Life after Winning the Title

Life after Winning the Title

Nicholas Tapia and Stephanie Berg won the Official Argentine Tango USA Championship in 2014 in the Salon Tango, or ‘Tango de Pista’, category — the highest regarded category of this prestigious tango contest. The Bay Area couple had met only two years before and had quickly decided to team up. The winning title of the Tango USA Championship got them on the way to the Tango Mundial in Buenos Aires that same summer where they represented the USA to compete against numerous outstanding dancers from all over the world. Nicholas and Stephanie came in fifty-eighth — a very respectable result given that no couple from the USA has ever won a title. Last year they competed at the Tango Mundial again, not as representatives of the USA, but on their own. Once again they made it to the semifinals, but not all the way to the top. This year, they decided not to participate in the Tango Mundial, but instead to focus on building up their own dance studio and a new life near Phoenix, Arizona. After several attempts to schedule an interview with this busy and bustling couple, I finally managed to talk to them while they were driving to their new studio.

“How does it feel not being in Buenos Aires where the Tango Mundial is taking place right now,” I want to know. They both agree that it’s okay and that they are not emotional or sad about not being part of the event this time. “Being in Buenos Aires is always a treat for us,” says Stephanie. “It’s like recharging batteries. But this time we just have too much on our plates.” Instead, Stephanie has other exciting news: she was just chosen by Arizona State University to teach the university’s prestigious Tango Club. This is a rare opportunity at an American public educational institution to bring Argentine tango to a motivated younger crowd of people who are still completely in ‘study mode’. The ASU Tango Club’s program starts with the beginning of the new school year in September. For Stephanie and Nicholas, who is going help with the teaching, it means carving out time from what had originally been reserved for building up their own dance studio, which they only began earlier this year.

Now another exciting opportunity has just come along. It’s early Sunday morning, and they are both bubbling with news and excitement. We are on a Skype call and I can watch while they are driving. The big news is that they have just been invited to audition for the highly acclaimed tango show, Arrabal, which had its world premiere in Toronto two years ago and is soon coming to New York City. “We don’t have the gig yet,” says Nicholas humbly when I congratulate them both on being selected for the audition. “For now it just means we’re not getting enough sleep!”

It seems like they are building a solid career for themselves. So many new opportunities. “Is this the result of having won the Tango USA Championship two years earlier,” I want to know. “How has winning that title changed their lives?” For the first time during our conversation they are silent for a few seconds. Then Nicholas says that it was the moment when he decided to become a full-time professional tango dancer. “I had the choice between becoming a geographic information scientist and splitting my time between that job and dancing, or becoming a professional dancer,” he says. “Since I don’t like sitting at a computer all day long, it was clear which path to choose.” Together with Stephanie, who had already been a full-time professional ballroom teacher, he went from being a part-time dance instructor to a full-time tango dancer and instructor. Since then they have competed in six major competitions and trained several of their dance students to compete. They are particularly proud of having coached John Demenkoff and Diana Bradshaw, the winners of the Senior Salon Tango category of this year’s Tango USA Championship. “We get so excited when our students are out there on the competition floor!” laughs Stephanie. “We cheer them on and we jump up and down and we shout like parents at their kids’ high school soccer match!”

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Do you recognize them? – A shot from Stephanie and Nicholas in ‘real life’.

 

Not everyone who likes to dance tango wants to become a professional. What indeed would be the point for most tango dancers of competing? Nicholas and Stephanie both become quite passionate: “Competing is an opportunity to set yourself a goal,” explains Stephanie. “People who come to us are enthusiastic about tango and they would like to have an incentive. Working towards a goal like a competition gives their dancing a tremendous boost. It’s a competition with yourself, a journey, and it forces you to push yourself.” Nicholas adds: “We look at competing in a healthy way. It encourages people to altogether take better care of themselves.”

What do they recommend for improving one’s dancing and what do they do to stay at their best? “We firmly believe in cross-training,” says Nicholas. Pilates, yoga, weight training, and ballet are part of their training regimen. And they are constantly investigating in different ways of looking at tango. Stephanie, who has been dancing ballet since childhood, also studies anatomy, using that knowledge of the human body in her teaching.

