Teaching Liam Neeson

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There will be a special tango scene in the upcoming movie “Mark Felt”. Photo: markfeltmovie.com

 

“You have to teach Liam Neeson!” the caller urged her. It was nobody less than Marcos Questas. “He does not know one step!” he continued. Well, an urgent request by Maestro Questas from LA means you don’t think twice!

On the receiving end of the line was Karina Romero, a veteran teacher among the New York Argentine tango community. She was trying to grasp what she had just heard: she had been asked to coach one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for an upcoming movie!

Questas, a sought-after choreographer for film and television (he worked on the Latin Grammy Awards), had a problem. He had been signed as the choreographer for a prominent tango scene in a high-profile spy thriller about the Watergate scandal by Peter Landsmann — Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. He had already started rehearsing the dance scene with Diane Lane, who plays Liam Neeson’s wife in the movie. But he urgently needed an instructor at the other end of the country in New York, where Neeson lives, to train him for his part. Questas knew about Karina Romero through Carlos Copello, the grand master of tango (Forever Tango, The Tango Lesson, Assassination Tango). Being part of Copello’s circle means being part of an exclusive network of tango professionals who can trust one another.

Karina Romero accepted. And Marcos Questas could for now, and until the shooting began, relax. Then he would see if the teacher in New York had been doing a good job.

But back in New York, Karina Romero could not have anticipated what was about to happen once she agreed. The wheels had already begun to spin and she had taken on a big responsibility. How did she prepare for coaching a film star for a big budget movie, I am curious to know? Karina takes a deep breath. Then she bubbles over with excitement about those few weeks this past summer which were for her ‘a dream come true’.

The business aspect, she explains, was the first ‘wow!’ experience. “Everything happened really fast,” she remembers. Without having time to think it all over, she found herself thrown into the Hollywood business. Within minutes after talking to Questas, her phone began ringing nonstop. She received several calls from the film studio, and was sent a lot of paperwork to sign her up as the leading star’s dance coach for the production of Felt. Once that part of the deal was settled, it took just about another five minutes for Liam Neeson’s agent to call and schedule the lessons for his client. As she was about to give directions to her dance studio, the agent politely interrupted and explained that Mr Neeson was a very private person and that the lessons had to take place at his house.

Quickly rearranging her own schedule, she agreed and then ‘spent the rest of the day watching all of Liam Neeson’s movies to see how he moves’. The very next day at eleven in the morning, she found herself sitting in this ‘very big apartment’ where everybody was ‘so very nice’ to her, waiting for her famous student to arrive, a cup of tea in front of her.

“At that moment it hit me,” she tells me with her delightful accent. “I was going to teach Liam Neeson! Oh my God!” But there was no time to be nervous. She heard him approaching through the living room, and listened intently to the sound of his shoes as he moved across the floor. “I hear how strongly he walks,” she remembers, audibly smiling over the phone, “and what a connection his feet have to the floor!” As she quickly took a mental note of his characteristic steps, the door opened and the star himself appeared and greeted her.

Despite his imposing size – he is said to be six foot four — Liam Neeson turned out to be shy indeed. He thanked her politely for coming to his house and introduced himself humbly:  “Sorry, it’s going to be very hard!” Just as Questas had indicated, he had no dance experience.

So Karina started with some basic walking exercises. After the first round of walking with her new student she could feel how her own nervousness fell away. She says she settled into her role as the teacher and ‘stopped thinking about how famous he was’. Her new student on the other hand turned out to be ‘very respectful to learn’. And indeed he had a lot to learn. Not only did he have to master the basics in tango, but he also had to memorize Marcos Questas’ choreography to the piece he had chosen for the movie: Osvaldo Fresedos’ Vida Mia. “Simple,” states Karina, “but difficult for a beginner.”

Another challenge in teaching him was that the actor, whom she came to realize was a sensitive person, was initially afraid to dance. So she decided to take it slowly — “I did not want him to be in shock!” — and not think about the time pressure — she had to get her famous student ready in only fifteen hours over the stretch of three weeks.

“You need to practice!” she told him decidedly at the end of the first lesson. “We meet again tomorrow!” She also suggested that he wear dress pants and a shirt to get a better feeling for the elegant movement of the dance.

