The image of the couple is one of the cornerstones of our culture, and one of the most loaded. That is perhaps especially true for dance culture: think of the idealised pas de deux of the ballet, the powerplay of physical theatre, the shifting responsibilities of contact improvisation, the patterned partnerings of the ballroom. And of the ballroom dances, tango has the most intensity of focus on the partner. Its technique demands it: compared with tango’s sophisticated blocks, feints, framings, proposals and responses, other ballroom dances have a relatively straightforward division of labour between leader and follower. Hence the image of tango as a close, even closed couple who form a world unto themselves. It is part of tango’s beauty.
It’s as if they are searching for something rather than homing in on someone.
The beauty of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s m¡longa is that it opens tango up – without changing its essence. The opening moment is a statement of intent. Instead of facing each other, the partners face away. Back to back, they dance tango – and a whole other beauty comes into play. Instead of a perpetually spiralling inwards, they spiral outwards. It’s as if they are searching for something rather than homing in on someone. Instead of the articulation of space between them, we sense the expanse of space around them. It is singularly refreshing.
Soon – too soon! – they do turn towards each other. But – surprise! – they don’t form couples, they form combinations. Five men and five women, nattily dressed and coiffed as you’d expect, dance tango in a group. Not some unison sequence or male–female face-off, but a dynamic flux of personable interactions that form and melt away. Tango becomes a social dance, a convivial dance. This too is refreshing.
From then on, we do get a lot of couple dancing. The five couples elaborate tango’s range of relationships, from corkscrew twists to fearsome fights, symmetrical ecstasy to uneasy alienation. It’s a real pleasure to see such variety so inventively embodied in a technique, and performed with such brio. The only real dud is a comedy number with Valentina Villarroel and Cristian Cisneros, in which Villarroel plays a vampy dilettante, all eagerness and bad taste. It’s technically sophisticated but the comedy is crude, and not a little cruel. Cherkaoui usually shows more sympathy to his characters, especially outsiders.
The great thing about all these duos, though, is that they are never shown as closed worlds: we are always aware of the presence of others. It’s not just because the duets are woven among some great ensemble numbers, such as a funereal set-piece in which the dancers seem to be more concerned with styling than with mourning; or a high-octane male trio; or a solo for a man waving a great white flag of solitude, who gradually accumulates followers. It’s because we are always aware of the presence of others: people are constantly passing by, or watching, or hanging out with each other.
the dancers are haunted by imaginary versions of themselves, by projections of each other.
More strikingly still, the dancers become incorporated into the design (by Eugenio Szwarcer). There are cut-out figures of couples, and screen projections in which they multiply like after-images, or are refracted as if in a hall of mirrors. It’s as if the dancers are always haunted by imaginary versions of themselves, by projections of each other, by memories and dreams. The designs also feature videos of cityscapes, with all their traffic and grafitti and bustle. Sometimes this feels like a simple special effect – big, whizzy, film technology for its own sake – but they are also a way of letting the outside in. So even when alone with each other, the couples are never a world unto themselves.
The score is a mix of traditional tango and new compositions by Szymon Brzóska. It’s at its best when at its most physical: you sense the squeezed breath of the accordion, the scrape and the caress of strings; and it’s weakest when it turns, as it sometimes does, into easy-listening lounge music, its unobtrusive chords and pleasant textures like aural wallflowers.
Towards the end, the focus shifts from the tango dancers to a contemporary dance couple, the outsiders. Silvina Cortés intrude into the spaces between a tango couple, separating them even as she tries to merge with them. She is left alone, twisting tortuously among a crowd of couples as if consumed with envy. She finds a partner in Damien Fournier, but he too seems a fantasy: she clasps and swings and folds around him, but her feet scarcely touch the ground. It is a far more unstable, slippery pairing than the tango couples have presented, but in this scene it takes centre stage.
m¡longa is not without flaws – it’s a little long, some of its stage effects are overblown and some musical numbers are, honestly, a bit naff. But it is stimulating, captivating and though respectful of tradition it is not defined by it. It opens tango up, to different gender combinations, to society, to fantasy – to itself.