What do we know about Argentine dance? passion, sexuality, an air of theatricality- the tango! well, I would love to say that I’m here to debunk these shabby myths, but actually the contemporary work I have seen here is ALL of those things EXCEPT the tango part. Maybe the contemporary artists are trying to get out from under the shadow of tango or maybe it is so intrinsically in their skin that they don’t need to overtly “quote” it, but I would have to say it is nowhere in sight on the alternative stages I have visited so far.
What I have encountered instead is a kind of theater of the absurd- ontological, intuitive, profoundly interdisciplinary, hugely theatrical and always sexy. Of course, this kind of unscientific survey is very much the luck of the draw, but for my purposes I have been really lucky. One piece I discovered through word of mouth was called “el lobo”. Have you ever seen a naked man dancing with a bidet on his head? Well, I have. This auteur, Pablo Rotemberg, set his dance/play in the bathroom and then proceeded to pound and scratch and ultimately rub with excrement all of the fixtures in the room. It sounds a little sensationalist, I know, and I am not sure I can defend that aspect of it, but it accumulated into such a painful depiction of a lost soul, a nervous, obsessive, and bone chillingly lonely guy trying to get through the night. The only reference to the wolf (lobo) was a frightening moment where he strode around on all fours his naked body glistening and smeared with the dirt of the experience, rubbing up against the furniture, a restless and dangerous result of his own bad behavior- a flawed but really interesting piece of work.
I also happened onto a small series being presented at the University of Buenos Aires/ Rojas Cultural Center called “Queer Dance”- that’s right, I had to come all the way to Buenos Aires to see queer dance. And I was delighted by what I found, one piece was a very erotically charged duet between a muscular opera singer and a wiry spark plug of a dancer (”grandes amigos”)
another was a rather narcissistic study of a woman alone- only this woman was constantly being filmed by another woman and the very grainy MTVish footage was being displayed for the audience by a live feed.
The third piece and, by far my favorite, was a truly remarkable piece of dance theater called “Monte Carlo” (choreography and direction by Carlos Casella, text by Jean Cocteau)
– imagine a cross between Twin Peaks and the Angels of Light (only the truly dedicated students of San Francisco theater history will get that reference) Anyway, in this piece we had an elegant, if aging, raconteur who kept intoning (in Spanish ) about the poetic raptures of Monte Carlo and how he longed to be there again. Meanwhile his attendant, a lovely young man with a carrot top hairdo misunderstands constantly and replies in a flat midwestern American dialect with banalities like ” just get up and get dressed, it’s getting late.” Admittedly, a lot happens in this piece, a woman dressed in a thong is lifted and flown around the room while she plays the castanets, the bedraggled raconteur does a bit of the ballet Swan Lake, a Xmas tree gets decorated with flowers while a powerhouse singer in a nurse’s outfit sings the song from Titanic (”near, far, wherever you are”). Sentimentality and cliche get celebrated and deconstructed in the same stroke. We enter a world of wanton emotionality that has no object, no place to be received. Pretty great stuff and the audience gets swept up in it, they don’t pause to think about whether it’s dance or theater, they just dive in and swim along with it.
What does this say about the “dance scene” down here in Argentina? I can only relate what my hunch was while watching these works. There is a joyful freedom here, maybe a response to many years of very repressive governmental regimes. There is a boldness, a desire to “feel” in public and be felt. There is a gleeful disregard for the boundaries between dance and theater. Of course, to be fair, a great deal of credit needs to go to the curator of this program, Alejandro Cervera. He has somehow succeeded in giving these artists the freedom to explore and to get messy with their work. (He, as the director of the dance division of Rojas, commissioned all three works). But more about Cervera later, he interests me a lot because he is a working artist who is serving in this role of curator- I plan to interview him for the blog before I leave South America. What I have found here is something quite special. Given that most of these artists have not performed outside of the country the work seems remarkably sophisticated. There is a tipping of the hat to some of the boldest artists on the European scene, most notably Pina Bausch. I discovered in a conversation with Cervera that Bausch has performed here in B.A. many times and the audiences simply devour her. So is it something in the national character perhaps- a boldness, a frankness around sexuality, a smouldering intensity? To answer this question I would need to extend my stay for quite a while longer- hmmmmmm.