David Mead is at the National Theater, Taipei for Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Milonga
April 3, 2016
Sensual, physical and virtuosic, beautiful even; that’s tango, Argentina’s national dance. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s starting point for Milonga is just that, a milonga, one of those social dance evenings held in late-night clubs and bars in Buenos Aries. Attempting to give tango a modern-day twist, he tosses in a couple of contemporary dancers and some film. The dancers are wonderful, Tim Van Steenbergen costumes for the women are glamorous, the live music by Szymon Brzoska and Fernando Marzan, performed by an on-stage quintet is good if not exceptional (where is Piazzolla when you need him?). Yet, while there are high points, far too often it struggles to hold the attention.
The show is largely made up of duets and occasional ensemble numbers that rather start to merge into one another. Sure, there’s lots of dazzlingly fast and intricate footwork, feet flicking and licking the floor, legs corkscrewing and scissoring, bodies meeting. It is interesting to a point, but too often I struggled to find any emotion in all the flashiness of it. We are told tango is passionate and about relationships; not here. Things get such that one starts to look forward to the next interlude with film or photographs. There are three of these, presumably intended to break the show up, but for me the sights of everyday Argentinian streets past and present started to hold much more interest than most of the dance.
The best moments are when Cherkaoui and the dancers (who had significant input to the choreography) dare to be a little different. Milonga reaches its summit in an interesting dance is for three of the men. Although very much dancing with each other, and supporting each other, there’s a bit of sense of competition as German Cornejo, Martin Epherra and Claudio González dazzling with their virtuosity. Intended or not, there is actually some historic truth in this. In late 19th-century Argentina, men significantly outnumbered women, and men dancing with each other while waiting for a female partner, or in line at a brothel, was quite common.
Another dance for three mixed male-female trios is nearly as good, and a near-vaudeville slapstick routine brings some smiles.
Two contemporary dancers, Silvina Cortés and Damien Fournier, appear as outsiders in the milonga. Their clearly tango-inspired modern dance many not be intimate in feeling, but does provides an interesting counterpoint. One long duet in which Cortés rarely touches the floor as she is lifted and wound round and over Fournier’s shoulder, back, legs and lap is especially impressive.
Cherkouai and the dancers do give us an end to remember. As the tricks fade away and the dance slows down, finally the very personal emotion between the couples starts to reach across the footlights.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that what Cherkaoui has produced with Milonga is big-theatre entertainment, pure and simple. Maybe I was expecting too much, but in doing so he has removed tango from its roots in intimate venues, and removed its ability to communicate feeling and intensity to those watching. There is no depth to it. Perhaps also, it’s a dance rather better and maybe even only truly experienced first-hand.