Sunday, 28 March 2010

Tacuari

"The TacuarĂ­, the new Tango space that manage Ruth and Andreas, dear tango “Maestros”in San Telmo".

When friends at El Sol de San Telmo suggested the Tacuari milonga, there was a note of warmth in their voices, rather as there is in the above translated review. This was destined to be not the normal milonga.

We set off across Avendia San Juan into the southern outreaches of San Telmo. Tacuari runs out sweeping towards La Boca, but stalling at Avendia Martin Garcia several blocks before the rail tracks that separate where it is just possible to go, from where further exploration would be folly.

Our journey from Chacabuco is a short one, a matter of minutes by foot. The Tacuari springs up suddenly from nowhere, sandwiched between unidentifiable buildings. The doors are propped open with chocks and a security light beams across the pavement on our arrival. It is after 11 pm and the milonga is already busy, with no seats and certainly no tables. Ordinarily, this would have been an impediment to a successful evening of dancing, but somehow the absence of space does not seem to matter. Here is light, laughter, fun and superb dancers. As I pass the open bar to see a body artist finishing a masterpiece. She is tall, with long legs that bear his work, fascinating painting that shimmers in the milonga lights. The contra-boule is a young dancer whose upper torso is fully painted. They smile, their eyes full of excitement and their bodies ready to dance to show of his work.

Clutching out bottles of sparkling water, our small group stands in a space just off the milonga floor. We note the standard of dancers to be high. There are some talented young people here, as you would expect from the reviews of this milonga. But up to this point, I had not read the reviews, and so my expectation is eclipsed. It is at that moment that I see a face. He is tall and very slim, with distinctive penetrating eyes. This is an unmistakable face that I have seen before, with whom I have danced, and with whom I have shared my home. In September 2009 Andreas and Ruth, his partner in life and dance, as the guests of Miriam y Dante, danced at their milonga, taught classes and overnighted with Nefra and me after late night dancing in my studio.

We recognise, greet and embrace. Andreas rushes off to find Ruth. Chairs and tables are precured and placed to the edge of the milonga floor. The smart dancers look on as these strangers are fated. For this evening I will have no difficulty in attracting both dances and knowing looks from my companions who ask if I know everyone in this city.

As the novelty of celebrity subsides, I become aware of the arrival of the real celebrity. Osvaldo and his wife Coca are being brought through to their special table. Osvaldo is one of the last old milongueros, the dancers who carried the skills of tango from the 1950's through the hostile years when successive governments and tango were unfriendly bedfellows. Of course he is old, but age does not register on his youthful, exuberant face. He and Coca are to exhibit this evening, and ours is to be the privilege of seeing one of the last of his race. From my guest vantage point I am looking directly across towards him as he catches my eye. We last met through Oscar Casas, my first dance master. At his request I cross the floor to greet and hug. I remind him of our last encounter and we share our mutual admiration for our benefactor Oscar. And then the moment is cut short; the time to dance has arrived. The little orchestra strikes up, Osvaldo loses his jacket and takes Coca in his arms. They dance in a way that only genuine milongueros can dance, with skill, humour to the exclusion of all around them. The audience is hushed.Osvaldo spans the generations here and is taken to their heart. He is the heart of tango and it still beats fast.

This is a moment of great joy, a coming together of tango past and future. Also a coming together of unexpected friends: Andreas, Ruth, Osvaldo, Coca. I feel that the city has held out a hand. Later,over a last cup of tea at the tango house, we speak about the events of the night. And I reflect on the privilege of the moment and bask in reflected celebrity.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

La Milonga de los Consagrados

Those of you who have read my previous blog entries will remember Lucia as my former taxi dancer, and Jerry as her partner and father of their delightful daughter Michelle. In the three years since I left Buenos Aires, they have gone on to found Flor de Milonga, one of the most recent tango events, and to become respected tango exhibitors in the city.

Their friends, Daniel and Miriam, whose father was the famous Enrique "Gordo" Rosich, run a milonga at Humberto Primo 1462. It was to this event that I was to be guest at their table and to see them dance an exhibition of tango milonguero as special show guests.

Humberto Primo is a road that runs the full length of one side of San Telmo, one block from Constitucion, one of the most challenged and challenging barios in Buenos Aires. A sense of unease pervades the area, even today as I walk in the late afternoon sunshine with my dance shoes strapped to my back. I have passed the small shops at almost every street corner, where entry is permitted only as far as the steel roller mesh through which business is transacted, money is passed and goods returned. And just here is Nino Bien, the location of some of the most important milongas in San Telmo.

