October 7, 2014 § 3 Comments

I’ve been thinking of writing something about performance for a while now. Most local milongas host performances from time to time and they are a regular feature of many of the larger venues. They primarily feature touring dancers, although occasionally local talent will perform. The dancers range from those who are world famous to relative unknowns. The dancers I’ve seen have been highly talented, energetic, and creative. They display marvelous control and often brilliant technique, the kind that comes from years of discipline and hard work. Some clearly have backgrounds in dance outside of tango.

As I mentioned in a previous post, many performance are beautiful and inspiring for the kinds of grace and skill on display and, in the best of cases, are more than mere entertainment. Two of my favorite couples on the performance circuit today are Noelia Hurtado and Carlitos Espinoza and Adrian and Amanda Costa. Neither couple needs an introduction here, they are well known  and videos of their performances are easily found online. I have always admired them but for different reasons. Noelia Hurtado, whose former partner was Pablo Rodriguez, dances with an energy and passion rarely equalled on the dance floor. It is rare to see such deep-seated feeling and emotion conveyed in a performance and it is clear from watching her that she loves this music and this dance and all it represents. I don’t know if she’s the most technically proficient dancer around, I don’t really care, and I don’t think it matters much for her performance. There is a kind of sinuous snaking line to her movements and she uses the floor like few dancers, biting into it, working it, almost wearing it down when she steps. She is also one of the most sensual performers around and there is a kind of unabashed sexual energy in her dancing. Noelia and Carlitos are a wonderful couple and seem to be well matched.

I’ve been following the Costas for a while now; they are one of the most beautiful couples in tango today. For me, Adrian Costa is the spiritual heir of Dispari; his dancing often consists of nothing more than walking, but few dancers walk like Adrian Costa. I’ve seen videos of him and Amanda, where they do almost nothing but walk. Simple? Boring? Hardly. No, they make it work and demonstrate that good tango, beautiful tango, even at this level, even for a crowd, can consist of something so basic, so simple, that we often take it for granted. A step. A pause. A movement forward. Yes, they can do all the other things that make us watch performers, the well-executed enrosques, the rapid turns, the perfect posture. But what does it matter? There is something so graceful, so satisfying, so compelling about this way of dancing that you have to ask why anyone would bother wanting more.

Having said that, it may seem churlish of me to admit that I am not a fan of performances at local milongas. Generally, I fail to see the point. I understand the economic benefits, the need to attract a crowd, the popularity, even fame, of certain couples, the opportunity for new teachers to attract students and followers. But most people go to a milonga to dance rather than to be entertained and performances, for all their intrinsic value, often seem to strip the room of its energy. The dynamics of movement need to be set in motion once again; momentum is lost. But there is another aspect of performance that is more important than this, namely the distinction between public and private, and the blurring of the line between them. Performance is, by its nature, a public event. It is outwardly directed and requires an audience of spectators. Performers, whether they be dancers or actors or jugglers, inhabit a stage to entertain (primarily) or (in some cases) inform. Their energies are focused on engaging the spectator in their behavior on stage. There is no performance without the attention and involvement of an audience.

But tango is not public, it is private. Unlike performance or the dancing of performers, it is inwardly directed. Although it takes places in a public space, among other dancers and onlookers, it is not danced for those others. It does not seek to engage with an audience or draw them into the private world of the couple. It does not seek attention or hope for applause. Its success or failure has little or nothing to do with the presence of an admiring crowd of spectators. The space of the tango does not open up to the world at large as a performance does, it is confined to the space of the moving couple as it makes its way around the dance floor. The energies of this couple are focused inwardly, the man’s on the woman, the woman’s on the man. Obviously, there are issues of navigation and movement among other dancers, but those factors are purely contingent and do not alter the essentially private nature of the dance. To a large extent, this is what makes tango so exciting, and so difficult—the need to maintain focus on one’s partner in a crowd of dancers, the conflict between attentiveness and abandon.

For me, and for many others, I imagine, the beauty of tango is intimately associated with this concept of inner-directedness—we can think of the dancing couple as a planet and moon slowly orbiting a central sun in this small, bright galaxy of dancers. A number of metaphors could be drawn from geometry and mechanics, but what I want to emphasize here is the inwardness of the couple throughout the dance, the importance of whatever gravitational force keeps them entwined, the centrifugal motion that threatens to hurl them into space. Clearly, there is a psychological and emotional component as well in the need to focus on the person in our arms, the care we exert in protecting this fragile unit from disruption, the emotional charge that brings us together and drives us forward at the same time. There are elements of this union that are public, but it is not a performance. We may be observed, but we dance for ourselves.

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