Peacock Theatre, London
July 19, 2018
Malambo is a dance form that originated on the Argentine Pampas in the 17th-century. There are many parallels, with flamenco but in Che Malambo the dancers work with gaucho boots and no shoe nails, creating a much softer, although no less energetic effect. In the hushed moments without drumming, it is possible to appreciate the creak of leather and stitching and the soft swish as dancers brush the floor.
One solo was also performed in bare feet. In contrast, legs flash in and out and up and down like tango or a seriously inebriated form of Irish dancing where the upper body and arms remain still and lower limbs are flung centripetally from the torso. Then, all of a sudden, arms flash upwards to a moment of stillness as they are held in defiant ports de bras.
Where flamenco may use the sound board of a guitar or a box for drumming, malambo has the mighty bombo legüero, an Argentine drum that gets its name from the fact that it can allegedly be heard a league away from the player. It is a feral cousin of European military drums, but the skins used on the head retain the hair on the inside of the drum body, creating a rich resonance with lots of subtle overtones and harmonics. The drum is struck using a soft and a hard stick on the head and rim respectively, enabling players to alternate between an ominous boom and a rattling tattoo.
Improvised payadas (singing of Argentinian native song) lack the rawness of flamenco song and are lyrical. They alone could sustain an evening. Solo, or in chorus, every man proved his vocal worth.
It was fascinating to see the range of sizes and shapes amongst the dozen performers, a rarity on the modern stage. Even flamenco now yields to the body shapes demanded of ballet. Every man demonstrated verve and grace, alternating between the weighted arms and the lighter lines of balletic ports de bras.
Lighting is mostly subdued with a lot of use of red to highlight drum rims and provide a fiery flare to everyone’s line. There was perhaps a little too much emphasis on staged antagonism as dancers competed to demonstrate percussive footwork or massed to drum insistent rhythms.
Just at the point it began to pall a little, on came Daniel Medina with the boleadoras, a sort of weighted throwing weapon. In South America, these were originally used to catch guanacos and rheas but modern day gauchos use them with horses and cattle. I don’t know if gauchos have fun with them round the campfire in the evening, but the way that they are handled in Che Malambo certainly brought the house down at the Peacock, the audience whooping in delight.
Those old enough to remember Clackers toys will have an inkling of how potentially lethal the bolas can be. It’s one thing to swing them around on the wide pampas and quite another to have several whirling like pulsars on a crowded stage, not to mention the fact that the performers often had one in each hand, or even between their teeth, sometimes rotating in opposite directions, then clunking to the floor and bouncing up again to create their own insistent pulse. Clever lighting and reflective cords combined with persistence of vision and human flicker fusion rate to create the illusion of Catherine wheels filling the stage, accompanied by a menacing whirr. One can only imagine the carnage if anyone makes a mistake.
All round, a terrific evening. Che Malambo deserves a much longer tour. Just don’t try it at home.
Che Malambo is at the Peacock Theatre to July 22. Visit www.sadlerswells.com for details.