From the marble entrance way, a wide flight of stairs curves round to the first floor landing from which a ticket can be purchased for 20 pesos. Then through the mahogany doors one reaches the salon. La Milonga de los Consagrados is a proper milonga! At two metre intervals along each wall, tall mirrors rise towards the ceiling. Along the walls are three deep rows of tables with coloured cloths. Tango events occur here most nights of the week, hosted by different organisers who stamp their individuality on their event and find their way in the pecking order of milongas. Towards the stage is the performers' table, and there are to be found Lucia, Gerry and their group of guests, discerning tangueros from the city and beyond.

Tonight is a special event with two exhibitions, the first to be led by Lucia and Gerry. Lucia is described by the old milongueros, the most revered male dancers in Buenos Aires, as their favourite tanguera. They call her 'la flaca Lucia', meaning the thin one, in noticeable contrast to El Gordo Rosich (the fat one). What would be considered to be inappropriate comment about weight or height, here in Buenos Aires, is simply a fact of life that adds a richness to description and is the badge of recognition for milongueros. Of course my aspiration is to be El Grande Twist.

After exchange of hugs, we settle to gentle dancing whilst Lucia and Gerry transform themselves from regular milongueros into show performers. Lucia is wearing an emerald green dress, a flash of satin showing her jet black hair. Gerry is dressed in black with a white shirt open at the neck. Both now exude the glamor of tango.

By this time the room is full of dancers and every table and seat is occupied. Some of the dancers have to stand at the back. We sense the imminence of the performance as a PA system is tested and the deep maroon curtains flex at the stage. With Victorian drama, the curtains are swept to one side and the orchestra appears for the first time. It is Ernesto Franco. This is a huge prize for Consagrados, and perhaps the reason the milonga is full to bursting point. Franco is one of the most important living band leaders. His small orchestra comprises about a dozen players re-create the magic of D'Arienzo, the charismatic band leader who gave to tango a strong dancing beat and popular showmanship. Franco himself is not one to disappoint. He directs the band with a quiet strict approach of beat, then draws from the back row his four violinists who perform centre stage, and as he raises the fever he glances backwards to the appreciative following of dancers and onlookers.

The moment has arrived for Gerry and Lucia to perform. They take to the floor and take the embrace. Light, deft and stylish both dance showing the impossibility of discerning where one move is initiated, progressed, finishes; and another starts. At the end of the show, the audience erupt, and here, see for yourself why you may want to dance tango.



The finale for the band is La Cumparasita, the most famous tango song written by Rodriguez in 1917. This is so frequently played that listeners sometimes become disenchanted with it. But not tonight, and certainly not with Franco's interpretation and energy. At one stage he drops his baton and walks into the orchestra. He then turns and picks up a bandoneon. Something magical is happening. I may not see this event again in my lifetime. This is like a total eclipse, the audience go silent and the dancers cease to dance. Everyone in the salon turns, and the notes rise in slow, sharp ripples of sound. This is a moment of moments, to be ranked alongside a last performance. The final chords cling to the ceiling, the audience tastes the sound; and then it passes as quickly as it arose, with Franco returning to conduct, and dancers returning to their dance. Having bid farewell to and for the moment, I leave; two memories imprinted on my mind and in my soul; those of dance and tango.

Friday, 19 March 2010

La Orquesta del Tango de Buenos Aires vuelve al Alvear

Rachel y Eduardo's message invites me to attend a tango concert at the Teatro Alvear in the heart of the city. I know precisely where the theatre is situated in Corrientes 1659, my former apartment at Tucuman being simply three blocks away. Today I have arranged to meet Maggie. She is a fellow northerner, student and friend of Tanya and Howard who teach in Cumbria. Whilst at an Ireby milonga I had told her about my 6 month Sabbatical, and she has replicated it. She is now in the final two months, having successfully survived the city and tango.

I make my way on foot through San Telmo and out across Avendia 9 Julio into Corrientes. As I approach the theatre I pass the street sweepers who collect the hundreds of leaflets strewn by political activists following their recent demonstration. Demonstrations in Buenos Aires are an art form, and way of life. This is a highly political nation with a democratic voting system. The activists however are part of the political process and their presence appears to influence government policy. This may be due to sensitivity from the recent history of the 'disparus', 30,0000 people, mainly men: husbands, fathers and brothers, who were simply disappeared by the government in the decade from 1976, and whose lives are remembered by the women; mothers, sisters and wives, who gather in Plaza de Mayo every Thursday at 1530 hours where they walk anticlockwise round the square to remember their dead.

The theatre is on the north side of the famous Corrientes, the 'street that never sleeps'. Flocks of mature Portenios (the name for the local residents of Buenos Aires) move steadily into the foyer and on to the downstairs stalls. Maggie arrives in the nick of time and we make our way to two front circle centre seats that are fortuitously still free in an otherwise packed to bursting theatre.

