Tango has changed since “Tango Argentino” swiveled its hips on Broadway in 1985 and set off a mad craze for Argentina’s national dance. For that matter, the form is not what it was when Luis Bravo picked up Tony noms for his own revue, “Forever Tango,” in 1997. This new edition of Bravo’s original show reflects some of those modernizations by incorporating balletic, acrobatic and otherwise “artistic” variations into a revue that aims to present a mini-history of tango. But it’s the basic, ritual routines danced by a core group of five partner-pairs that still thrill the most.
The woman wears a tight dress with a slit up to there. She has spit curls on her temples and a seductive sneer on her lips, and when she executes a turn, she shows a beautiful bare back that the man can’t keep his hands off.
The man has a cigarette in his mouth and a hat tilted over his eyes. He moves like a cat on the pads of his feet, insinuating one leg between the woman’s and bending his body into hers until hips and lips are locked.
That’s the way they originally did the tango in the dockside bars and whorehouses of Buenos Aires, where ruffians known as portenos asked a lady for a dance by dragging her onto the floor by her hair. The ladies liked it so much, they wrapped themselves around their partners and learned to execute a series of kick-steps for keeping the animals in line.
Now, as then, the tango holds its character as an intensely sensual partner dance, achingly romantic but still something of a contest between the sexes, fueled by underlying currents of desire, jealousy, anger and violence. Bravo pays homage to these origins with the smoldering number “El Suburbio,” which is set in a bordello and features the entire 26-member company in historical character. The mood is tense, the dancing rough and the costumes (by Argemira Affonso) deliciously vulgar.
But even when the dancers regroup and return two by two, in elegant black costume and more sedate form, to illustrate their individual stylistic variations, they remain faithful to the basic idiom. Even the balletic movements of featured dancers Jorge Torres, Marcela Duran and Guillermina Quiroga observe the choreographic protocol.
Bravo’s shrewdest move in mounting this revival, whose six-week engagement highlights the fourth annual New York Summer Tango Festival, was not to mess with the music. The superb 11-piece orchestra led by Victor Lavallen sits onstage in plain view and provides the heartbeat of the show with traditional songs like “Jealousy” and “Kiss of Fire.”
Appropriately composed of strings and more strings, the orchestra also features no fewer than four bandoneons, the accordion-like instrument that carries in its throat the distinctive sound — the very essence — of tango.