21st Century Tango
Kate Weare and Esteban Moreno Create New Forms for DANCEworks
Originally published 12:00 a.m., August 31, 2017
Updated 8:15 a.m., August 31, 2017
Beyond being a lifelong student and aficionado of all forms of dance, Dianne Vapnek is a great listener. In response to what she heard during many hours of intense conversation with a galaxy of innovative contemporary choreographers, Vapnek founded DANCEworks, the revolutionary annual residency program at the Lobero Theatre that gives select artists and their companies a full month to rehearse in the space and on the stage where they will eventually perform. Now more than a decade into this grand experiment, the logic of DANCEworks’ approach has only become more apparent with each passing year.
Although every season is different, previous successes can lead to bolder, more innovative concepts. This summer, for the first time, two choreographers have come together from different traditions with the intention of making something unprecedented. Kate Weare, leader of New York–based Kate Weare Company, is an award-winning and experienced practitioner of contemporary dance. Esteban Moreno, artistic director of Union Tanguera in Lyon, France, represents both the “tango de salon” tradition of Argentina and the ambitious expansion of tango as dance theater that has swept the world since the great tango revival of the 1980s.
Accompanied by Thryn Saxon and Nicole Diaz, two dancers from Weare’s group, and three performers from Union Tanguera — Daniel Escobar, Nayhara Zeugtrager, and Gabrielle Weisbuch — Moreno and Weare have been hard at work for the last month crafting what is essentially a new form of dance, a hybrid expression that seeks to harness the extended vocabulary of contemporary dance to the heart and soul of the tango. On Friday, September 1, and Saturday, September 2, audiences at the Lobero will witness the world premiere of Sin Salida/In Love I Broke Beyond, their new piece based on this experimental transformation of the tango.
By Paul Wellman
From left, Gabrielle Weisbuch, Nayhara Zeugtrager, Thryn Saxon, Esteban Moreno, Kate Weare, Nicole Diaz, and Daniel Escobar
One of the greatest satisfactions of DANCEworks comes from spending time in the empty theater, observing the dancers and choreographers as they gradually piece together the sections that they will perform on opening night. Weare calls this assembly process “Frankenstein-ing.” She takes bits and pieces of movement and puts them next to each other until creative lightning strikes. When the monster sits up, everyone feels it. The mind’s inner mad scientist responds with a resounding mental cry of “It’s alive!”
That’s happening a lot right now in the Lobero, as these talented dancers are in an unusual and fortunate situation. Ordinarily, there’s a single choreographer who may or may not participate in the dance, and he or she “sets” the work on the dancers. In this case, since Moreno is a fantastic dancer and an authority on the tango, he’s constantly in the mix onstage. Weare, who is also a great performer but is taking an entirely choreographic role in this work, watches, comments, combines, and edits the evolving sections and movements. There have been some spectacular collaborations through DANCEworks in the past, but probably not anything that quite compares to this in terms of sheer combined experience, in and outside of the dance.
By Paul Wellman
Nicole Diaz and Thryn Saxon
In one particularly striking sequence, Moreno and Weisbuch form the core of a six-person cluster that prowls the stage to a complex piano tango by composer Gustavo Beytelmann. Each of the other four dancers observes and echoes the central pair, sometimes miming aspects of their movement at a distance, and at other times cutting across them in contrasting steps of their own. When the four external dancers move closer, a set of choreographed falls begins, with both Moreno and Weisbuch by turns lying out of their mutual dancers’ embrace to drop into the waiting arms of one or more members of the surrounding group. It’s a move borrowed from trust games that the dancers played together at the start of the residency, and as the intensity of the inner tango increases, so does the expressiveness of each new catch and return. It’s as though the intimate exchange of weight within the dancing couple has been amplified by engaging with this roving human container. As the dancers add more complex lifts and pivots to the initial pattern, new relationships emerge and reveal their own emotional content. Watching it unfold, I am reminded of the interpretive principle that says that in a dream, there can be several people, yet they can all be figures for the dreamer.
The dancers punctuate the hard work of these rehearsals with bouts of laughter and conversations that veer from English to French and Spanish and then back to English again. Housed together for the duration of the residency, they are living this cross-cultural experiment literally every minute of the day, and they are all keenly aware of the challenge they face. In just four weeks, they aim to bridge the gap between two radically different traditions, and the complex ensemble section they have just been working on illustrates perfectly the contrasting structures of feeling that inform these separate worlds. In her mission statement for the project, Weare describes the dichotomy as stemming from fundamentally different ways of constructing a self, writing that tango “suggests the extent to which we must rely on others to perceive ourselves and our shifting desires, exploring individual freedom only through continuous connection between partners,” and then going on to remind us that in tango, a “solo” conventionally means a dance involving two people. In modern and contemporary dance, Weare sees the isolated individual dancer as “the locus of meaning and the generator of content.”
A Tango with No Exit
Thinking in these terms about the moves from the trust game that Weare has incorporated into the ensemble section, the falls and catches in and out of the abrazo, or core embrace, take on metaphysical significance. Existential philosophy, and in particular the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, underpins much of what these artists are doing. The Spanish half of the title of the work, “Sin Salida” plays on the multiple meanings of “salida.” On one hand, “Sin Salida” is a literal translation of the title of Sartre’s famous play Huis clos, known in English as No Exit. That’s the one in which Sartre wrote “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” most commonly translated as “Hell is other people.” On the other, a “salida” is a dance move, the side step that allows a new couple to enter the counterclockwise flow of the tango dance floor. An entrance that’s called an exit — how much more existential can you get?
By David Bazemore
Dianne Vapnek, Nayhara Zeugtrager, and Esteban Moreno
I am not exaggerating the intellectual aspect of this project. In fact, at one of the Friday Club rehearsals, the audience observed a tango featuring two women that was performed to a soundtrack of Sartre reading from his own work, unaccompanied by music. Moreno explained that, in addition to adding a layer of meaning to the content of the piece, he chose the spoken-word recording because the rhythms of Sartre’s declamatory style appealed to him. He was hearing French existentialism as though it were music, and responding to it in the form of tango.
The cultural context out of which the modern tango has emerged is deep and complex. In his 2005 book Tango: The Art History of Lovev, Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson traces the Argentine form to the Cuban habanera brought by black sailors to Buenos Aires, and from there all the way to Africa. Thanks in part to its origins among the oppressed, tango has always expressed rebellion and dissent. “Milonga,” the term commonly used for the social dance setting of tango, means “argument,” and the competitive spirit that drives improvisation and innovation stems from this atmosphere in which dancers agree to disagree. The residue of tango’s social origins in the milonga can be felt in its stylized struts and sudden stops, which reflect the creative tension between the partners and among the couples on the floor. In the world according to tango, disparate cultural influences circulate unceasingly across oceans and continents, carried this way and that by the music, only to be revealed through the dancing bodies of living people.
For Weare, the purpose of this current experiment in cross-cultural collaboration is to understand and reimagine the meaning of the abrazo that is the basis of tango. Like Béla Bartók, the favorite European composer of tango genius Astor Piazzolla, Weare is not interested in simply quoting phrases from a folk tradition for the sake of adding exotic flavor to a contemporary work. Instead she seeks to discover fundamental elements — modes, rhythmic patterns, meters, and manners of ornamentation — and then to build them up independently into something new. Like Shannon Gillen, last year’s DANCEworks resident choreographer, Weare is a visionary and a risk-taker, willing to gamble and push the limits of her dancers and of the movement vocabularies they possess. The thick layer of shredded rubber that covered the Lobero stage last season may be gone, but the high-flying spirit of no limits lives on.