Having reached this high level of dancing, is there still anybody in the tango world from whom they can learn? “Of course, definitely!” they both agree. Aside from working on maintaining their own sophisticated level of dancing, they try to keep up with new trends in tango, which keeps changing. “We feel a need to stay on top of the industry standard, so to speak, and to break new ground all the time.” Speaking of breaking new ground, I remark on Stephanie’s noticeably blond hairstyle on stage. While most ladies choose a classic slick black Argentine tango hairstyle on stage, Stephanie turns into some kind of blond bombshell on the floor, immediately attracting attention. How did she come up with this this almost outrageous look for tango? “It’s something I’ve developed from ballroom dancing,” she giggles. “It’s not really me, anybody can look like that.” Since she is a brunette in real life, I wonder how Nicholas feels about the dramatic transformation of his partner on stage. “I don’t really see it,” he answers evasively. “I focus on feeling and connecting with her.”

I’m not sure whether to believe that or not, but since they have reached their destination, we have to end our conversation and say our goodbyes. Now I’m more curious than ever to see where this energetic young couple is going to go…

 

 

 

 

 

Ambassadors of Tango

Ambassadors of Tango

When Beatrice walked with Terence into the big foyer of San Francisco’s de Young Museum on a Friday evening earlier this summer, a hundred and fifty people were waiting in their chairs. Baffled, she turned towards the museum’s public programs director, Renée Baldocchi, and asked her: “They are waiting to watch us teach, right?”

“Yes, they are waiting for you to teach the lesson because they want to participate!” was Baldocchi’s response. For a moment, Bea gasped. This was far beyond what she had expected for their first tango lesson at the museum. What was supposed to be an experiment — teaching a beginners’ lesson of Argentine tango at one of San Francisco’s most prestigious museums — had triggered an unexpected and overwhelming response.

After taking a deep breath, Beatrice and Terence, both long-time tango dancers, got to work: they stepped onto the floor and invited people to join them. Their plan had been to simply teach the tango eight-step basic, not expecting that many of these first-time tango students would really be able to manage it. But at the end of the lesson almost everybody danced the basic eight-step, some actually quite well, others in some kind of… well, let’s call it ‘freestyle’. But best of all, all those one hundred and fifty people who had been waiting in their chairs, including children, stayed through the end, creating a happily whirling and twirling mass. “It was such a wonderful thing that everybody was out on the dance floor, old and young, and even children.” Beatrice raved. “It was a huge success!”

Beatrice Bowles and Terence Clarke consider themselves ‘Ambassadors of tango’. In real life, they are writers. Beatrice does audio recordings, the latest one being a children’s book with music titled The Girl Who Said NO! Terence is the author of nine books, the most recent a novel titled The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro. Both love dancing tango because, as they express it, “tango is a perfect balance for the mind and the body…with considerable soul thrown in.”

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Ambassadors of tango: Beatrice Bowles and Terence Clarke have been bringing the hugely popular public milongas to the de Young for many years.

With the lesson ending, the actual big event of the night, the milonga with live music by San Francisco’s Trio Garufa, began. A sizeable number of the Bay Area’s Argentine tango community appeared and danced along with some of the newly converted dancers who had stayed after the previous tango lesson. Trio Garufa has been Beatrice’s and Terence’s orchestra of choice ever since they started organizing the free Argentine tango event at the de Young ten years ago. “Trio Garufa’s tango music speaks to people both in and outside of tango,” says Beatrice. “They keep getting better and better in tying people in.” After all, the actual mission of the tango night at the de Young is to get tango more attention — and a boost for the museum. “People get to see the priceless treasures of the museum,” she continues. “And many of them get exposed to Argentine tango for the first time.”

What seems like an odd mix has actually been a successful relationship right from the beginning. The tango event attracts people who otherwise would not come and see an exhibition at a museum. But when Beatrice and Terence initially approached the museum, they were not sure at all how their proposal for a tango event at the de Young would be received. They were prepared to encounter the same barriers they had first met at the Ferry Building where they were by now running a free tango event. “Our initial idea had been to bring a milonga to a public place,” explains Beatrice. Since she knew the people who ran the iconic Ferry Building, she and Terri asked them what they would think about a tango event. At first, the Ferry Building’s management was skeptical: how do food and wine and restaurants tie in with tango? Somehow the couple managed to convince them. And to their own surprise, the Friday night milonga was immediately a huge success. A lot of tango dancers showed up, and even though they didn’t consume any wine or much food, the people who run the Ferry Building understood that the event attracted a lot of attention to the place. It has been a regular annual event ever since.

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Girls love tango too!

Next, being both museum lovers, they thought of a similar event at the de Young. They had carefully laid out their strategy of how to propose the idea over lunch to the then head of the museum, John Buchanan (who since has passed away). But already after Terri’s second sentence — ‘we are thinking of a tango event’ — Buchanan interrupted him with a full-hearted ‘yes!’

