Heat Beat

Dancing 10, Weather 0

You can see the Manhattan skyline from Sunnyside, Queens, but a breeze works the aboveground subway station, and the only heat in the cozy Thalia Spanish Theatre is produced by the gemütlichkeit of the all-ages crowd, the purr and pounce of tango rhythms, and the sight of shinily dressed couples engaged in the elegant, bantering foreplay of Argentina's most famous export.

Every Friday night through August, with an extra show on the last Thursday, the lobby fills up well be fore 7:30, though Tango & Tango doesn't start until 8. From the babble of Spanish and English, you can tell that some folks come regularly. "First seat in the first row," one man tells his friend, "that's what I always get." Since there are no reserved places, and the house holds about 80, he's happy to come early.

The little stage has been nicely furnished, with arches bordered in faux-brick and a window with an iron grille. It takes only a second to bring in tables and chairs and transform it into a café. During the first half of the cabaret, the atmosphere is working-class; after intermission, Guillermo Escudero's lights turn more glamorous, the men wear formal at tire, and the women seem to have sleek new dresses every time they come onstage. The cast is small. Gustavo Casenave (piano), Susanna Stein (violin), Ruben Isola (bass guitar), and Alberto Quiroga (bandoneon) play the seductive tunes. Marga Mitchell and Silvia Sanchez spell each other singing tales of heartbreak and passion and madness. Carlos Acuña, Mariana Par ma, Angel Garcia, and Rosa Collantes do the dancing.

There's even a premise to start the evening. Garcia arrives, suitcase in hand, staring around at the big city— Buenos Aires. Does he worry about where to stay, to work, to eat? No. Because within minutes, Acuña is giving him a tango lesson. What more does a man need? Pretty soon Collantes overcomes her shyness enough to dance with this fast learner. In the first, wonderfully satisfying act, the women's decorousness and modesty (despite their skintight dresses and feather boas) and the men's gentle manly intensity contrast with what the couples are actually doing. With excellent timing and offhand ease, they punctuate their rapid twisting steps or sudden lunges by flicking one leg around or between their partner's legs. The maneuvers look dangerous—as if they could cost a guy his cojones or a woman her virtue. Watching the razor-sharp Acuña and the severely voluptuous Parma, you get a curious double image; above the waist, there's a close embrace; below, there's a knife fight going on.

In this act, violinist Stein wears a man's cap, vest, shirt, and pants, and so does Mitchell for her first tough song, "Si Soy Así." Later, wigs help turn her into a tigress or a comically inept sexpot. Most of the songs are about love in all its terribleness, like Astor Piazzolla's "Balada Para Un Loco," sung by Sanchez in the second act. Even with inadequate Spanish, you can catch the dark poetry of lines like, "I am an accomplice of night," in Sanchez's rendition of "Sur." The women's voices, when they sing together, complement each other nicely, and the edge of hoarseness brings out the longing in the songs. At intermission, two young couples wonder what happened to the translation they thought they were going to get, but the language barrier doesn't seem to interfere with their enjoyment one whit.

The second act is less convivial. No necking at the tables or experimental partner swapping. The ambience is more that of a classy night club. There's some fancy business with chairs. The dancers' manners are a little more extroverted, their steps bolder, their lifts more virtuosic. Garcia and Collantes deepen their lunges. Acuña swings Parma backward into his arms so rapidly that the crowd gasps when she lands with one leg wrapped around him and the other tucked into his crotch. Tango is one of the world's great mating dances. It tells you what you've already suspected: lust is a thrilling game.

  

The heat at Context Studios is real enough, but the crowd gathered to see the shared program "Mountains and Mysteries" mainly comprises youngish downtown dancers and choreographers, and there's nothing they wouldn't suffer to check out a friend or a rival. However, a much better sort of warmth is generated by the smart choreography and ideas of two recently formed duos, Loca (Erin Cornell and Miguel Gutierrez), and Allen/Pisarra (dancer-choreographer Jennifer Allen and performance artist Drew Pisarra).

The concert puts heart in me. Maybe I've overdosed on go-with-the-flow dancing recently—beautiful, tender stuff from a generation bred on release work. I remember Cornell and Gutierrez from their student days; now they're crackerjack performers. You might remember her from Sara Rudner's June marathon of dancing at St. Mark's and him from John Jasperse's company. Their press information rather effusively characterizes them as "exploiting their physical dorkiness." I wouldn't put it quite that way, but they're not a glam team. He's wiry and sharp and friendly, with a bent for camp that he lets out only under control; she's taller, with a humorous, pouty mouth and legs that make expertise look like something she can manage with one hand on the wheel.

In an excerpt from the forthcoming Cock of the Walk, they begin with a high-energy unison trip back and forth across the stage, not unlike a complex form of strutting. Their steps are as crisp and bold as the pleated white skirts they both wear, and, as they dig new dynamic possibilities out of their themes, they reveal their com positional skills. Go Tell Him I'm a Mountain brings charm out of incongruity and beauty out of awkward ness. Basically it's a collection of eccentric episodes told through wonderful dancing. In the beginning, the longer Cornell and Gutierrez stand on their heads and ply their legs in patterns, the weirder, yet more comprehensible, the act seems. These are the kind of people who do this sort of thing. They push big, smooth, stabilizing moves up against Ian Christe's abrasive music. Gutierrez stands, his back to us, and with every twist of his head, offers up a new, carefully observed facial expression. They don tutus and advance on us, gesticulating and making faces. They plunge into a fast semi-Latin variation. She dances legato. It's all fresh, movement-rich, and—George Balanchine's highest compliment—interesting.

Spoofing sci-fi isn't a brand-new idea, but Pisarra and Allen's endearingly wacky wit and sophisticated per forming give it a sharp new look. In Futureworld, they dissect and re-glue all the tales the century has grown up on: out-of-control spaceships, robots on the rampage, the fellowship of outer space, and beam-me-up-Scotty ad ventures. Helmeted and swathed in aluminum foil and cling-wrap tunics, they're a cross between machines and '20s bathing beauties. They move in robotic little bounces and lurches, and Pisarra, clumsily adjusting imaginary wheels and switches, gives them both fearful electric shocks; Allen, sitting on the floor with her legs stuck straight out in front of her like a Martian Barbie, literally jerks into the air, her mouth opening in a silent yowl. These two are copeless in the cosmos. It's hard to swagger when you're jiggling, but they manage. In the course of the work, they lip-sync high-sounding pledges and dance to lugubrious music in new tunics—slithering their feet and fluttering a hand. That's the poetic part, I guess. They face off and zap each other at a distance until an outside force unites them in slow-mo dread; then, as a tiny, rickety spaceship flies in on a cord, they run and run forward, get ting nowhere, constantly pushed back. "Will she get her first mate, Marvin, to safety? "inquires a voice. Safety isn't an option here. Life, as these two survivors know it, is a saga of short circuits.

It just goes to show you. Very good art that's also entertaining can overcome underpowered air-conditioning without any trouble.

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