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Rooted in touch

Posted on November 8, 2013

For his show, m¡longa, at Sadler’s Wells this week, contemporary choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui explores the origins of tango. Zoë Anderson finds out about a Flemish-Moroccan choreographer’s encounter with tango

square-cornejoSidi Larbi Cherkaoui is clearly fascinated by collaboration. He has a history of trying different styles: from a contemporary dance background, he’s worked with a wide range of artists, from flamenco star Maria Pagès to the martial arts monks of the Shaolin Temple. In m¡longa, he turned to tango, inspired by the intimate social dances held in Buenos Aires.

Sidi Larbi, whose company Eastman is based in Antwerp, spent two and half years preparing for this new production, which has its UK premiere at London’s Sadler’s Wells this autumn. His tango consultant for m¡longa is Nélida Rodríguez de Aure, a star with decades of tango experience. In 1970, she formed a celebrated partnership with Nelson Ávila, and went on to dance in the international hit Tango Argentino. In Argentina, Nélida has been declared a national cultural icon.

“The first time we met, Larbi was taking tango lessons with people I know,” Nélida explains, in a lilting accent that glows every time she says “tango”. “He wanted to understand the mechanics… you know, there is like a code in the tango. After that, we talked about ideas.” A few months later, Sidi Larbi returned to Buenos Aires to see the tango couples Nélida had chosen to dance for him.

milonga- silvina cortes   group“I’ve been doing this for years,” she says. “I am a judge at the world tango championship in Buenos Aires. I try to find people with talent, with potential. I know who I like, who has a lot of technique but also has personality, something more to give to us.

“When Larbi started to see people, I gave him 30 couples. He needed to choose five or six. He was very surprised – we started to think of more interesting situations for the show, because of the quality of the dancers. Then we went to several milongas in Buenos Aires, the places where people dance. It’s a very special kind of place.”

Nélida believes the new show draws on a unique tango quality. “In other kinds of dance, the roles are always the same. You must be inside the role to be Juliet or Carmen. In the tango, you have the possibility to be you, yourself. You can put all your own personality, all your feeling, into your dancing. That’s great, because you are so free! “Now, Larbi tried to take the best of each dancer, of their characters. You see their personalities in these roles. It’s so natural; it’s very rich. You will see how different they are.”

For m¡longa, Sidi Larbi chose a cast of five Argentine couples and two contemporary dancers. This is the first time a large-scale international tango production has been directed by a non-Argentine artist, with a chance for both sides to learn from the exchange.

“What attracts me most about tango is the eternal embrace of the dancers,” Sidi Larbi says. “When a tango couple dances, we sense the hypnotic dialogue between two bodies connecting intuitively, merging into one. If there is such a thing as my style of dance, it is rooted in touch, in physical contact – and that is inherent in tango.”

40t8383- esthermartinsilhouettesWhile Sidi Larbi and his contemporary dancers absorbed tango steps and spirit, what about the tango dancers? What did they discover through working in a contemporary production? “I particularly love Larbi’s work with the arms,” says Nélida. “That was not easy for us. We are mixing the arms of the contemporary style, Larbi style, with tango steps. It takes time, a lot of time, to work with that, to make it seem natural, spontaneous.

“Larbi says that tango dancers are very smart! He loved them, because he said, ‘They normally do very different things, but when you incorporate new movements, they understand what you are trying to do.’ The dancers need to be open-minded, because we are introducing new elements. At the same time, he loved what they do. It’s a very good exchange between his style and the need to learn and see new things from the tango dancers.

“They were very enthusiastic, they loved this project. They worked a lot, because Larbi is a very important choreographer. He is very creative; he has a big vision. He’ll say, ‘OK, Nélida, this is nice; it’s really nice. But what would happen if we changed this, if we put this on that side?’ It’s so, so creative. It’s like – I have two eyes, but now I have three eyes! I would say, “Yes, my god, I hadn’t imagined this!'”

m¡longa is at Sadler’s Wells until Sunday, November 10. Book your tickets here. 

Pictures (from top): Gisela Galeassi and Nikito Cornejo, Silvina Cortes, and Martin Epherra and Esther Garabali in m¡longa.

Photographs: Tristram Kenton

Nicola Rayner was editor of Dance Today from 2010 to 2015. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Independent and Time Out Buenos Aires, where she cut her teeth as a dance journalist working on the tango section. Now acting editor of Discover Britain magazine, she continues to dance everything from ballroom to breakdance, with varying degrees of success.

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