Tango, which originated among slave populations in Argentinean slums in the 1860s and was often danced by male couples, migrated across geographical and class barriers. It ignited ballroom crazes in the 1920s, inspired popular film musicals in the ’30s and ’40s, and attracts millions of amateurs to classes and festivals. An intimate dance of seduction, it often rides the accordion-like sound of the bandoneón, and has spawned a musical culture at least as rich as its choreography—perhaps richer, if the two uneven shows now playing here are any indication.
The real star of Luis Bravo’s Forever Tango, back on Broadway a decade after its creation, is the bandoneón, represented at the start by a huge replica that conceals a male dancer, much as a cake would hide a stripper. Victor Lavellén conducts an 11-man onstage orchestra, featuring four of the squarish squeeze-boxes. His terrific musicians serve admirably as the backdrop for exhibition tango dancers garbed as gangsters, ladies of the night, and courting couples (with one pair, making an unfortunate foray into a spangled lavender leotard and a T-shirt, resembling refugees from a skating competition). The women’s dresses are slit to the thigh and sprinkled with rhinestones; the men’s hair is brilliantined and their faces rigid. The women wrap their legs around the men’s backs, and occasionally knee them in the groin.
Two novelties are a charming turn for Marcelo Bernadaz and Verónica Gardella, comic-book swing dancers on a tango tear (he evokes Jim Carrey with his bizarre pompadour), and an item called “Vampitango,” in which Gabriel Ortega repeatedly bites Sandra Bootz’s neck. The orchestra covers during frequent costume changes; after a while we barely miss the dancers, absorbed as we are by the rich strains of such standards as “Jealousy,” “Kiss of Fire,” and “Bésame Mucho.”
The best thing about Julio Bocca’s tango-inflected enterprise, now at the Joyce, is singer Viviana Vigil, a mature performer who captures the emotional depths of the form better than any of the dancers. Bocca, a principal at American Ballet Theatre and director of his own Buenos Aires–based troupe founded when he was barely 24, stars in the bewildering Boccatango, choreographed by Ana Maria Stekelman (who has a background in Graham technique).
The evening begins promisingly enough, with a grainy video of Buenos Aires and a duet for Bocca and Lucas Oliver, both in formal white-tie regalia. At his next appearance Bocca dances with a large Parsons table, and only incidentally with a lovely woman who may be a figment of his imagination. Four young men in black dance with chairs, often framing Bocca’s solo turns. There’s an s/m inflected beach number, with Bocca and his frequent partner, Cecilia Figaredo, bare-chested in briefs. Bocca and Stekelman need to find a deeper relationship to the classic tango tunes by Carlos Gardel, Astor Piazzolla, and others, ably rendered in both recordings and live versions by Julian Vat’s Octango, Vigil, and male singer Guillermo Fernandez.
Like much African-based dance, tango relies on bent knees and an intimate acquaintance with the floor. Boccatango veers into the territory of ballet and modern dance, with aerial work and extensions into space. It stumbles into the clichés of softcore—Figaredo enters once in a demure suit and sheds it quickly to reveal black undies and thigh-high hose, entwining herself around her swain. Bocca’s solo on a ladder resembles nothing so much as a stripper working a pole. What gets lost is the subtle building of intense passion at the heart of authentic tango. I found myself longing for Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli’s 1983 Tango Argentino, which opened in New York in 1985 and was revived in 1999. Its performers, largely older and often married pairs, called loving attention to the dynamics of the dance form, not to themselves.