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Tango talent: Karina Romero teaching Liam Neeson. Photo by Karina Romero

By her return the following day, Mr Neeson had done his homework and practiced a lot. And he continued to be prepared for all the lessons that were to come. “He really wanted to learn,” she explains, impressed by how seriously he took his tango studies. “He was a very smart student and he really wanted to understand.” His sincere interest in learning and his disciplined way of studying were well received by his Argentine teacher. They developed an artistic connection that Karina describes as very special. “This connection on an artistic and human level was the biggest gift for me,” she says.

But she still had to push for fast progress. At some point she provoked the actor in him, inviting him to find his role in tango and act it out on the dance floor: “If you were a singer,” she said, “you’d be Julio Sosa. This is the voice you would be in tango.” That was the magic trick. She had him practice to some Sosa tunes and says she could see how he changed and started to connect more.

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Gabriel Missé concidently became an inspiration for Liam Neeson. Photo: Boston Tango

The big breakthrough, however, came when she introduced Mr Neeson to Gabriel Missé, one of the hottest stars of recent years in the world of Argentine tango. Mr Missé happened to be in town for a workshop series that Karina arranges every year in August. She told Mr Neeson about Missé, and he became interested and asked her to bring him along. It was obvious that both men, each one a star in his respective artistic field, clicked immediately.

Mr Neeson asked Karina to dance with Missé — a moment which she describes as ‘being in heaven’ — and noticed how he enjoyed watching their little demonstration. Next, the two men danced together. She put a tango hat on Neeson and said: “Now act!” And then in front of her eyes something magical developed: As Liam Neeson danced with Gabriel Missé, he became Julio Sosa, executing all the steps he had learned: the ‘baldosa’, the ‘cunita’, the ‘box’, and the ‘sandwichito’. “It was a dream come true!” she revels. “And I saw two big persons together!”

When their coaching sessions came to an end and Mr Neeson started to prepare for the shooting of the film in Atlanta, he thanked her profoundly, promising to make her proud. She in return threatened jokingly: “I will kill you, Liam Neeson, if you don’t dance well in the film!” She remembers being quite nervous the day when the scene was shot far away in Atlanta. Finally she received a message saying: ‘Thank you, maestra, you helped me a lot!’

Mark Felt is going to come to theaters next Thursday, September 29, and I wonder if her name is going to be in the credits? “I don’t know,” she replies. “I’m relaxed about this. I believe this experience was a gift of God. There was an artistic connection, a magic, and the magic happened in the human part, in the connection of the soul.”

Did she get invited for the opening night? No, she says, but for sure she is going to be among the first ones to watch it — with a group of her girlfriends, somewhere in New York.

 

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Le Grand Tango – an updated and expanded biography of Astor Piazzolla

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Cover of the updated and expanded digital edition published by Astor & Lenox

 

When Astor Piazzolla died in 1992, he was not much appreciated in his native Argentina. The tango composer, bandoneon player, and arranger, although well-known the world over, had stirred up a great deal of controversy with his music. The traditional tango world was still predominant in his home country at the time of his death twenty-five years ago, and he was a rebel. “He was hated because he broke a paradigm,” says María Susana Azzi, “and he changed that paradigm.”

Mrs Azzi is the co-author of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla, a detailed biography that may represent the most comprehensive work about the composer’s life and work to date. Surprisingly, the book first appeared in the year 2000 in English, published as a hardcover edition (it was a few years before e-books became common) by Oxford University Press. It says a lot about Piazzolla’s reputation in Argentina that a Spanish edition was published only later after many translations into other languages had appeared.

The biography is based on a large number of interviews and other books about Piazzolla. Together with the late Simon Collier, Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, it took Mrs Azzi seven years to collect and meticulously reconstruct details and events of Piazzolla’s complex life. It was Mr Collier who, not long after Piazzolla’s death, approached Mrs Azzi with the proposal for a biography. A British-born historian, Simon Collier’s prime academic focus was on Latin American studies and, in particular, Chilean political history. But it was his passion for tango that had led him to write a well-regarded biography of Carlos Gardel in 1986, in which he uncovered the intertwining of tango and the history of the city of Buenos Aires. His knowledge of tango turned him into a contributor to the tango history collection of Harlequin Records, for which he wrote twenty sleeve notes.

