Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; November 7, 2013
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is an exceptional dance creator. A previous winner in the National Dance Awards, this year his “Puz/zle” is nominated for another NDA prize. Although contemporary dance is his natural home, he has always ventured further afield to explore other dance forms with leading exponents: kathak, flamenco and kuchipudi among others. Thus it was not a complete surprise to see that Argentinian tango was his next port of call. What was intriguing was how he would implement this collaboration.
“M¡longa” is faithful to the spirit of tango and allows the dance form to speak for itself, but with the benefit of Cherkaoui’s intelligence and imagination. After the performance, one fellow critic opined that he was disappointed that it was not more radical, but for me this was one of the work’s strengths. As the title suggests, we are in a milonga, a tango dance club, and we see film of such a club with the show’s five tango couples together with many others. After one ensemble section on stage the dancers stop and chat, as they would in a club setting, waiting for the music for a new dance. In this respect and the simplicity of several of the tango duets, Cherkaoui has distanced himself from the usual tango spectaculars. As he says in his programme article, it is the humanity of the dance form, the interaction of the dancers that intrigues him.
Certainly the tango is a delight with flashing kicks, hip swivelling and acrobatic lifts and swirls. The physicality matched with precision sometimes takes your breath away. But Cherkaoui does add much value as well. His gift for ensemble work makes this aspect of the show far superior to the typical tango show, where the directors are great at choreographing duets but little else. There is some high-tech film work with multiple images of the dancers, sometimes multiplying 100-fold, although the potential chaos always remains coherent, for example due to repeating a lift in canon. We also see street scenes, including a hilarious section with a camera-totting tourist who eventually ends up in the milonga, dancing advanced steps rather badly; perhaps a joke by the choreographer against himself.
Still pure dance remains at the heart of this show. A male trio is electrifying as the dancers compete aggressively, spinning, jumping and kicking at high velocity and rarely an arm’s length away from each other. Cherkaoui also puts his stamp on the production through two contemporary dancers who perform with the spirit and sensuality of the tango to the music but without using any of the tango vocabulary. Silvina Cortés and Damien Fournier are especially strong at expressing the melancholic side of the music.
One caveat: Cherkaoui’s productions rarely have intervals and for many shows I can understand the need to maintain a narrative or thematic flow, but here with an episodic structure, an interval would have given us the chance to return refreshed to the familiar tango steps. Nevertheless, once again Cherkaoui has cast a new perspective on a traditional dance form and I for one would be very happy to have the chance see “M¡longa” again.