1985. Although it was difficult to find backers for the show, or even much enthusiasm, once it opened it became a huge success and ran for several months to general acclaim and glowing reviews. The show was choreographed by Juan Carlos Copes, who also performed in it together with his partner, Maria Nieves.

But Tango Argentino, like most of its successors, although designed for the theater, falls into the limbo of a popular dance form that has been tricked out for the proscenium stage. In spite of the formality and costumes, the overheated dramatic posturing that seeks to emphasize tango’s louche origins, it is neither an accurate reflection of the social dance known as tango nor a recognized member of the modern dance catalog.

A more recent use of tango for the stage can be found in the show, MiLONGA. The production was choreographed by Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and staged at New York’s City Center in 2015. Cherkaoui sought a modern interpretation of the “traditional” tango and built the production around a group of professional tango dancers and two modern dancers. The show, which was very well received and heavily reviewed, was, by all accounts, beautifully choreographed and danced, and made effective use of video projection, costuming, still photography, and an original musical score. Rather than presenting itself as a descriptive history of tango’s development or a snapshot of the dance, Cherkaoui wanted to offer his audience a creative reinterpretation of tango and its possibilities. There is an important distinction to be made here in that MiLONGA did not pretend to capture the reality of Argentine tango but melded the traditions of tango with those of modern dance. The tango, around which the dance was built, served largely as a source of inspiration. Cherkaoui, in discussing the genesis of the show, noted that “Traditional dance forms like tango only survive by physical transmission, by people continuing to do it.” Aside from serving as an encouragement to social tango dancers today, his comment highlights the importance of maintaining whatever is transmissible in that tradition. (See: Cherkaoui–importance of tradition.)

What seems certain is that tango shows—and stage tango generally—aspire to the status of modern dance found in the performing arts. The signs and symbols of their presentation all point in the direction of this aspirational movement: proscenium stage, choreography, costumes, dramatic lighting, emcee, a passive audience, applause, encores, newspaper reviews. Yet, at the same time, they are rooted in the social customs of the local milonga and purport to be a reflection of its intimacy and passion.

One difficulty with the assumption of historical accuracy is that such shows are populated largely by professional dancers and performers—individuals who, notwithstanding their talent and drive, often lack the sustained involvement with social dancing of the committed milonguero. Some have trained as modern dancers or studied ballet, which is wonderful in and of itself, but certainly not reflective of any tradition associated with tango.

None of this would matter were it not for the fact that much of the world bases its understanding of tango on the mythology projected by such traveling shows: love, betrayal, violence, sex. The same themes can be found in films such as Carlos Saura’s Tango, which incorporates a dramatic narrative line and highly stylized dance routines. The story revolves around a tango couple whose relationship is coming apart and descends into suspicion, jealousy, and murder.

Following the trajectory of the elaborate stage presentations of shows such as Tango Argentino and Forever Tango are the performances given by professional dancers. These vary in skill, innovation, and complexity but they are designed, more or less, to showcase the work of teachers in search of students or workshop participants. Regardless of what they are teaching or how, most of these touring professionals are not social dancers in any conventional sense of the word. This is not to make light of the extraordinary skill, hard work and dedication of these men and women, but we need to be clear about our terms.

Social tango, sometimes generically referred to as “tango de salon,” is the canonical form of tango from which all others derive. Like all social dancing, its practitioners are “amateurs,” although skill levels can be very high and experience extensive. Typically, the requirements for a milonga, a gathering of social tango dancers, are a suitable dance floor and appropriate music played by a DJ. The music is exclusively drawn from the body of classical tango compositions, written roughly between the late 1920s and mid-50s. Couples move around the dance floor in a counterclockwise direction. I have written about the social characteristics of the milonga elsewhere (Codigos) and, for those interested in a more extensive discussion of tango styles, there is a very good, and very thorough, description of the customs, codes, and traditions of tango de salon here: Tango de salon.

In a sense, the touring performances of “tango escenario” are a solution in search of a problem. No one knew they needed the assistance of such professionals before they appeared on the scene (a fairly recent phenomenon). Today, we are presented with an endless procession of performances, workshops, training sessions, bootcamps, and so on by local performers and touring couples (largely but not exclusively from Argentina). As one emcee is fond of saying, “If you want to dance like them . . . you have to take classes with them.” The problem is that most of us don’t want to dance like them because we’re not performing and even if we could, we couldn’t (certainly shouldn’t) dance that way at a milonga. Exhibition dances at milongas are, in spite of their popularity, primarily (some would say exclusively) advertisements for the dancers; they are marketing events. The fact that some of those dancers are local shouldn’t blur the fact that such exhibitions can serve to distance nonprofessional dancers from their own development by holding up a form of stage (often choreographed) performance as something to emulate. This aspirational impulse can often lead to false expectations and disappointment or a movement along a trajectory that leads away from the conventions of social dancing of the milonga.