The concert starts on time. This in Buenos Aires is an unusual feature, but probably because the concert is funded by the city who have hired the theatre on an hourly basis. The lights dim and twenty eight performers come to the platform. The orchestra seems to have been constituted especially for this performance. There are 13 violins and violas, three cellos, one base, two woodwind, one pianist, two percussion, two guitars and of course four bandoneon, both the queen and spirit of tango. The atmosphere in the audience is unusual for one whose average age will be over 65. As each piece concludes there is rapturous applause and calls from the rows of grey haired enthusiasts. The conductor acknowledges it with great satisfaction. The orchestra stand, the bandoneon players removing the soft leather covers that protect their precious instruments from friction against their knees. And now Marcelo Tommasi makes an entrance stage right. Tall, commanding and searingly handsome, he walks onto the stage like a true Porteno. He exudes huge charm, and then he sings. The audience hush as if a quiet drape has been placed over them. Tommasi's voice is a rich mahogany barritone; it rings out across the stalls and lifts to the circle. His dark eyes flash, his gestures describing the love, pain, loss, emotion of tango. His voice still hovers as the audience leap to their feet with a demonstration of appreciation that says, like tango, you too are our son. The programme continues, the strings soar in wide arks of sound, and the principal violin flirts with the flute, like Casanova seducing a virgin. But the bandoneon hold the stage, with sounds that not simply pluck or breath over the heart, but take it from its place and fill it with emotion and desire.

Outside is sun, hot and humid after a night of torrential downpours. We stroll towards the little patisseria for hot empanadas and apple cake. And then onward into the day with thoughts of tango and an urge to dance.

Milonga La Marshall, Maipu 444 Buenos Aires

"Yes, I've been there once before and it was fun". And so, with the taxi arriving at 11 pm together with my tanguera from El Sol de San Telmo we set off for La Marshall.

Maipu 444 could easily be missed. It is simply just another unprepossessing door into another block, sandwiched by large offices in the centre of downtown Buenos Aires. But there, everyday life ceases, giving way to La Marshall, known in the city as one of the two gay milongas.

My partner for the evening is Martina, a fitness advisor from Hamburg. She is tall, slim,and attractive with red hair and a lively sense of humour. "Let us see how it goes", she says as we ascend the stairs to the reception booth. Twenty pesos per head later and the blue curtain parts to allow entry to the milonga room. It is surrounded by small,circular tables with white cloths, some bearing the sign 'reservado'. Our host escorts us to one in the centre of the room on the edge of the dance floor.

The class is just finishing. There are about 30 dancers there to take the class. Others sit waiting for the milonga to start, as do we. Instruction is given so that everyone learns as both leader and follower. This is later to be seen in the dancing when leaders and followers switch, sometimes after dances or later after tandas. Everyone who attends the class is expected to change dance partners throughout the lesson, so dancers get to dance as both leader and follower with men or women at random.

Martina and I are in a small minority of opposite gender couples arriving to dance. Although here gender is almost an irrelevance when it comes to dancing, yet the gay men prefer to dance together and some of the mixed gender couples stay together for the evening.

Both Martina and I are open to the possibility of dancing with same gender partners. In Buenos Aires there has been a long history of men dancing together, as that is how men learned their tango skills back in the 1920's when the they would attend all-male practicas, initially as followers and later, after a minimum of 6 months, as leaders. Once competent, they would attempt a milonga, where dancing with the few women was a big prize worth practicing and competing for. The girls, I believe, learned technique from other experienced women, and the detail of steps by being led at the milongas, where the young men would invent more and more complex moves to impress....comme c'est la meme chose! Tonight, neither of us are invited by same gender dancers. For me, probably because I am seen as a leader, and even here at La Marshall, the leaders tend to invite. For Martina as a follower, perhaps because tonight there seem to be very few female leaders. Our fate is to dance together, but that is fine. Martina is a very experienced tanguera, having danced for many years and her style is open and dramatic. Our presence is soon felt and we draw a degree of interest from other dancers.Tonight the music at La Marshall is remarkably classic tango, but with the occasional tango nuevo, tango Greco and Esteban Morgado (a favourite introduced to me by Nefra) added.

We dance, promising each other that this will be our last tanda, then another song keeps us to the dance floor. At 2.30 we decide enough is enough. With a change of shoes we descend to Maipu, just to see the number 9 colectivo arrive. My Guia"t" de bolsillo (guide to buses) tells me that this is the bus for Chacabucco, and so, our fares of 2 pesos 20 centivos collected by the auto-ticket machine, we return at break-neck speed to El Sol de San Telmo, to tea, and bed.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Arrived in Buenos Aires

I have arrived in Buenos Aires. There is a last moment on the flight side at Ministro Pistarini. Just ahead is a wall of electronic doors that opens on approach, and stepping through I walk into the full reality of Buenos Aires. After the mist of San Paulo, here is clear, bright sunshine with a slight lifting breeze to cool the hot midday. The arrival hall is full of people, signs, voices, activity. I have arrived from a cold late winter in England to a sparkling summer of tanned Argentines with short sleeved shirts and little dresses. I purchase my 40 pesos ticket for Manuel Tienda Leon, the useful coach service that whisks arrivals from the airport to the city, and onwards by private taxi to the hotels. We slip through the suburbs, after four previous journeys recognisable like old friends. The same old city, the same youthful vitality.

