DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
These days, it seems as if nearly everyone in the arts is looking for “edge,” as if creativity were no more than what academicians call “transgressive impulses.” We take it for granted now that the lingo for creative energy is often associated with crime, blades, aggression, wounds—sensational elements. One reason may be that audiences for the arts are so benumbed by the welter of images they encounter daily that, in order for most people to feel anything in the theater, they have to be hit over the head or skewered. In other words, people won’t recognize what constitutes edge unless they see a literal representation of its results, about to spill or actually spilling out of some orifice or entry hole. In dance, of course, what gets lost in this equation between creativity and literally sensational imagery is dancing: the edge becomes all, as in a nightmare where one is walking through a city that has no sidewalks, only curbs—which is why a number of choreographers over the past two decades have been acclaimed for works that have no formal shape, no theatrical expertise, and, all too often, no dance vocabulary. As long as the imagery pulls the right trigger, nobody cares about what else might be missing. The distortion works backwards, too. George Balanchine’s Apollon Musagète was much edgier than Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune in the relationships it presented between men and women and in its pervasive, analytical reconsideration of the rules and regulations that guided the classical syllabus taught at the Imperial School of St. Petersburg, where both Balanchine and Nijinsky studied. In the astoundingly revealing 1990 Juilliard production of Faune that notator Ann Hutchinson Guest worked on with Jill Beck from Nijinsky’s own notations of what he intended his choreography to be, the Chief Nymph exhibits a modesty of person, and a range of human feeling, that are completely absent from Balanchine’s god and muses. Nijinsky’s characters are recognizable Edwardians transposed; Balanchine’s are of another species entirely. Yet, owing to Nijinsky’s literal staging of the faun’s orgasm, it is Faune that is remembered as the more revolutionary work.
It’s a pyrrhic effort to fight City Hall on matters going back nearly a century; however, I will say that if you want to see true edge in action, in DANCE ACTION, look out for performances by the 23 year-old prodigy of Argentinian tango, Pablo Pugliese—a native of Argentina and the son of the distinguished milongueros Esther and Mingo Pugliese.
Pablo began to study tango at the age of nine; by the time he was in his late teens, when I first saw him perform in New York, his rhythmic subtlety, coordination, and sense of possible development within the dance itself—different ways for partners to embrace or to orient themselves in space while maintaining the dance, wonderful new step combinations, idiosyncratic ways of phrasing familiar steps—were so far advanced that it didn’t seem he had anywhere else to go.
His footwork is a joy, with slashes and hooks abounding. He also exhibited a sense of humor that, itself, had a welcome range. His improvisations and choreography could be sweetly or acerbically witty, and, although he could adopt the traditional tango smolder at a moment’s notice, it always had the quality of something in quotation marks. That is, he worked as a member of his generation, and he danced in this century-old tradition directly from his own youth, without mannerisms adopted from previous generations of dancers. Finally, although his most profound training and frame of reference is the tango-milonga tradition, Pablo has also trained intensively in classical ballet and in modern dance. Ballet has contributed to the strength in his back, his turnout, and his understanding of the theatrical effect of line; modern dance has extended his range of movement, which includes movement of the entire body on the floor.
At Town Hall this past Saturday, Pablo and one of his partners—the South Korean-born dancer and choreographer Shiwa Noh, whose own extensive dance training includes ballet, jazz, and a BFA in choreography from U.C./Irvine—joined another dance couple—the brilliant, more conservative pair of tangueros, Jorge Torres and Mariela Franganillo—on the extraordinary program of tango and milonga music and dance put on by the visionary Argentine native and current resident of Brooklyn Pablo Aslan and his musical group, AvanTango. Aslan’s program note explaining what he intended to accomplish was completely realized. It reads:
“I formed AvanTango to explore ways that tango intersects with the world today. The musicians and dancers in this group are authentic ‘tangueros’ who are inspired to use tango’s depth of feeling and expression to represent where we are now. We are presenting a collection of new compositions by both band members and other vibrant Argentine composers who work defines this goal. Here also is original, modern tango choreography ready to take on the challenges of this ever-dizzying era. In a world that grows stranger every day, we need to keep creating, which is our way of resistance to so much madness.”
