Monday, 25 March 2013

2nd Oxford International Tango Festival

Whilst heavy snow seals off Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Lancashire, Cumbria, West Yorkshire and the Pennines, we set off from Darlington for Oxford – successfully skirting the snow falls of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Our destination is Miriam y Dante’s 2nd Oxford International Tango Festival, held this year as usual at Lady Margaret Hall just off Oxford city centre.

Calling via our guest house, Sandfield we head for The Simpkins Lee Theatre where Leandro Diaz (guitarra) and Mauro Mauceri (bandoneon) - Cosae Mandinga are to open the show. In truth, Cosae Mandinga are more than a band – they are the scent of autumn Jacaranda and  ripples of spring rain drops on a San Telmo roof.

Miriam y Dante have given me a task – to introduce the performers during this evening’s show. We arrive in the nick of time, catching Dante peering out over the snow covered lawns. “You’re late”, he admonishes, and leads me to the performers’ room. Here are tango dresses, bandoneons, shoes, maté and that delicious Argentine chaos. Yanina lifts a leg in greeting, and I turn to my task of learning names and the order of performance. Tonight Miriam Orcutt and Dante Culcuy will start the show, followed by Marcelo Ramer and Selva Mastroti, and finally Neri Piliu and Yanina Quiones.

The Simkins Lee Theatre was intended for lectures, but tonight it is the dramatic setting for Oxford’s top tango show. Seating 160 guests, the raked theatre is still sufficiently intimate to provide the closest connection between audience and performers. In centre stage are two seats and one microphone – all that is needed by Cosea Mandinga. I momentarily have the other microphone before the lights dim and the performance awakes with Leandro y Mauro’s ‘Milonga triste’.

This is the real start to ‘Oxford Aires’, the new, unofficial name for the festival – we feel the pulse of the Capital Federal – and the breath of a breeze from La Boca to Palermo. The dance performances have the skill of glittering professional dancers, whilst capturing the connection of friends – ours and theirs. The mid-show performance vignette from the students of Amarita Vargas adds an Andalucian colour and change of rhythm, and then back to Argentine tango at its darkest, and most vibrant.

Clutching our copies of Polenta by Cosea Mandinga, we leave for the Deneke Hall, but 40 metres away across the square. Here DJ Punto y Branca is already in full flow, with his seamless mix of tango, milonga y vals. We dance until 1.00 am, drag ourselves to a waiting taxi and return to a soft bed.

Saturday is the real day of action for the 2nd Oxford Tango Festival, with an early morning master class led by Yanina y Neri at 10.30 am, followed by beginner tango with Miriam y Dante. This year even Miriam’s brother-in-law has been tempted to tango and starts what will almost certainly be another fascinating tango journey. Marcelo y Selva deliver an intermediate workshop before we retire again to the Deneke Hall for our ‘Just Like the Old Times’ guided practica. For those not familiar with the concept, this is one of the most energising events – tango learned on the floor of the milonga, with ideas from each of the professionals, taking dance to greater heights – but without the anxiety of formal tuition. We took from it what we could, at the level we could access, and honed our skills across the floor.

Four more classes followed for leaders, followers, intermediate and improvers.

And then the Saturday Grand Ball.
The Deneke Hall provides something special for a Grand Ball – polished parquet flooring, oak panels and grand masters looking down on the dancers. Here is DJ Punto y Branca, followed by live tango from Cosae Mandinga; there the tangueras looking stunning in tango dresses and Comme il Fauts; with black suited tangueros and fancy footwork.

But the Oxford Tango Festival Grand Ball is not just about superb tango. It is about friendship, conversation – both danced and spoken – and about fun. Tonight, with tables removed, there is no place for cliques, but an open tango salon where tangueros from across Europe meet to dance and to exchange experience. This is one of the most inclusive places to ‘feel’ Argentine tango, and is the true realisation of 'Oxford Aires'.

After midnight, the tango performances. Miriam y Dante start the night with a tango and vals – Miriam’s expressive, flawless, ethereal delicacy  - Dante’s mastery character and humour. It has to end, but we do not want it to go. Our consolation is a following performance by Marcelo y Selva. They take tango from the air, and place it on the floor in a supremely exciting and totally connected performance of tango and milonga. The contrast adds joy to both. Finally, we turn to Neri y Yanina who dance tango with an expression that is, like a high altitude Malbec, infusing. But it is their final milonga that lights the night. This was one of those rare occasions that we experience perhaps once in a lifetime - where the performance transcends anything we have encountered before, and with the lift and excitement of the audience, moves far beyond that which was rehearsed. Here is a memory in the making – to which we can look back and say... “I was there”.

After another busy day of classes and guided practica on Sunday, tangueros gradually slip away to their distant homes, in France, Italy, Spain, USA and here in the UK. For us, a journey of 230 miles back to County Durham – from fantasy to normality, but taking with us the warm glow of friendship, companionship, and some fabulous dances.

Did you miss it? Well, if you are particularly good and book early, there is always next year!