There are, of course, many videos of performances by milongueros and milongueras—Ricardo Vidort, El Chino Perrico, Osvaldo and Coco Cartery, and so on, as well as videos of those who strive to actively maintain that tradition through their teaching, such as Susana Miller and Monica Paz. Whatever we may think of them as dancers, most of these videos should be treated as documentary records of the glory days of Argentine tango. Vidort, Cartery, and their peers were never “performers” as such, they were simply exemplary models of a traditional form of tango and happened to be noteworthy for their dancing, their commitment, and their years of experience. For many of these men and women (and we hear so little about the women), tango was as much a way of life as a dance. Were it not for such videos, these individuals would be largely unknown and tango would likely come to be defined in the global imaginary by the highly stylized forms of stage tango the world has come to associate with the dance.

A further sign of the attempt to usher (stage) tango into the precincts of the contemporary performing arts is the use of nontraditional tango music for performances, coupled with the use of movements largely drawn from modern dance, which have little or no relation to tango—social or other. Such attempts to merge tango with modern dance scream for attention, especially in the context of a local milonga. What such visual statements implicitly suggest is that “we may be here as tango dancers but we’re really more than that, we’re not simply tango dancers, we’re dancers tout court.” This isn’t just tango, this is “art.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Tango is, before all else, a social dance. It is not what we see on stage or on screen, it is not a high-octane drama of sex and violence that unfolds in the backwaters of Buenos Aires, or a melodrama of love, betrayal, and revenge. These are all part of the mythology of tango and contribute to its mystique and its appeal. But they are not tango. Tango is a confluence of tradition and contemporaneity rooted in a form of music that was once popular in Buenos Aires and the dance form that evolved with that music. It grew into a social movement that waxed and waned and periodically disappeared until it returned to visibility in the latter years of the 20th century. Like many atavistic practices, it is embedded in the past and its social conditions. Then as now, I’m sure there were good dancers and bad. But whether any of this was art was of little importance. I don’t know how the older generations thought about tango but I’ve never heard any of them speak of it as an art in interviews. Vidort, most tellingly, called it a “feeling,” something you have within you and that cannot be shared. Others call it a sense of passion or joy or tradition or communication, even a kind of religion.

Tango, for these elderly milongueros is many things, but art never enters the picture.

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§ 4 Responses to Is tango an art?

  • John Lowry says:

    Thank you for this very succint explanation of the difference between performance and social Tango.


  • tom ventra says:

    ground control to major Tom is Bowies’ dance space tango. It soars above above us all.


  • DJ Polaco says:

    Sadly, contemporary culture, as in what passes both for high art and popular culture these days, is just so much worthless shite I’ve stopped paying any attention to it long ago and feel much better for it.

    If I want to see a performance I stick to classical music these days. I don’t like any non-Golden Era renditions of tango including Piazzolla, tango recorded after the 50s, or electro tango. For a period I thought that I enjoy this music but at some point I gave up and don’t feel any need for it at all.

    If I want something other than Golden Era tango I listen to Bach, Vivaldi, etc. and find it suprior. Piazzolla is not really Argentine music to my ear, but a poor French bastardisation of tango. I haven’t listened enough to provide a truly informed critique but the bandoneon playing echoes Troilo but generally there’s few commonalities. My general impression is that Piazzolla and his followers have taken a few ‘hooks’ in bandoneon playing that you hear even in the Golden Era tango, and made a whole new genre out of it.

    Something similar was down with the tango performance, ie., a bunch of ‘hooks’. Of course I avoid tango performances of any kind if I possibly can because it’s just so much cheese, a sort of burlesque for the middle classes. It reminds me of ‘Opera in the Park’ and ‘Jazz in the Park’ picnic entertainments with copious amounts of white wine and cheese during the New Years season in Sydney (and I’m sure many other cities).

    These entertainments for the masses (so-called ‘art’) are a sad reflection on the state of the culturally illiterate masses who have been educated into consuing this type of cultural product by high-minded teachers of the government schooling system so that they have a rough idea what Shakespeare or Picasso is and understand well that it goes well with copious amounts of white wine and cheese.


    • R. Bononno says:

      As for Piazzolla, don’t forget he started out wanting to be a modern “classical” composer and studied many years to that end. As I recall, he went to Paris to study with the great Nadia Boulanger and she told him he ought to focus on what he loved, which was the bandoneon and tango. And the rest is history. I listen to all sorts of stuff; I’ve never been a purist about art. Of course, when it comes to dancing tango, I want the classics.


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