Aslan’s group includes a saxophonist and a trumpeter. Their Astor Piazzolla repertory emphasized Piazzolla’s later passion for progressive jazz, with its demanding counterpoint and musical themes that teeter between melodies and bursts of tightly webbed sound. The music requires more concentration of the listener than traditional tango songs, and some of the older members of the audience were a little taken aback by it. One can’t simply fall into its expression and daydream away: this is music embedded with gritty reality for serious twenty- and thirtysomethings. Everyone of all ages, however, enjoyed the dancing. What’s not to enjoy? It was great and also greatly entertaining.
Torres and Franganillo, both native Argentinians trained in the tango from their childhood and both choreographers (in 1998, Torres, the dance captain of the revue Forever Tango, was nominated for a Tony in choreography and four awards by the Outer Critics Circle), presented classic tango dancing of high taste, intricacy, athletic discipline, exquisite timing, and sensuality. And the dances were constructions, with themes repeated and varied, and fantastical poses coalescing, it seemed, out of pure air. (Franganillo’s effortlessly waist-high open attitude position was used as modernist architecture.) Full of surprising step events, their choreography combined virtuosity and a restrained tone that set the standard for what tango dancing, on its own terms, can be. The problem is that our world is no longer a place for dancing on its own terms. Indeed, an amusing trio to Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” composed with Harry Carney and choreographed by Pugliese, Torres, and Franganillo, suggested as much: the two men vie for the lady by dancing with her. Torres trumps his competitor—although only by dragging her off while she is seated on Pugliese’s chair.
Use of props
and costume elements—chairs, trick suit jackets, and so forth—in
the manner of late Astaire as well as of postmodern performance, is one
of the things that set Pugliese’s choreography apart at the moment.
His dances don’t have plots, at least not yet; however, they do
have figures who are almost characters. “Deus Xango,” to a
Piazzolla tune arranged by Aslan, opens with Pugliese alone, his back
to us, tracing a large box step. When Noh enters, wearing a singlet flooded
with bloody light, Pugliese turns, and we see that his wrists have been
bound with similarly bloody wrappings: they’re both trapped in a
butcher shop of the heart. The image is primal and perfect for the tango
sensibility, without relying for its effect on any of the familiar pictorial
details of tango—the noirish hats and knives that hearken back to
the 1930s and ‘40s. In the dance that ensues between them, Noh unbinds
the wrappings in musical time, and, crouching, uncoils them to the floor.
Then, in a breathtakingly musical transition, she begins to slide her
hand up Pugliese’s thigh. In these dramatic moments, the dance continues
to pulse through the action; the drama is not a diversion from the dance
energy but rather an intensification of it. And it is presented as theatrical
drama, with the dancers distanced from its originating emotion, as used
to be the case in modern dance. It is not about Pugliese and Noh, but
rather a statement about life that has been constructed for the theater.
In another duet, (I think called) “Milonga Loca,” to Piazzolla,
the imagery seems to have been derived from a satire on gender studies:
Noh crawls into Pugliese’s jacket; she slips it off of him for herself,
turning it inside-out; he retrieves it, turning it rightside-back. She
breaks to freshen her make-up, stage right, while, stage left, he pulls
out a banana and eats it. The amazing aspect of this dance, again, was
that the pulse never wavered; even eating a banana, Pugliese was dancing.
At the end of the evening, Pugliese and Noh showed a Fred-and-Ginger-do-the-tango,
proving that they could dance it wonderfully without situating it dramatically.
However, it was here that we also saw the discrepancy in their tango abilities—Pugliese
is so adept that he can practically dance both a leader and a follower
at once—and, as with Fred and Ginger, one begins to wonder what
Fred was like when he danced with his sister, Adele, who was a technical
match for him. The wonder is fleeting, though: Pugliese and Noh are up
to something new, and edgy, and now.
for Valentine’s Day
The following numbers
were performed, although in a slightly different order from the list here:
St. Louis Toodle-oo
en el Viento
last updated on January 11, 2004