Tango on the street

Comparative review of two walkabout street performances.

Compañia Teatral Devenir (Argentina): Without words
Belle Etage (Austria, Columbia): Tango? Si, tango!

7th July 2017, Ljubljana, Ana Desetnica International Street Theatre Festival, 2017

The article is a part of my highlights of 2017 Ana Desetnica festival.

At 2017 Ana Desetnica festival, there were two walkabout performances using the medium of social dance – TANGO! – as a mean to engage passers-by on one-to-one basis, seeking for playful physical interaction. Both had two performers – one female, one male. Both had mostly Latin American cast (two Argentinians, one Columbian, one Austrian), So it was only natural to sit down and jointly explore what happens when Latin american dance culture crashes into more rigid central European public behaviour, while sipping on Mate Yerba. 

Ana Desetnica 2017 - 2.dan
She’s from the 1960s, he’s from the 1970s. What they share is their love for dance.

Even while being in a dance contract with a partner, performer’s characters would gesticulate and communicate with the entire audience, focusing always on the entire community having fun together, either watching or dancing.

Compañia Teatral Devenir’s Without words uses common street theatre techniques to create a small temporary community of spectators on the street – using characters as an entry point for the audience to follow and relate to, using gesticulation and eye contact to direct the audience towards the action with the pace they’re able to follow. But combines this approach with community building aspects of tango and retaining its one-on-one physical interaction. The spatial dramaturgy starts with Gustavo Vallejos and Pampa Veronica Gonzalez each dancing on their part of the street on their own, interacting with passers-by, talking, gesticulating, having very short dance encounters – the dance they use, they later told me, isn’t tango, but a related, more lighthearted dance, milonga. Their characters come most to the fore at this part of the performance – Gustavo’s specific type of verbose Buenos Aires character from 1970s constantly chatting incomprehensibly, Pampa’s 1960s hippy chick hovering above people’s gazes. Once they’ve gathered attention of enough onlookers, they would meet next to a stationary loudspeaker and establish the audience and the performance space by sharing a dance with one another. Even while being in a dance contract with a partner, performer’s characters would gesticulate and communicate with the entire audience, focusing always on the entire community having fun together, either watching or dancing. Community building would culminate with the pair teaching willing audience members (myself included) a simple disco dance routine, noticeably making sure we followed the instructions by progressing slowly and encouraging us along the way. After we presented our rehearsed number to the audience, the performers would invite everybody – dancing “volunteers” and spectators – to engage in milonga dancing, handing the performance over to the audience.

Ana Desetnica 2017 - 2.dan
Building a community on the street through dancing.

A more interesting inspiration for the show is related to how milonga dance events helped immigrant neighbourhoods of 1920s/1930s Buenos Aires develop social connections and built themselves as communities.

During our morning talks Gustavo and Pampa explained to me the narrative frame the performance is built around: two characters from two different eras (1960s vs 1970s) find their connection with one another, their love, though the dance and music of milonga/tango and wish to share it with the audience in hope they would experience something similar themselves. This story, while it organises the dramaturgy of the performance, isn’t necessary for the audience to be able to follow and participate in the show. Instead it functions as a hidden dramaturgy, being a tool for both performers to orient themselves within the show and improvise off this premise, while the audience only finds traces of it, that nonetheless give texture to the event. A more interesting inspiration for the show, one Gustavo shared with us, is related to how milonga dance events helped immigrant neighbourhoods of 1920s/1930s Buenos Aires develop social connections and built themselves as communities, while also developing dancing styles in the process. Without words interweaves the community building aspects of both the street theatre and the milonga dance evenings: it uses street theatre tools to get people to dance on the street, and it uses dance as a tool to get people physically involved with a street theatre performance. Combining one-on-one social dancing with a street theatre situation gives its audience an opportunity for a playful personal experience where they can find the joy of physical interaction within the safety of a fictional street theatre world, while the dancing offers a familiar, safe and creative way of engaging with it.

Ana Desetnica 2017 - 3. dan
Camilo and Sabine establishing the initial tension pushing the show in motion.

Occasionally I got an impression as if passers-by got entangled into a personal film of a crazy couple, bouncing off love, hate and jealousy – with performers scaling the drama down or ramping it up, as appropriate.

In contrast to community focused Without words, Belle Etage’s Tango? Si, tango! is a small-scale intervention into a private space of passers-by, by the use of tango and a tiny portable radio. In their loose, improvised journey through the street environment Camilo Acosta Mendoza and Sabine Maringer would react to the situations they encounter, invent situations of their own, and often bounce off the previous situation they’ve been in, with a different group of spectators, and carry its momentum into the next situation. The show runs on the dynamics between their characters, between Camilo’s open, gentle, welcoming approach that can lead to creation of little fantasies on the street, and Sabine’s capricious, cold, cynical impulse initiating drama and fast shifts of direction. Occasionally I got an impression as if passers-by got entangled into a personal film of a crazy couple, bouncing off love, hate and jealousy – with performers scaling the drama down or ramping it up, as appropriate.

The improvised nature of “Tango? Si, tango!” allows it to surf with the impulses of their audience into an exploration of shared mini-happenings.

Sabine and Camilo let themselves be daring, striving for unique one-off situations, improvising off the reactions of audience members that become co-creators of a scene, encouraged to physically interact and to offer suggestions. The medium of tango is used as an invitation into this playful, intimate collaboration between audience and performers, with Sabine and Camilo’s characters being anchors for the fictional frame of the situation. While each of their encounters with a specific group of spectators is its own universe, a little performance in itself, I did follow the pair through the whole length of their evening street journey, even though their walkabout isn’t really made for this type of continuous observation. (Was even shooed away once.) Following their entire evening path gave me a sense of a narrative connecting the scenes, one not intended for the audience to notice or decipher, rather a narrative as a sense of internal organisation of an improvised material for the duo of performers themselves, letting the dynamics of the previous situation they were in, lead into the next one. The improvised nature of Tango? Si, tango! allows it to surf with the impulses of their audience into an exploration of shared mini-happenings, using a “tango” combination of romance and passion, tenderness and daring, to create memorable unique situations.

Both performances use the form of tango/milonga to engage audience on the personal level of physical interaction in way which is familiar and playful. Through our talk the Latin Americans did find European assumption of dancing being “something you need to know the steps of”, odd and an obstacle to a relaxed atmosphere. Compañia Teatral Devenir’s performance connects the personal experience of one-to-one dancing to a sense of community, linked to Buenos Aires culture of milongas, which is reflected in the show’s form: starting as a walkabout, but ending with a fixed “stage” surrounded by an audience. Belle Etage’s use of tango is perhaps more European in embracing the fantasy of it – passion, drama, romance – to create shared, yet intimate playful imaginations or, at the least, weird exotic encounters.

Samo Oleami, September 2017, re-edited August 2018

Photos: Luka Dakskobler

Promo: Tango? Si, tango!

Next: Teatro Naranjazul (Mexico, France): Mundo lunaticus [dramaturgical feedback]

Author: Samo Oleami

Reviews drama theatre, street theatre, improv theatre, contemporary dance, intermedia, boardgames and stuff.

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