“He was a very open-minded person who understood that the museum could benefit from such a free public event,” says Beatrice. What made it a lot easier this time was the fact that the museum had a small budget making it possible to pay Trio Garufa as well as Terry for DJing. Not sure what turnout to expect, they were astonished that so many people showed up for the very first event. The magical combination of music and museum seemed to have worked. At some point Beatrice, who is a passionate photographer, went to the balcony upstairs and looked down at the crowd which, as she remembers it, looked like ‘a black-and-red peony’.

The combination of live music and dancing is apparently a festive and successful way of bringing people in. But organizing and promoting the event took a lot of work: for the first few years the couple printed flyers and handed them out wherever they went; they created e-mail lists; used social media; and did a lot of different PR. Now that word has spread, most of the PR is done by the de Young’s public program director, Renée Baldocchi, and by continuing word-of-mouth. “We’ve got the whole organizing pretty much under control by now,” explains Beatrice. But they don’t want to stop here. Their next project after the annual spring/summer event at the de Young and tango on Valentine’s Day at the Ferry Building, is to host tango on Thanksgiving Day at the de Young’s sister museum, The Legion of Honor. But that’s not the end of it by far: “We could also envision organizing tango at a museum in New York,” smiles Beatrice. “Or in Paris or in Venice! Who knows?”

Pictures courtesy of Beatrice Bowles.

Music with a punch

Music with a punch

Most people associate tango music with a form of dance. That’s not necessarily so. Tango music can be a pure musical pleasure, an exciting listening experience, but hard to dance to.

Take for example Débora Simcovich’s compositions. If you happened to catch one of her concerts last summer in the Bay Area, performed by the acclaimed Orquesta Victoria from Buenos Aires, you will have noticed that a lot of her songs were not very danceable. They do not speak of love and broken hearts — in contrast to most of the popular tango music that we hear at dance halls and clubs, usually from a male perspective and delivered by a male singer. In her music she speaks of her own reflections on life, and she addresses issues of social or political nature. “My music has content,” she says. Her focus is on the message and she delivers it with a punch — a skill which she learned in her younger years by writing jingles for ad agencies — and she delivers the punch regardless of whether the music is danceable or not. So it’s not surprising that Simcovich’s tango music is more popular among classical concert audiences than in the world of dancers.

In Se te va la costumbre, one of her early compositions and the opening song of her 2015 album, La media cuadra inmortal, for instance, she talks about how people are getting used to being oppressed without realizing it. The song is basically a reflection of her own observations during the military dictatorship in Argentina when superficially life seemed to remain the same while political oppression and injustice destroyed the country and its people’s lives with Nazi-like methods.

The song was written more than three decades ago, but ever since she has continued to address political issues in her tango music. Listen for example to one of her latest compositions, Alberto, in which she tackles yet another controversial topic. The song is dedicated to Alberto Nisman, the Argentinian federal prosecutor who was killed in January 2015 while investigating the bombing case of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, the equivalent of the Jewish Federation in the US and umbrella organization of all the Jewish institutions in Argentina, back in 1994. The topic is highly controversial not just in Argentina. Simcovich dedicated her piece only later to Nisman, when she realized it was really about him, and then added the lyrics. Her musical composition was praised by its own merits by Orquesta Victoria, who recently recorded Alberto at a studio in Buenos Aires as part of Simcovich’s new album, El Mundo is the World. They felt it was a very powerful composition which stands by itself musically and conveys the tragedy that inspired it – so powerful that the musicians even preferred to leave out the lyrics. The tango with the lyrics, however, will be performed during the upcoming tour in November in the United States on a promotional tour for the album. Aside from ten of her original compositions, the new album also contains two classics from the 1930es which Simcovich completely recreated; she even translated the lyrics into English.

 

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Composer Débora Simcovich

This will be the second time that Orquesta Victoria releases an album with tango music written by Débora Simcovich. This group of twelve young, energetic, and classically trained musicians seems to have a magical connection with the Buenos Aires-born composer. She discovered the orchestra by chance one night a few years ago when helping a stranger to find her way on a visit to her native city. “There I stood suddenly,” she recalls, “listening to these young people playing tango! They were the same age that I was when I had to leave Argentina. And now they could play the music that at the time we didn’t play because people my age just were not interested in it.” It was an emotional moment for her.

But even deeper connections came to light during the following days: The orchestra’s leader, Ezequiel “Cheche” Ordoñez, turned out to be the nephew of one of Simcovich’s childhood friends — a daughter of celebrated chess grandmaster Miguel Najdorf. As a child, Débora frequently went to the Najdorf house to do her homework and to play with both daughters. On these occasions her father would see the famous chess player. Both men shared the same roots: both were Jewish and both had left their Polish home country.

