Houston Ballet: Five Tangos

Classic Arts Features   Houston Ballet: Five Tangos
Hans van Manen's Five Tangos - a unique mix of the power and sensuality of tango and the cool abstraction of classical ballet - rounds out a program debuting at Houston Ballet May 22.

That Tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires is a popular notion, but some historians have argued that this is not entirely correct. It's true, tango was popular in bordellos. But its roots may be more accurately traced to European immigrants who flocked to Argentina towards the end of the 19th century. At that time, Argentina was an exceptionally rich country‹its name was not derived from Argentum, Latin for silver, without reason. And many young men from the poorer regions of Spain and Italy migrated to the former Spanish colony in the hopes of making their fortunes. The country, sparsely populated for its huge size, needed people, but instead of welcoming families, it concentrated on attracting young men to mine its natural resources and toil in its industries. As a result, the gender balance was seriously disturbed, with men outnumbering women many times over.

This imbalance was particularly acute in Buenos Aires, where immigrants made up the majority of the population by the 1890s. It is easy to see how the brothels, mostly located in the poorer suburbs, became so popular that during peak times, men would be lining up for a prostitute's services. To entertain the waiting clients‹and stop them from wandering off elsewhere‹the brothel owners engaged musicians to play tango music. So, it was quite normal for men to dance with each other while waiting their turn. The men were unlikely to dance with the prostitutes, quite simply because the women could earn far more money otherwise employed. Men were also keen to improve their dancing skills in the hope of clinching a dance in a tango hall, and hopefully a date, with one of the city's elusive women. A slick dancer was obviously more attractive than a clumsy amateur.

Aspects of tango's social history are reflected, intentionally or otherwise, in Hans van Manen's ballet, Five Tangos. For instance, at the start of the second dance, Mort, one woman kneeling center-stage provides the focal interest for six men, each of whom take it in turn to dance with her in the ballet's most lyrical tango. The male duet at the beginning of the fourth tango, Resurreccion del Angel, is not a homosexual dance; the guys just happen to be dancing together‹perhaps as they wait for female company. Their patience is rewarded with the appearance of two female dancers, clad in Jean-Paul Vroom's fetching red and black dresses. The men, in contrast, are dressed more soberly in black throughout the ballet. One man, however, does get to steal the limelight in the third tango, Vayamos al Diablo. This is a wonderful vehicle for a male virtuoso to show off his most polished tricks, and the racy variation is sometimes performed as a standalone dance in galas.

The last tango, like the opening one to Buenos Aires Todas, is an ensemble dance. But instead of the sunlit streets of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires Hora Cero takes place in either a tango hall or on the shuttered streets in the small hours, when nocturnal couples prowl stealthily.

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Hans Van Manen
photo by Hans Gerritsen

But while Five Tangos suggests certain relationships and steamy locations, there is no cast-iron narrative. "I'm very bad at telling stories," van Manen once said in an interview, "and that's the reason why I never make full-length ballets. I prefer to make it very short and be as precise as possible." But if he avoids telling stories, Manen notes that his ballets are not without drama: "The moment you deal with people you have a drama. The direction [in which] someone looks is very important. Everybody looks at each other in my ballets."

No one with an ounce of dance in them could fail to be influenced by Astor Piazzolla's tango music, and Manen is no exception. He has chosen the five tangos from Piazzolla's huge catalog of compositions; some sources claim he wrote 3,000 pieces aside from those he tore up! Though born in 1921 in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Piazzolla spent most of his childhood in New York. He began to play the bandone‹n‹an accordion-like instrument essential to tango music‹when he was eight, and started performing with tango orchestras on his return to Argentina at 17. After his studies with Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera (who famously made him learn every note to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring) Piazzolla went on to revolutionize tango, which he felt had become moribund and formulaic, in a succession of quintets and octets employing a different line-up of instruments to those traditionally used in a tango orchestra. While Piazzolla enjoyed great success in Europe (especially in Paris) and many hailed him for inventing contemporary tango, some conservative Argentineans claimed that he had destroyed their beloved dance.

Fortunately, Hans van Manen is not in their camp, and, inspired by five of Piazzolla's irrepressible tunes, shows us that tango, like the waltz, can be interpreted innovatively and outside of clich_d conceptions.

Emma Manning is the editor of Dance Europe Magazine.

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