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Tango Pasión : Ứltimo Tango

February 22, 2012
Photograph by Jim McCann

Reviewed February 21, 2012

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

Tango Pasión’s ltimo Tango transports us into the intimate atmosphere of a Buenos Aires café bar, where six handsome couples dance the sultry tango to the authentic melancholic strains of Argentinian bandoneon, violin and piano, all part of the stage set.

But the tango is not just dance for the Argentinians. Growing out of the society’s underbelly, the brothels and the immigrant culture of the late 1880s and early 1900s, the tango eventually came to epitomize the glamour and elegance of high society well into the 1950s.

That wiggle, that walk, that smooth slide, that graceful glide and, oh, that twisty little leg language. Such energy, such vitality, such sensuality, such flirtation. All glamour, excitement and entertainment.

Yes, it’s a feast for the eyes and the ears.

The men are dapper, slick and polished. They parade and strut (with billiard sticks in one number). The women are shiny and bejeweled, leggy and curvy. All their costumes, thanks to wardrobe supervisor and costumiere Emmylou Latour, are sumptuous.

The musicians, many of them performers since childhood, form a small orchestra of perfection. Gabriel Martin Merlino, musical director and first bandoneon, started his studies at the age of eight, and has been performing in tango shows since he was 12. His instrument was a gift from his grandfather, a musician from the traditional Golden Tango orchestra era. A second bandoneon, violin, double bass, drums, keyboard and grand piano complete the sexteto. Vanina Sol Tagini, granddaughter of the legendary tango poet Armando Tagini, adds her deep sultry voice to the mix.

The second half of the spectacle brings a change of theme from the casual café bar to the exotic late night club: more formal, black dress, and the partnering a little more adventurous, a little more dangerous, the stakes a little higher. The friendly and sometimes humorous flirtation gives way to a more serious passion. There’s more of a commitment between the dancers. And there’s a little more sound and fury from the orchestra.

The melancholy tango music always informs the expression of this style of dance, but none more than a piece towards the end of the show, when Merlino plays his bandoneon alone centre stage, surrounded by five men in black suits and white face masks. The permeating mood is one of mystery and danger, easily associated with the early tangos, when man-to-man combat for the favour of a woman was common.

Which brings us to the men in this troupe, who are disciplined and confident dancers and who perform impressively as an ensemble on a few occasions. The women, on the other hand, while their skills and tight virtuosic movements are sensational, are mere foils for the men.

Of course, this is how the tango began. A kind of sexual choreography for the tough compadrones and the gaucho cowboys showcasing their bravado and substance for the benefit of the women.

Tango Pasión’s ltimo Tango has a long history. It dates back 30 years to the moment when artistic advisor Mel Howard decided to create an innovative tango spectacle. What began as a modest show has since toured around the world. Osvaldo Salvador Ciliento, Tango Pasión’s artistic director since 1994, continues to revitalize the repertoire and transform the show by updating the music, the poetry and the dance technique.

Nevertheless, as polished as this show is, if the presentation at the NAC is any indication, there’s something seriously outdated about it. While the essence of the tango spectacle is still there, as a whole, it’s lackluster. And I can’t help but compare it to one of the best shows I ever saw, Luis Bravo’s Forever Tango, in 1997. If only ltimo was as flamboyant and as resonant, as tender and as tragic, as riveting and as reckless.

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From → Spectacle

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