She calls it intuition. “Everything in my life is intuition,” she says. “I’ve always followed my intuitions, in my compositions as well as in my life.”

She recalls how she started composing music when she was only six or seven years old and how, at the time, being too young to read or notate music, she intuitively composed in her head and then played it on her guitar and sang. That’s pretty much the way she has been doing it ever since: “I’ve always been an intuitive composer.” Then poetry entered her life. During her high school years she enrolled in playwright classes and began writing poems. But it was not until one of her early mentors, a producer at RCA records, encouraged her to ‘put music into her poetry’, that she actually started to compose her own music for her poems. Now when she composes, she says: “The music and the lyrics come together at once.”

In doing so, Débora Simcovich faces several major issues: Firstly, she is a female composer in a macho world where women traditionally don’t have a voice; they are being talked about, sung about, and they are the subject of almost every song in Argentine tango. Women dance and sing tango, but women, at least in the early days, did not write tango — and this stigma still prevails. Secondly, Simcovich is a Jewish woman in a society where anti-Semitism is still widely predominant (see the above-mentioned bombing of the AMIA), which is quite bizarre especially in the world of tango where many of the early tango musicians were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They had received their classical musical training in countries like Russia and Poland and had a great influence on the tango music of their new home country, Argentina. And finally: “People want to listen to the music that they already know,” says Simcovich. Meaning that people are not really open to new forms of Argentine tango, such as her own compositions.

 

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Buenos Aires-based Orquesta Victoria: on tour in the US again with new music by Débora Simcovich in November 2016

 

 

Still, that doesn’t stop her from doing what she feels is her responsibility as an artist. She recalls her humble beginnings as a ‘cultural ambassador’ of Argentina, touring US colleges and universities with her own tango compositions. She had saved about fifty pieces of her own work and took them with her when she left Argentina hastily on a military plane, two weeks before the military officially took over. The bizarre story of her narrow escape was a result of yet another intuitive action of hers: she had claimed to be the niece of a high-ranking officer with a mission to tour Latin America with her tango compositions. It worked. They flew her to El Salvador the following day and she gave her first concert at the Argentinian Embassy. Then she indeed was on a tango tour through several countries, sponsored by university and other cultural programs, and eventually ended up in the United States. But she soon got bored and felt misunderstood by her audiences: “People outside Argentina didn’t really understand tango,” she says. She stopped and turned towards a different career. But when, a few years later, she was asked to perform one of her songs with Dr. Loco* at a Peña, a gathering of musicians in San Francisco’s Mission District, she received such an overwhelming response that she knew: “People need it and you have to give it to them! Their lives are enhanced by my music!” It may not be as much for dancing as some of the songs of the Golden Age, but it’s certainly great tango.

 

 

*Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeno Band is a local San Francisco band whose mission is to keep Chicano music alive.

 

All photos by Paula Abramovich

 

Playing it Right

Playing it Right

 

The other night as I drove home after what had felt like a lukewarm milonga I kept wondering why the spark had been missing. I had arrived eager to dance, had immediately spotted some of my favorite dance partners and, after chatting with some long-time acquaintances, had positioned myself strategically so that I could be seen easily and, hopefully, asked to dance. But scanning the dance floor, I could tell that the energy was low. Most couples were sitting at their tables looking bored and seemed not inclined to get up. The ones that actually did dance somehow appeared a bit strained. My favorite partners didn’t seem to be eager to make a move, and when I was finally asked for a tanda, we didn’t really connect and enjoy the dancing. Then it finally dawned on me: it was the music! The music didn’t feel right. The songs were a mismatched mix of different styles, vocals and instrumentals, Nuevo and Golden Age, no highs, no lows, and didn’t inspire me to dance. I gazed over at the DJ, a popular local teacher who frequently spins the music, but that night he seemed to be paying more attention to his peers than to what was happening on the dance floor. He just seemed to be running down his playlist without observing the dancers.

After an hour and a half or so I gave up. On my drive home I thought wistfully of one of my favorite DJs whose milongas I always enjoy. As if by magic, she gets everybody (including myself) up and has us dancing all night, providing good energy with her music. People both on and off the dance floor usually seem to have a good time. Wherever she plays the music, whether it’s at some of New York’s popular milongas, other venues outside the Big Apple, or at intimate tango festivals, her milongas guarantee a great dance experience. So when we recently met, I decided to ask her: “What is your secret to a crowded dance floor? How do you get people to dance?”

