Tangling with the tango

Keith Gallasch: Rock’n’Roll Circus, Tango

The tango is a powerful, popular form of dance and music from Argentina that has long crossed the high-low art divide, achieving an entirely new level of cultural intensity and global reach in the 90s. Progressive jazz producer Kip Hanrahan played a key role, recording Astor Piazolla and ensemble on the Nonesuch label in the 80s with a rare vivdness and depth of sound, capturing the composer’s rich theatricality. The likes of Daniel Barenboim and Gidon Kremer contributed CDs from the classical end of the spectrum in recent years and Piazolla’s orchestral works and opera have enjoyed a quieter if still significant posthumous profile. Sally Potter’s soggy, mid-life crisis movie about the tango added further to the form’s popularity.

To take on the tango is a brave move and in the hands of Rock’n’Roll Circus and director Yaron Lifschitz, the tango, outside the Piazolla soundtrack, is disappeared–a curious piece of magic. The tango becomes mood, the tango as imaginary rather than real. Look, no dancing.

The globalisation of the tango means that like many a World Music, the form has been uprooted and de-cultured. We’re used to this phenomenon and we’re more often than not forgiving. But Tango, by using the very name, sets up expectations that for some us cannot be met. For others, like the rapturous audience I was part of, it was not an issue.

Put all that aside, which is not easy, and Tango is a pretty good show. Though there are a few other things that I’d like to get out of the way first. After more than 20 years of physical theatre in Australia, here is a company that can’t decide whether it is performing a coherent drama or stringing together routines that require show-bizzy bows. Some of the routines have such a theatrical intensity that it seems a sin to applaud, but the performers are asking for it, so… Others are so mundanely a show of skill that they read like fill. Some are too ambitious–the pre-climax chair-tower scaling is so un-confident that real fear creeps into the audience. The lessons are always the same: know where you’re going, don’t do repertoire for its own sake, do what you can do best and integrate it.

Still, I more than like Tango. The performers look good, they can act, they exude a mix of innocence and brooding intensity that is engaging and when Liftschitz fuses these with sudden spectacular flight and intense physical contact, Tango is gripping.

Tango works, but only moment by moment and not as a coherent vision. The Edward Hopper bar-room narrative it promises peters out leaving the female member of the erstwhile triangle right out of the picture–in fact at the top of a very high pile of chairs. The ending, with Dylan’s “I Shall be Released” is only forgiveable because it is sublimely sung (no tango inflections)–but its fit in the scheme of things seems unmotivated. The set similarly mixes muted Hopper with brightly coloured mats, cancelling out the requisite atmosphere. With so much going for it, Tango could have been helped by taking on a writer, and dancing the tango–it seems the right place for it, its potential for physical display enormous.

Rock’n’Roll Circus, Tango, director Yaron Liftschitz, designer Ralph Myers, lighting Jason Organ, performers Ben Palumbo, Lauri Kilfoyle, Andrew Bright, Davey Sampford; Brisbane Powerhouse, Aug 29-Sept 9

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2001