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Home > Blog > February 2015 > Capturing Tango in Amber: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on M¡LONGA
Performing Arts Blog

Capturing Tango in Amber: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on M¡LONGA

February 26, 2015 by New York City Center
Milonga at City Center

Germán Cornejo “Nikito” and Gisela Galeassi in the thrilling m¡longa, photographed by Tristram Kenton.

The art of tango has long been a preoccupation for the celebrated Belgian-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. In the evening-length work m¡longa, Cherkaoui has brought a new danger and fluidity to the traditional Argentinean social dance, with the help of ten virtuoso tango dancers, two contemporary dancers, and a five-piece band. We spoke with Cherkaoui about the language of tango, the difficulties of dance preservation, and why he thinks the body is “a patchwork of memory chips.”

CITY CENTER: Can you tell me a bit about your history with tango?
SIDI LARBI CHERKAOUI: I’ve been attracted to tango for the last 15 years, I think. I had been working mostly as a contemporary dancer [when I began choreographing] back in ’99. For my first piece, I wanted to make a tango in which partners wouldn’t touch. They were only shifting their weight, and everything was done by just shoulders, the hips, and the feet. I wanted to address this tension, this magnetic tension between the two partners, but without sharing the weight. Ultimately, that’s what is so powerful about tango: the shared weight. Two dancers are connecting and becoming one, and there is a transmission of information through touch. That’s really what tango is all about. It’s not just about making the girl do anything you want—it’s this symbiotic relationship in which you are constantly listening to her and proposing what’s fair and right, and she has every time the opportunity to shift it and delay it and refuse it, even.

You developed this piece with professional tango couples. What was that process like?
I tend to work in a really democratic way. I work with people, and they are the ones that make me feel what needs to happen. With m¡longa, I really took time to meet and understand each couple, because each couple really looks at tango very, very differently. You can tell when you see them: some are flamboyant and extroverted, and others are much more grounded and rooted and simple. There’s something very humble to it for them. And then there are the ones who know how to infuse tango with humor. So there was a real sense of exchange. I mean, I fell in love with everyone. And tango dancers stay together sometimes for eight or ten years, you know? It’s phenomenal, really, the degree to which they explore the dance form together.

Dance Rehearsal

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui rehearses with the dancers of m¡longa. Photo by Satoshi Kudo.

You say there was an “exchange.” What kinds of directives and ideas did you give the dancers?
One was to never let their feet leave the floor. I was using their feet as if they were drawing on the floor, and they would have to find intricate technical solutions to do the movement they wanted to do without lifting their feet. That’s a very contemporary way of creating choreography: to create a limit, a framework. Afterwards I would take the framework away, and the frame still inspired the choices. You create things you would never have come up with if that frame wasn’t there. For the last eight years, I’ve been searching for something much kinder and softer in my work: how one thing becomes something else, rather than clarifying what one thing is. What I was trying to do with m¡longa is bring something liquid to tango, which is very sharp and precise and angular.

You’ve referred to tango as a language. How did you learn it?
I went to a lot of milongas when I was in Argentina, and I consulted the tango dancer Nelida Rodriguez de Aure, who is our rehearsal director and kind of like the godmother to all the tango dancers. She’s really been fantastic. She was my guide; she was the one who pointed out certain couples and explained the history behind tango—that it was a form developed by immigrants, what the sources were, and which things came together. Sure, people can kind of take a Polaroid and say, “This is where it’s from.” But tango is a bit like with everything. There’s always the source of the source. Every identity is made up of a lot of other identities.

The show takes a spontaneous social dance and preserves it in a choreographed, repeatable form. Was that your intention?
It was more that I wanted to show the audience how much an embrace matters—but it’s true, of course, what you’re saying. There is something ephemeral about dance; even last night’s show is just gone, and today there’s nothing but the memory of it. Traditional dance forms like tango only survive by physical transmission, by people continuing to do it. There’s this idea of transmitting the energy of what was there yesterday, and keeping the flame burning. Still, every time you pick it up, it’s kind of different, like a kaleidoscope.

Milonga Dancers

The dancers of m¡longa, photographed by Tristram Kenton.

As the original dancers leave the work, how will the show change?
I think it will always keep the trademark of the ones that were part of the creation. There have already been shifts in the cast, but the show always keeps the spirit of the original person, and is enhanced by the new person. It’s always like that: a new creation always has something very fragile to it, but eventually it grows stronger and stronger. Through the years, it just becomes much more stable, and things get to the point quicker, and people start to collectively understand what it’s supposed to be. The weaknesses in every creation get tighter and fewer. I’ve seen this with m¡longa.

That’s fascinating—you’d think that entropy would set in.
Yeah, I see what you mean. Like everything, it can go both ways. But they’re working with live music, and you can’t really become complacent when there’s live music, because you constantly have to be attentive to the choices that are made by the pianist and the violinist. And there are some moves in m¡longa that if the partner isn’t focused, the woman could fall on her face. It’s very dangerous, very virtuosic.

When a new dancer comes into m¡longa, how is the choreography passed on?
It’s always body to body. If a female dancer is learning the part, she works with the partner and he guides her and says, “Well, here this happens and here that happens.” The memory’s in the body, more than outside it.

Villarroel and Cisneros

Valentina Villarroel and Cristian Cisneros in m¡longa, photographed by Tristram Kenton.

It’s pretty amazing, the rapturous recall that some dancers have of choreography even if they last performed it twenty or thirty years ago.
I think the body is like a patchwork of memory chips. And it remembers more than the head. Sometimes when you think, “Okay, I’m going to try to remember these steps,” they just don’t come—but then when you’re touching somebody or you’re hearing the music, the body suddenly does it. Because you’ve been conditioned to do it so many times, eventually it just sticks. It’s almost hard to get it out, sometimes.

Is that true of your work—that it’s preserved in your head, rather than in more permanent forms?
Yeah, I never write them down. That’s the one talent that I do have. I have a very good memory.

Do you worry about what will happen to your dances after you die?
Sometimes. But there are other moments where I feel like dance’s legacy is really that it doesn’t stop moving. When I started as a choreographer, there were moments when I’d come up with a movement I thought I’d invented, and later I’d come to understand that it already existed in yoga, or some other tradition that was thousands of years old. I felt a little bit like, “Oh, damn, everything’s already done.” But at the same time, I also felt like, “And if it wasn’t, we would reinvent it. We would come up with it.” That actually kept me going as a choreographer—the idea that, yeah, it could be something that I picked up from Pina Bausch, but it could also be something that I’m bringing back to life because it was lost. So I managed to not feel trapped by the previous generations. I actually felt freed by them.

m¡longa will run for four performances from February 26–March 1, as part of New York City Center’s Latin dance festival A Bailar.

Matt Weinstock writes for the publications at New York City Center.