My rather direct question sparked an hour-long passionate conversation.

The first thing I learned was that making tango music is not simply a question of making a playlist the night before and then going off and playing the music. Setting the right tone for the night seems to be the bottom line. The music should be chosen not just by name or composer, but by listening to it. A good DJ decides what feeling he or she wants, and then picks the songs.

It sounded simple, but it couldn’t be the whole recipe for success. I thought of cooking — a terrain with which I’m more familiar than the spinning of tango tunes. If you just follow the recipe in your cookbook, then your favorite dish probably turns out to be okay. But once you’ve peeked over your mother’s shoulder and watched how she adds her own personal touch of flavors and spices, and how she tweaks it, you know why it has become your favorite dish.

So I tried applying that to playing tango music. I kept prodding for more information: “So how exactly do you do it? What is your recipe for success?” I got a smile and then finally I learned that DJs usually have to play the seven standard composers: di Sarli, d’Arienzo, Pugliese, Troilo, Canaro, Mores, Biagi. I interrupted: “But since these composers are so well-known and have been heard so many times, doesn’t that get lame? What about all the other thousands of tango pieces?”

I was instructed that the secret lies in how to mix them. “Aha!” I thought. “So it is just like cooking!” Apparently, people want to hear music that they know. They want to choose their preferred partner for a certain kind of music. Most DJs play the hits, but their success with the dance crowd depends on how and when they play them and how they build them up. There are different ways to work the crowd, and I have observed that some DJs do it by watching how many people are on the dance floor, watching their faces and their embraces, and noting if there are good dancers on the dance floor. You can also tell by how dancers walk off the floor.

 

I’m interested about the significance of the cortinas since I’ve noticed that a lot of people actually dance to them. That they are very important because they set the mood is what I learn next. For example, it makes sense to play an emotional cortina after an emotional Pugliese.

A good way to get people into the mood is by starting the night with something upbeat, a tanda that is not too fast. This is also a good time for the DJ to get onto the dance floor and spend the first few tandas dancing to see if the sound works.

One thing is for sure, if you’re a serious DJ, preparing for a milonga is quite a lot of work. My interlocutor, it turns out, prepares for each milonga meticulously, listening to the first minute of each song to get a feeling for it, and knows intuitively the first and the last song of a tanda before she chooses the other pieces. During a milonga, if the mood is cheerful enough, she sometimes mixes up the classic formula, which is tango-tango-tango, followed by tango-tango-waltz, and then tango-tango-milonga. Occasionally, she uses large flipcharts with the names of the composers of the tandas. And at the end of the night she goes back to the music and goes over the playlist to see what worked out.

Argentine tango music speaks to people all over the world, and most of them don’t know the words. The late tango singer Alberto Podestá supposedly said that tango never sounded foreign to him. It’s a feeling, but learning the words adds a whole new dimension. So she has made it a habit on her long drives to events to listen to one piece over and over again to learn the lyrics.

I’m impressed at how organized she appears. Apparently, it hasn’t always been like this. She recollects that in the beginning, she listened to CDs from her first tango teacher. Then she inherited a massive music collection from another big tango star, but still knew little about the music. Gradually, she worked her way into the depths of tango music, first by listening to classic tango, discovering the rhythmic music of d’Arienzo, taking notes. That’s how she discovered for example the thundering bass with di Sarli’s left hand on the piano, and that’s how she learned to identify the sound of each orchestra. And that’s how she put the tandas together — not by the names, but by their sound — for example, high sound, deep vocal, bandoneon.

Discovering tango celebrities like Stephen Brown, Michael Lovocah, and Keith Elshaw, and how they played music has opened the eyes of many DJs. For many, however, the greatest influence comes, not surprisingly, from the DJs in Buenos Aires. One American DJ told me of an experience that happened after having been asked to play the music on a Monday night at Salon Canning. The famous dancer Graziella Gonzales came in, and the DJ understandably became a bit nervous. But at the end of the night, as everybody was leaving, the DJ was introduced to Graziella who said: “So you’re the one who kept me up all night!” Apparently, the music had been played right!

*

The costume designer

The costume designer

It’s late Monday morning and the phone doesn’t stop ringing. If I had expected to find a quiet atelier with a designer absorbed in creative work, I was completely mistaken. Linda Ayre runs her own small business as a designer for custom dance costumes — and she is thus a multi-tasker. While we are talking, she is by turns dealing with an important client overseas, the building manager who insists on changing the locks that same afternoon, and some annoying internet issues — obstacles that everyone who runs their own operation has to deal with. Our conversation is frequently interrupted because of some urgent business or another, but every time she zooms right back to where we left off.