We are pulling up in Chacabuco. 1181 is towards the outer edge of San Telmo. It is a tall, old building that carries the San Telmo character of times past. This was a fashionable barrio, deserted by the middle classes as they moved out to the leafy suburbs of Recoletta and Palermo, when it was left to its freeze-framed fate. No doubt one day it will resume its fashionable status for classy artisans, but now it mainly houses real people who struggle alongside those who service the tango industry of Buenos Aires. And 1181 is part of that: a tango house run by Fabio y Flavia, tango teachers and hoteliers.

The door is opened diffidently by a resident who has heard the bell, and as Fab is away, she does not know whether to admit me. Building security in Buenos Aires is taken seriously due to high levels of crime, and outer doors, like the tall, wrought iron and glass doors of Paris, are kept double locked. We ascend a cream and grey marble staircase to the first floor landing. In houses such as these, the staff lived on the dusty, noisy ground floor level, and so it is here with the reception rooms facing the street from the first floor balcony. El Sol de San Telmo has a warm feeling, tired around the edges with peeling paint and old threadbare furnishings, but enriched with life and the energy of its tango hosts.

When I meet Fab  I see that he is young, attractive and totally at ease in English. He shows me the tango studio, the kitchen and to my room. As so often in these turn-of-the-century houses, the 3 metre high doors to the rooms lead from an open balcony. My room is of stripped pitch pine, with tan stained floors and ancient pale walls. It would be a crime to re-paint this authentic canvass, but the walls bear the passage of time from high fashion to old suit. The bed is large, there is an art deco wardrobe, small desk and two chairs. Broderie Anglaise curtains hang from brass topped rods 2 metres down the door. High on one wall is an oval window to another room which in its time would have given precious borrowed light to another room. I am going to be happy here.

After unpacking my few clothes and possessions I descend to the street to explore the barrio. The first rush is from the level of activity. Its not just the twelve lanes of traffic on the main Avendia 1st Julio which dissects the city south to north, but the streams of colectivos, the city buses that hiss and whoop their horns as they make their way to La Boca. Both by day and night there are some colectivos that stand out from the rest. They are brightly painted, with curtains at the windows and blue lights under the wheel arches.

My first 'appointment' is with Jose Carlos Romero Vedia and his street dancers who nightly take up their pitch at Lavalle junction with Florida. By the time I arrive they are well into their performance as Carlos tours his crowd of 40 onlookers asking them their country of origin. When Carlos who recognises me, asks, I say Mar del Plata (seaside resort to Buenos Aires) to the mirth of the dancers who insist that I am a dancer from England. And then they dance Canyengue. For this Carlos takes his favourite student, a tall dark haired, stunningly beautiful dancer, into a low embrace, his right arm around her back, her right arm across the top of his shoulders. His left hand remains deep in his pocket and hers on his chest as their knees bend to the first chord. This is an old form of tango which pre-dates the milonga and salon tango styles that we associate with the golden age of tango in the 1930's and 40's. The dance comprises syncopated steps with a distinctive low posture. After the first part of the dance, the hold changes to a raised left hand held above the dancers. Tonight a discerning crowd, which has been insisting on milonga hitherto, roar with appreciation. As the Canyengue gives way to El Chocolo, I give way to the dark streets to return along the side of Catedral, into Peru and back deep into San Telmo.

The lights glance along the narrow, warm streets. Shops are closing and shutters are being pulled down and locked. Small groups and families sit late on their little balconies or on the steps to their homes. There is a soft smell of  cooking and a distant sound of tango. A colectivo thunders past, sending bags of rubbish flying. A lone dog barks. And this is San Telmo preparing for night.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Return to Buenos Aires

Three years to the month. And now in the final few days before returning to Buenos Aires.

This time, I will be living in Chacabuco, San Telmo. This is a fascinating, if edgy barrio, known as the heart of tango.

Here is Plaza Dorrego, the main tango square, and Defensa, the busy street market lined with cafes, restaurants and little shops.

And of course Mercado San Telmo full of stalls selling everything from raw meat and vegetables to antiques.

I will be arriving on Tuesday 16 March, and staying almost two months. Initially, I will be staying at El Sol de San Telmo, a tango guest house situated on the edge of the barrio.

So sign up to follow, and you will receive updates on my progress with life in the Capital Federal, with friends, and with tango.