Prior to 1985, the year a terrific show called Tango Argentino played City Center for a week, many New Yorkers knew the sensual social dance primarily from movies. In black-and-white cinema ballrooms, couples stalked a few steps, turned their heads sharply, and stalked in a new direction. We were unprepared for legwork: the rapid twisting of a lifted knee, a leg slicing between a partner’s quickly stepping feet. Who knew that the tango was about couples maintaining decorum above the waist while flashing their legs to invade each other’s territory in ways both combative and insinuatingly sexual—all without missing a beat?
That company performed with an admirable lack of affectation. The dance was the thing. In Tango Fire, the 10 members of Estampas Porteñas, a Buenos Aires group founded and directed by Carolina Soler, seem to feel they must keep reminding us how sexy the tango is and how very hot they are. They play-act being quick- tempered and prone to jealousy, especially in the opening meet-and-greet that’s set in a club (the women signal, Get your hands off my man, bitch! and the men confront one another with glances that say, Look at her like that again and I will definitely kill you!). In all their duets, Cristian Gallardo and Betiana Botana come to a smolder without losing their dignity. I prefer that to Mariela Maldonado’s runway struts and flounces and her “kiss me or you die” grip on the more easygoing Pablo Sosa. In any case, temper fits are easily resolved in a display of couples dancing in unison, or a comradely man-to-man bit of partnering (an element of tango tradition).
Soler obviously believes that spectacle, eroticism, and gasp-inducing virtuosity are needed to make us feel the passion inherent in the tango. Matthew Cawrse provides many theatrical changes of lighting. Mariel Bobek’s dresses for the women (an average of seven per dancer) are backless, slit to the hip, and glittering. Along with various tango styles, the dancers perform a showy update that’s rife with Latin ballroom lifts, splits, and women being slid across the floor in a sitting position. When German Cornejo flips Carolina Giannini around him, it’s anyone’s guess which position she’ll land in—maybe draped over his shoulders like a boa.
For all the hard work these dancers dedicate to showing passion, I don’t really believe it most of the time. The flare-ups of desire come across as perfunctory. Looking at Jorgelina Guzzi— who, partnered by Cristian Mino, seems actually to be underperforming—I tell myself the company must be under a strain. Gabriel Clenar, the musical director, was stricken with appendicitis late the previous day, and the show had to be cancelled; tonight, Gustavo Casenave is replacing him. But not to worry: The music—played by Hugo Satorre (bandoneón), Marcelo Rebuffi (violin), Gerardo Scaglione (double bass), and Casenave (piano)—sounds mostly splendid. (Singer Javier di Ciriaco spells the dancers, telling us of love, jealousy, and dark memories.)
For the second half of the show, there are no tables and chairs, no nightclub atmosphere—just a parade of couples. I haven’t meant to imply that these aren’t excellent dancers; they are, and they speak the potentially intoxicating language of the tango fluently. The way the partners’ legs flash out, the speed with which they spin across the floor in a tight embrace, the intricacies of those rapid, swiveling steps and silky, thrusting kicks constitute a dangerous yet seductive dialogue. The intent gazes and close embraces of tangoing couples say, I have you now!—while underneath, their legs argue and banter and tease, Don’t be so sure! For me, the clearest expression of this comes from Nelson Celis and Yanina Fajar. They allow the steps to speak for them and arouse their emotions; together, they create a drama that makes the back of my neck prickle.