Art from the Bordello

It's hard to believe that the tango, a dance of grace, charm, and glamour, was born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires. The dance was originally a sensuous expression of the relationship between pimp and prostitute, in which sexuality was both celebrated and suppressed. Legs intertwine, hands caress, and eyes lock in a choreographed battle of aggression, lust, control, submission, and dominance. Until it migrated to Europe in the early 20th Century, the tango was dismissed as an obscene lower-class spectacle. But Parisian high society devoured the tango's daring, lusty flavor, giving it a more refined and romantic niche in which to flourish. There was even a rebound effect back in Argentina, where, with the support of Juan and Evita Peron, the dance was taken up by Buenos Aires' high society. Soon, tango composers and performers were being applauded on the art circuit.

Not surprisingly, tango's seductive renaissance finally reached the Broadway stage. Luis Bravo, creator and director of Forever Tango, came up with the idea in the early 1990s. The all-Argentine cast consists of seven couples, an 11-piece orchestra led by Lisandro Adrover, a bandoneon (Argentine accordion) player, and vocalist Carlos Morel. Bravo, who used to tour as a guitarist and cellist, choreographs many of the dances and writes much of the music. "I grew up in a small town in Argentina, surrounded by artists," Bravo says. "Tango was more than just a dance; it was a culture, a way of life." Forever Tango combines the charm and elegance of the ballroom with the seedy debauchery of old-world Argentina. Flashy costumes, stiletto heels, sharp movements, smoldering looks, and a staccato tempo produce a tense balance between masculine and feminine. The production has bewitched more than 50 cities throughout the United States and recently returned from a tour of China, Korea, and Japan. "It's amazing to see the universal reaction," Bravo remarks. "Everywhere we go, people respond to the passion, the sadness, the hope, and the story we tell."

The show, which ran for 92 weeks at San Francisco's Theatre on the Square, runs the gamut of emotions. It chronicles the rise of the tango out of the oppressive and violent slums and into the red-hot spotlight. Each couple puts a unique twist on the dance, from comical struggles to mesmerizing embraces. The sexually charged nature of the tango is apparent, but Bravo insists it is not the focus. "The tango is a feeling that you dance, a story that is told in three minutes," he says. "It's not about sex; it's more about nostalgia. You can dance it with someone and dance it by yourself." As for the element of submission, any woman who can dance backward in five-inch heels while wrapping a leg around her partner's head or coiling around his body like a serpent is hardly in a mood for submission. The battle of the sexes never looked so captivating.

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Audra Schroeder
Contact: Audra Schroeder