“I have to wear many different hats,” she says with a laugh when I ask her how she manages to stay on top of it all. “It’s the nature of what I do!” This applies not only to the way she runs her daily multifaceted business, but also to the nature of her profession. Her clients — Argentine tango teachers and performers, as well as Latin ballroom dancers — usually come to her with certain ideas. For example, they may need a costume for a showcase and the piece has to portray a certain feeling. Linda loves working with such special requirements, and she asks to hear the music. Only then — being a dancer herself — can she envision what the costume has to express and how it needs to flow. She likes women to look elegantly seductive, but not sleazy, and she likes styles that to seem to be showing more skin. “I prefer designing dresses that show legs and I always emphasize the importance of showing movement,” she says.

Despite having her own preferences, her main priority remains what the client wants. “I don’t need to have my stamp on the pieces that I make, it has to work for my clients, as long as it remains sensual,” she explains. To achieve a design, she first drapes it on the stand. Before the advent of the Internet she had to send a sketch and fabric swatches to her customers by mail. Now she can do that part of the process online. She also shops online for fabrics, but despite the growing vast array of online fabric stores, finding good quality fabric has become more and more difficult. And when the client then orders a piece, she drapes it according to their body measurements. Throughout the making, as details are completed, she photographs and sends it to the client.

“That’s the advantage of custom design,” she proudly says. “The client gets the perfect size.” The value of a skilled designer is the ability to emphasize someone’s assets and minimize any shortcomings. When many of Linda’s clients come to her for the first time, they always complain about their imperfections. Other items they have ordered online arrive ill fitting, and so they eventually go to a custom designer. Instead of dwelling on what doesn’t work, Linda concentrates on their assets, such as a nicely shaped back or bust, and makes that the focus of the dress.

Of course, such precise handmade work comes with a certain price tag. It is a long way from the first moment a client approaches her with a particular idea to a finished design. There is the choice of the right fabric, the STYLING, and then the HAND finishing. Not everybody is ready to pay between $700 and $1000 for a custom-made piece, and many people often end up buying a used costume. “The problem with used dresses, which have become more and more popular, is the size,” Linda says. “Or perhaps the dress has an unexpected issue,” I add and tell her how I once witnessed a costume malfunction on stage during a performance of a high-profile tango couple in Buenos Aires. The strap on the woman’s dress tore and she had to finish her performance with one hand holding her dress in place. “I always tell my clients to rehearse in the costumes I’ve made for them,” Linda says. “That way we know if it really works comfortably”.

In the colorful world of dance Linda Ayre has found a niche, especially with Argentine tango. It’s a niche, which her set of skills fill perfectly. “Many dance-costume designers come from a background of being a seamstress,” she explains. “However, my background is fashion design.” I ask her how someone can tell the difference between a custom-made dress and one that is manufactured. “Usually you can just look at the hem line, for example,” she suggests. “A lot of dresses that are sold as ‘custom designed’ don’t even have a properly sewn hem line. It’s easy for anybody to detect that.”

She herself is an old-school designer who studied fashion design in England and worked in London’s fast paced fashion design industry for many years before moving to California. “About 5 or 6 years after I moved here, I started dancing Argentine tango. For several years I was a total addict,” she admits. Sure enough, soon after becoming involved with the dance world as a serious ‘tanguera’, she became interested in designing exclusively tango fashion. Then gradually more dances were included, but tango is still her primary emphasis.

Like everything else, fashions in tango change, and Linda is excited to see how in recent years hem lines and details change and evolve. She remarks how in the world of fashion you have to be open to everything. She likes to experiment, and would especially like to do more ‘nuevo-tango dresses, but given how ‘nuevo-tango’ is itself a particular niche within a niche, it is difficult to sell and at the end of the day she needs to make a living.

Before I leave she gives me a tour of her studio. She points out some of her costumes, explaining what is special and what was particularly challenging about this or that piece. I still don’t understand how she finds the time and quiet to focus on the creative part of her job and how she has created such a beautiful body of work. Maybe when she returns to her studio after seven o’clock this evening, I think to myself, maybe after the phone stops ringing and the business manager has gone home….

More information about Linda Ayre’s designs and her studio can be found at her website at http://www.dancedress.com. 

Photo on top: Linda Ayre in her studio.

Center photo left: During a photo shoot with Chelsea Eng.

Center photo right: Photoshoot on location in Benicia 2014 with model Barbara and singer/model/dance teacher Lynn. 