Simon Collier

Simon Collier

By the time Mr Collier came forward with his idea for a Piazzolla biography, Mrs Azzi had already established herself as one of the few academic experts on the subject of Argentine tango. She had published a respectable number of research papers and articles, and she had given numerous lectures on the topic. As a cultural anthropologist her main interest in tango lay in its socio-economic aspects. “Tango can be seen as a huge window into the social economics of Argentina,” she told me when I spoke with her earlier this summer.

Not long after she and Mr Collier began their research work for the Piazzolla biography, it became clear that Mrs Azzi would end up conducting the majority of the interviews. She worked with about a thousand informants and consultants on the subject of tango, and conducted two-hundred and thirty of the two-hundred and forty interviews for the book. In the end, the duo’s extensive research had to be condensed to three hundred and sixty pages, but they revealed an astonishing number of facts and little-known details about Piazzolla’s life, all of which contributed significantly to his groundbreaking work.

For a wonderful foreword Mrs Azzi interviewed Yo-Yo Ma, the world-famous cello player, widely known for his admiration of the grand tango master and who has performed and recorded many of his pieces. The book begins with a detailed chronicle of Piazzolla’s family, infused with anecdotes about his early childhood in Mar del Plata in the midst of a closely knit Italian-Argentine community, followed by his rough upbringing on New York’s Lower East Side after his parents had emigrated to the United States. Then there are descriptions of encounters with some of the most influential tango musicians of the Golden Era of Tango — Carlos Gardel among them — many of whom, intentionally or unintentionally, left an impact on young Astor. As a teenager, Piazzolla developed a strong interest in jazz and classical music, at the same time as slowly discovering the soul of tango. Encouraged by his composition teacher in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, his passion for all three genres ultimately led him to develop his own modern tango style, which was demonstrated by three notable groups: the Octet (1955), the first Quintet (1960), and the Nonet (1971). By the mid-fifties he had taken tango to a whole new level and had begun to compose in a unique style. Now, also established as a sought-after bandoneonist in Argentina, he had played with some of the most important tango orchestras of the time, most notably with Anibal Troílo’s Orquesta Típica.

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María Susana Azzi

“He was,” says María Susana Azzi, “a musician and a genius who combined classical music and tango, which is difficult. But he didn’t think of himself as a genius.” By the time of his death at age seventy-one he had composed a vast body of three-thousand five-hundred pieces of music, including orchestral works (Concierto Para Bandoneon), pieces for solo classical guitar (Cinco Piezas), song-form compositions (Adíos Nonino), and music for film, and was considered one of the most prolific composers of all time. He was not a political person, but ‘an anti-Peronist’ adds María Susana Azzi.

The Argentine anthropologist seems to have become as intimate with Astor Piazzolla as some of his family and friends who knew him personally and closely during his lifetime. Just like Piazzolla, with whom she shares Italian roots, she considers herself a typical result of Argentine society. “Argentine society has always been a melting pot,” she says. “It is an inclusive and open society without ghettos.” Le Grand Tango, even though not an authorized biography, quickly became a recognized resource for Piazzolla fans. Mrs Azzi, who has during the course of her research, become close to the Piazzolla family, mainly his daughter Diana, says the family appreciates it.

Sadly, only three years after the book’s publication, Simon Collier passed away, leaving the rights to the book with Oxford University Press. When Mrs Azzi regained the rights to her book, a friend asked if she would consider publishing an updated version. This friend — Terence Clarke — happened to be a tango afficionado from San Francisco who had been introduced to Mrs Azzi in 2003 by the acclaimed tango singer and composer María Volonté. Mr Clarke is the co-founder and director of a new and small publishing-house, Astor & Lenox, whose mission is to ‘print and publish ebook editions of remarkable out-of-print books.’

Mrs Azzi agreed to a new version only to find out, as she told me, that “more than seventy people interviewed for the first edition have since died.” As a result, she undertook additional research for the new version. Most interesting about the new edition, now expanded by an additional one hundred pages, is that it reflects events that have contributed to the growth of Piazzolla’s influence since his death. “Piazzolla is greater than ever,” adds publisher Terence Clarke. “He is much more accepted than in 1992, and his popularity keeps growing.”

After a complete re-edit of the republication, Astor & Lenox published the anniversary digital edition last February — just in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Piazzolla’s death on July 4. Mr Clarke says that he is considering publishing a print edition. An expanded Spanish edition is also expected to come out soon.

The updated and expanded digital version of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla by María Susana Azzi, published by Astor & Lenox is available online.