Image: Dave Morgan

Gentle pressure is administered, an opportunity is sought, identified and taken in a fraction of a second. Our eyes transfixed on thighs, knees, shins and pointed feet, legs which make elegant knots like a mariner, deft and precise, only to be unravelled and executed repeatedly in unfathomable combinations. Seemingly slow gliding, hips high and independent, torsos sit aloft in passionate embrace as stilettos slide like quicksilver across the surface, scraping a slow tassel, punctuated by a twist, the shortest shift in weight and/or direction before lower legs lick the floor and suggestively flick, wrap, tangled and taut, finally suspended and released.

The Argentinian tango is famous. Its reputation as one of the most intimate and sensual dances is justifiable. Undeniable.

Milongas originated in Buenos Aires. During a milonga, three to five songs are played in a row followed by a short musical break to give dancers a chance to find new partners. Dancers who attend milongas are called milongueros or milongueras.

The term milonga also refers to a distinct style of tango. Milonga is a faster-paced and less complex form of tango. Milonga can also refer to a musical genre. –

The production Milonga is directed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and showcases four of Argentina’s most renowned tango couples with one male and one female contemporary dancer added to the mix.

Nothing about this production was simple or less complex, as the description states. The technical skill exhibited was phenomenal.

From couples dancers formed groups, swapped partners, danced as one organism, formations in circles, their bodies replicated as projected selves, sometimes static, on cut-out bodies precisely placed projected stills as onlookers and in pre-recorded unison, looming larger than life behind them on black panels that served as a wall and as columns, doubling the depth, to let people in or out of the dance hall that was the stage.

The video component was intrinsic to setting the scene, placing us in the middle of the city, showing us the birthplace of the tango and taking us into the overcrowded halls where it all happens. This was augmented by an arrangement of chairs that doubled the capacity and halved the space available to dance. The dancers negotiated the chairs as they would people, sometimes sitting, waiting for the next dance.

Two chairs placed on either side of the stage become coat racks, starters blocks, mark territory for adversaries, a nagging couple, who bark verbal insults and venture into each others paths to continue their combat in an impassioned physical stoush.

A contemporary solo transitioning into the floor, a body slowly rolling, twisting and contorting limbs dancing a tango by themselves, morphing into a duet, performed amongst the chairs, signalling the end of the evening, the last call, the long wait and finally the moment for the wallflower, the outcast, to take her chance.

The performance featured many more vignettes; from the funeral gathering of slow dancing mourners, expressing condolences and giving comfort, to the passers by hurrying through the city and the quick pick-up of the hapless romantic, which featured a flirty skipping sequence, fast, light and full of great characterisation, a reprieve from the overarching mood and aesthetic.

The hands down highlight featured a trio of men. They carved the space with virtuosic twisting leaps, punctuated by stomps, calls and claps, while never venturing far from one another. They moved back and forth across the stage in a display of mesmerising masculinity, each taking turns to commandeer the sequence. The same movement patterns performed just moments before by the men and women together, emphasising traditional heterosexual gender politics, was superceded by raw strength and made truly transcendent.

Sidi Larbi’s signature is his ability to work across cultures and genres. Milonga  continues this exploration, infusing contemporary interludes which served to emphasise the unique qualities of the tango. At one point  a transposing of limbs, arms intertwining as legs in an upper body sequence resembling martial arts push hands, as weight, force and energy was shared and transferred.

While mingling in the foyer afterwards, sipping sparkling water, I couldn’t help but reflect on the first time I saw an Argentinian Tango performed live. It was in the Australian Choreographic Centre’s Black Box Theatre. I had an idea to use the tango as one of the genres to showcase 30 indigenous movement icons in a piece called Black Fella Bingo, where numbers were called randomly and dancers performed the icons in couples around the stage until someone called and was handed a prize.  Gary Barnes, the organisation’s general manager, with his dancing and life partner, had generously demonstrated for us. What we experienced was implicit trust, skill and almost uncomfortable intimacy. We were voyeurs to magic, to the precarious vulnerability Gary’s partner had placed herself in, with eyes closed and bodies pressed close, she was guided, while we in close proximity felt every nuance, every subtle shift with her/them.

Milonga did dazzle, but I agree with my escort of the night, we would’ve benefited with a sample of the tango as part of the after party events, to serve as a vital extension of the experience and fully appreciate, what could be mistaken for from afar, as mere spectacle.

The Sydney Opera House’s Dame Joan Sutherland Theatre drew the right amount of enthusiasm for such an event, but oh, to be sitting in one of the chairs on stage.

– by Vicki Van Hout