Photographer: Diane Pedersen

Inferno Tango

Conmigo ConnectHorizontal

Scene from ‘Y dance?’ by dancers of ‘Conmigo Connect’. Photo by Rachel Davidman.

When Rachel Davidman and Giulio Perrone met on a flight last year from Tucson to Oakland, something between them clicked – in a creative, artistic sense. Rachel is an Argentine tango and salsa dancer; Guilio a theater playwright, designer, and director. “He was reading this book about Quantum Theory and explained to me how he wants to transform the idea of modern physics into a theater play,” says Rachel. For her part she shared with him her lifelong passion for dance both as a social dancer and as an occasional choreographer. They discovered very similar underlying experiences in dance and theater, and by the time they got off the plane, they felt they had established a deep connection.

A few months later she received a call from him, asking her if she wanted to be part of the upcoming experimental theater festival Diasporas as a tango dancer, and if she would like to put together a piece with her own group of dancers. “I was thrilled,” recalls Rachel. “It was something I’ve always wanted to do!” She carefully selected a handful of people with whom she personally enjoyed dancing and whom she trusted to share her ideas of performing an improvised piece in a rather unusual setting. “I was looking for dancers who are open-minded rather than perfectionists.”

The newly formed Argentine tango ensemble now consists of five members and it is called Conmigo Connect. Rachel characterizes the group as a ‘pop-up dance company’. The piece they are going to perform is called Y dance? For the music she chose five songs that “make me move” — a few are nuevo-tango pieces rather than traditional tango music. One of them is Mi Confesión by Gotan Project. It’s a song with layers of different rhythms, and since hearing it for the first time she had a vision of dancers moving to it – and one, she confesses, that makes her get up at home and dance.

“The whole piece is really an eclectic mix of five songs with a voice overlay,” she says. “The transitions between the partnering dances are linked with solo performances by modern dancer Robin Fletcher.” The partnering dance parts are not choreographed. Rachel had certain concepts in mind, particularly the concept of lead and follow. “But what I want to show more than anything else is the connection in Argentine tango.”

“Don’t expect a flashy piece,” she says. Instead of a grand Forever Tango-like show, the dancers want to share with the audience what they do, why they are doing this, and why tango is part of their daily lives, and they want to invite the audience to share their passion.

So how does this fit into the Diasporas theater festival?

“Tango is just electric,” says Giulio Perrone, artistic director and producer of the festival, smiling. “It just opens up everything. Plus,” he adds, “I like movement. “

The Disaporas festival is indeed a mix of theater, solo performances, and dance groups. It does not reflect an ethnic diaspora, but is rather, Perrone goes on to explain, ”…about people being together and wanting to work together.” It is therefore also about the connection between different forms of the art and performances, just like the message that the Conmigo Connect tango group wants to convey. It is a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary festival, whose mission is to link cultures and explore human relationships in space and time.

QUANTUM DESIRE Blindfolds_4237 (002)

Blindfolds from ‘Quantum Desire’ with Tenya Spillman, David James Silpa, Wei-Shan Lai.  Photo by Vicki Victoria

In space and time? — “Yes,” Perrone says, “this year’s production is about how we perceive space and time. This piece of experimental theater, which is also a part of the festival, revolves around ‘the quantum of the room’ — the idea that everybody is part of the room.” Quantum Desire is the second part of a trilogy based on Quantum Theory — the theoretical basis of modern physics that continues both to fascinate and inspire him to transform new ideas into the theater.

“It sounds a bit – well, experimental, right?” I ask. – “Theater here is very safe”, Perrone states, “People want theater to be linear. They want a story, and no experiments. They want nothing that leads to misunderstanding, nothing that’s circular, and nothing that’s abstract.”

Aside from being the mastermind behind the Diasporas festival, Guilio Perrone is the creator and producing artistic director of the experimental theater ensemble Inferno Theatre in Berkeley, California. He attended the respected fine-arts Accademia di Brera in his native country, Italy, where theater, since the early days of the Commedia dell’Arte, has evolved as the ‘craft of improvisation’ – nothing like the linear story-telling of American theater that Perrone almost commiseratively talks about. Having been an active part of American theater, both as a director and designer, for many years, he decided it was time for him to start his own project. He named it quite provocatively Inferno Theatre, relating, of course, to the famous epic poem by Dante Alighieri. “Inferno Theatre is a place where people can do what they want,” he explains. “Our pieces are different from consequential pieces which are designed to keep the audience’s attention. People have a shorter attention span now than in Shakespeare’s time when a play might go on for days at a time.”

