Article content continued
In the first dance of the evening a knife appeared briefly in a male dancer’s hand, as if in tribute to the primitive beginnings of tango (in the 1880s or 1890s) among the pimps, prostitutes, and sex-starved gauchos, in from the pampas to make love and trouble in Buenos Aires. That dance, and some of those that followed during the evening, achieved a fierceness that hinted at the dark appeal Jorge Luis Borges always found in the stories of fearless and sometimes murderous gauchos. Tango has always carried an overtone of menace.
Those who listen only occasionally to tango music miss its diversity of expression, the subtle shadings of its narrative. Tango works within a limited emotional range, true, but so does a fugue or a Broadway ballad. It is only when confronted by a whole evening of dancers and singers that one understands the multiplicity of attitudes they strike and the subtle pacing of their performances. I had heard about the millions of people enthralled by tango (I had also seen Buenos Aires record stores where half the CDs were tango music) but until visiting El Querandí I didn’t understand how it draws the audience into its special ambit.
Once engaged, the audience begins to realize that the energy depends on swift mood changes in the stories that the dancers perform symbolically.
These miniplots are never more than fragmentary, glimpsed out of the corner of the mind’s eye, like the lyrics of Paul Simon songs. But their existence transforms the tango into drama as much as dance. The performers slowly unfold a story, often involving a hint of erotic history. As it develops they depict acceptance, then rejection, then perhaps acceptance again. Angry indecision is the essence of the characters they are playing. Often disillusionment becomes part of the narrative, and sometimes contempt. Each character is aware at every moment of potential betrayal. A compelling sexuality provides the fundamental mood, never more powerfully felt than when the dancers pull back from each other’s touch. Disappointment is never more than two bars away. Tango is a choreographed seduction with no guarantee that it will achieve its goal.