What does a shy, gay Flemish-Moroccan choreographer make of that slickly hetero courtship dance from Argentina which is the tango?
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui was drawn apparently to the intensely coupled, always entwined, tactile nature of tango, even if in the bars of Buenos Aires he felt a little left out as everyone kept pairing off for a spot of (milonga) social dancing.
Cherkaoui has said he felt an ethnic outsider while growing up, but it has obviously informed his sharp-eyed signature as a director/choreographer, as he now re-makes traditions others take for granted.
His 2008 work, Sutra, mashed up the martial artistry of 17 Buddhist monks from China and was a hit in Sydney and worldwide. Babel, again with the distinctive huge boxes designed by sculptor Antony Gormley, memorably captured how individuals alternate between reaction and leadership within massed groups of people. Inspired by the Tower of Babel story about the world’s chattering races, Babel was a highlight of the 2012 Sydney Festival.
Now in this Sadler Wells production, he sports ten virtuosic tango dancers from Argentina, two boundary-breaking contemporary dancers, and a powerful onstage band.
Cherkhaoui’s Milonga is also distinguished by artful projections (by designer Eugenio Szwarcer) of the port and backstreets of Buenos Aires from which this immigrant dance of yearning emerged in the 1890s. As pairs assemble, each snatching our focus, multiple back projections transmute each dancer into a crowd. Other sharp projections onto realistic cut-out figures further tease our eye, as do dancers leaping up to orchestrate new 2-D cartoon images of buildings, or sifting digitally through collages of streetscapes.
In front, Cherkaoui reforges the sizzle of tango by often uncoupling it into choreography for ensemble (who promiscuously swap partners like lightening), for five couples in an astonishing synchronicity, or for smaller groups of men and women. A male trio dances in reflective friendship which then arcs into a frenzied sportsmanship, their legs spinning like blades of a helicopter.
We are variously in grungy dance halls or sophisticated ballrooms, cruising or arguing outside on the street, or even enrourte in black to a funeral. Aided by the projections, this everyman and everywhere feel celebrates this dance, even when performed with such virtuosity, as an ordinary-life human impulse. It’s empowered with human relevance and urgent meanings.
This naturalness is also much helped by the maturity and obvious live experience of the dancers.
Melancholy, passion, yearning and grief are all there, but given fresh takes in Cherkhaori’s more balletic and supple interpretation of tango. Clichés of a mechanical, stern-faced theatricality are shaken loose into a more emotionally effective choreography.
Couples however still rule the roost, if not each other. One pair never stops arguing and snapping at each other, the woman still screaming defiantly as she (surely not unhappily?) is spun around the body of her man.
Elsewhere, all five couples form a molten tango engine of assault against the single dancer (Silvina Cortes), jostling her as she wrenchingly dances out her loneliness and sexual bitterness. The subsequent dance, when she is nurtured and bodily enfolded by other contemporary dancer, Damien Fournier, is breathtaking.
A five strong band (including the distinctive bandoneon) skips through tango favourites like Piazzolla’s Libertango along with variations from Cherkaoui’s regular composer Szymon Bazooka. They were reportedly an appealing presence on the right of the stage, although a large flank of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, like me, couldn’t see them.
Overall, Cherkaoui’s performers deliver a compelling acrobatic prowess and a showmanship to match any circus. As a director he supports them with high and inventive production values, but never overreaching his own rigorous choreographic artistry to show “ordinary” people dancing what they feel.