Perrone has written and produced three original productions for the company every year since they started in 2010. Having successfully toured Europe with his own productions prior to starting Inferno, his ambition is to take the company overseas.

During the three-day long Diasporas festival in early May, in Berkeley, the company performs only parts of their Quantum Desire production. The piece in its entire length will be shown during the San Francisco International Arts Festival at Fort Mason from May 27 through June 5. More information and tickets can be found at http://www.sfiaf.org/inferno_theatre.

Rachel Davidman and her Argentine tango group, Conmigo Connect, perform on two evenings of the Diasporas festival on May 6th and 7th. The festival itself runs from May 6th to the 8th in the South Community Church in Berkeley. Tickets and more information can be found at: http://infernotheatre.org/diasporas-festival-2016/

 

Claudio’s heels

Claudio’s heels

What was it with these heels? Yes, what exactly was it that so mesmerized the audience about Claudio’s heels? He was wearing these tango high-heels just like all the other followers on the dance floor at the recent USA Tango Championship — except that Claudio Marcelo Vidal is a male dancer in high-heels. And that, apparently, was more remarkable than anything else, even for people in ‘oh-so-open-minded’ San Francisco.

Let’s get this straight: the fact that men are wearing high-heels in tango is nothing new. Even the Mundial de Tango in Buenos Aires, with its rather conservative rules, has accepted same-sex competitors since 2013, a fact which, of course, entails men in the role of followers dancing in high-heels.

Wearing high-heels changes the position of the foot and what you can do. It helps to create the elegant cat-like walk that we followers strive for. For Claudio this was not an issue. He had been doing this for a long time. So he became the first man not just to be part of a male-only couple, but also the first man to dance in high-heels in the Mundial. However, when he entered the competition stage with his then partner Esteban Mioni, two of the judges left the panel in protest.

The incident caused enough of a riot in the tango world to be picked up by some major newspapers in Argentina: La Nación, Clarín, and El País; even the New York Times in the US reported it.

I’m not sure if the tango world in Argentina even now has fully accepted the role and appearance of same-sex couples in the Mundial — or at milongas or anywhere else. During my conversation with Claudio and his partner Sidney Grant shortly before their performance at the finals of the USA Tango Championship at the end of March they explained to me how even in Argentina gay men take a more conservative position on tango than here in the US. “Tango is a dance between a man and a woman,” says Claudio. “Culturally, men only danced together to practice so they could impress the women with their skills. But they wouldn’t dance together in public. These days, you might be asked in class by a teacher to dance with another man if there is a shortage of women. But it’s just not traditional for men to dance together.” And Sid adds: “When we first met in Buenos Aires, he wouldn’t go with me to a gay tango club — he hadn’t even heard about it!”

Sid has a different take on the subject. He has pioneered in New York as a gay dancer, trying to break the stigma that surrounds men dancing together. He won the 2011 USA Tango Championship in New York with a female partner, but then started to focus on dancing with male partners only, working against what he calls ‘the machismo in dance’, especially when it comes to same-sex couples. “It’s about harmonizing and about overcoming outdated beliefs,” he says.

Sid’s and his partner Claudio’s differing perspectives on the role of all-male couples in tango, both professionally and personally, not only make their partnership special but are also a reflection of the complex views shared by the general public about same-sex couples. The very people who regard same-sex couples on the dance floor as a perfectly integrated part of the tango world may still sneer at a man who dances in high-heels. On the other hand, whenever two women are depicted dancing tango together — as has been the case in movies, on posters, or in art work — it is usually perceived as erotic and sexual.

“Tango is not about sexual relationships,” objects Sid. In this respect they both agree. “Tango transcends religion and gender. In our society, which seems to compartmentalize, we want to show that tango can overcome prejudice and outdated beliefs.”

Sid&Claudio2

Infectious enthusiasm: Claudio and Sidney are stepping onto the dance floor.

They had high hopes of winning this year’s USA Tango Championship, and were excited to compete in the same city where, at the beginning of the LGBT movement, Harvey Milk was assassinated. Nevertheless, they said: “We are not rainbow-flag waving people.” Unfortunately, they were not among the top three in this year’s Salon-style category. I can’t imagine how disappointed they must have been — as were I and many others who had watched and cheered them on from the first night when they appeared on the competition floor, with Claudio tripping along in his high-heels on Sid’s arm. Their enthusiasm was infectious. The first and only all-male couple to compete in the USA Tango Championship earned extra applause from the audience. They danced beautifully and professionally as they had done many times. But it wasn’t enough.

Fotos by Mary Gulick