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Posted on October 24, 2011

napoletango5The cast of Napoletango knows how to make an entrance. For a while, we sit in the London Coliseum waiting for them. Then in they burst – and there are lots of them, 19 in all – trailing down the aisles laden with suitcases and blankets and all manner of luggage.

“Aspetta!” they whisper as they bustle in. “Wait!” A picture of colour and chaos, they ascend the stage, and then pause in a freeze frame, a frenzied, but motionless, family portrait. Waiting is a thread that runs through the show. “All of her life she is waiting,” complains a female tango pupil of the lot of the seguidora, the follower. 

Napoletango, which follows a day in the life of an unruly Neopolitan troupe, the Incoronato family, as it prepares for its first Broadway show, is a show about tango rather than featuring a great deal of it. There is much opining about the genre – “Tango is a very serious dance” – undercut by jagged “faux tango”, with parodied extended arms and staccato footwork. 

The cast are, for most part, non-dancers, with the exception of Pablo Moyano and Marcela Szurkalo (pictured below), and it shows. Tango might be a serious dance, but Napoletango is a deeply silly show, dividing audience opinion like Marmite. There is nudity and screeching and silly wigs and lots of women clasping at their breasts, but little proper tango, though we are given tantalising glimpses. 

The show, performed in Italian with sporadic English surtitles, harks back to a period when it was the done thing for Italian actors to take tango lessons – certainly two of our most loved Argentine tango dancers, Flavia Cacace and Vincent Simone, hail from southern Italy. Director Giancarlo Sepe explores the hold tango has over people, gently mocking the clichés – such as that of the old milongueros and milongueras. 

When an elderly woman’s partner falls she is rescued and supported by Concetta Incoronato, the family matriarch (played by Cristina Donadio), and tango teacher, Maddalena Praticò (Elisabetta D’Acunzo), yet her legs keep kicking. “I want to dance the tango!” she shrieks in a toddleresque tantrum. 

There are other send-ups and in-jokes: the history of tango, the prostitutes-and-customers scenario, the use of chairs to learn the tango, the classic tango lesson. Every cliché is covered: here’s the “Hollywood” version, with the head snap of ballroom; there’s the classic Argentine tango danced “properly” and with feline attack by Moyano and Szurkalo to “La Cumparista”. 

napoletango2In my favourite scene, set in the communal bedroom, the actors jab out their limbs in star shapes to the Gotan’s Project’s “Mi Confesión”. Szurkalo, with her sleek red bob, scissor-kicks her way through the fantastic song dressed only in suspenders, pink bra and a pair of green pants so tiny that the Upper Circle would have needed their binoculars. 

Elsewhere Andrea O’Ciuccio, attired in just a white dress shirt, dons a Punchinello mask and sniffs around the bedroom. The phone rings. Someone answers it and is asked: “Do you want to hear a tango?” Yes, he does.  “Dum di dum di dum,” sings the unknown interlocutor in a non-descript sort of way. “Now don’t let anyone steal it from you.” It’s all very David Lynch and extremely funny. 

Tango shows tend to take themselves too seriously featuring the same stories of prostitutes, jealousy and love betrayed. It was wonderful, then, to see one bursting at the seams with such effervescent joy – literally spilling off the stage as the cast rush into the aisles to coax audience members to “tango” themselves towards the end. 

That said, at times there was too much silliness, too many ideas – I could have done without Concetta Incoronato hysterically pelting her lost son with red roses, in an incongruous change of atmosphere, or a repetitive piece with the female cast members “beach dancing” in (sigh!) underwear again. Yet most disappointing of all was the tango-shaped hole where the dance should have been. Napoletango is the tango version of Tristram Shandy – a shaggy dog story, a promise of something that we wait for but that never arrives.

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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