Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Dancers, musicians, singers, avant garde engineers and even a perfumier team up for this allegorical physical theatre piece from St Petersburg. Upping the surreal in Astor Piazzolla’s celebrated tango operetta, it is often incomprehensible but always vivid and vibrant and fringed by reminders of the Buenos Aires underworld.
It’s a common cliché in publicity for all those ‘populist’ modern packagings of tango to hear the dance described as ‘sizzling’. In its opening moments this version of Astor Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer’s celebrated tango operetta literally sizzles, as a shawled figure slides a hand suggestively between her legs, draws a slab of meat from under her skirt, and slaps it squarely into a hot frying pan. You can hear it and smell it; never mind if you can’t quite interpret it.
At the heart of this macabre, madcap and almost glutinously inventive riot of the passions is a pretty simple allegorical premise. Maria, a woman seduced into prostitution who continues to walk the city as a shadow after her death, becomes totemic of the spirit of Argentine tango, a dance form that originated in the brothels and back houses of Buenos Aires and which has experienced many rebirths.
For this physical theatre collaboration, St Petersburg’s Teatro Di Capua and absurdist group AKHE have in place three essentials to a successful staging: a fantastic quartet on bandoneon (Argentinian accordion), violin, double bass and piano whose ; a big-lunged Maria (Gabriela Bergallo); and a pair of tango dancers from whom you can’t take your eyes as knee hooks expertly into knee and leg licks seductively along leg. Their appearances throughout the story, here in coat tails, there in ballet shoes and finally with a modern T-shirt reading ‘Yo-heart-Maria’, effectively trace the dance’s passage through to a new generation.
But they don’t believe in less is more. Hell, the cast list even includes a perfume maker, whose scents (mint? sharp citrus? something like scorched earth?) are wafted our way by a man with a big silver wind tunnel and an even bigger beard. As they move through the 17 surreal tableaux around which Piazzola’s work is built, strong images such as the spirit of tango busting from his grave are quickly overtaken by a carnival of what AKHE proudly term ‘tricky engineering’.
Although the programme warns that we should not ‘expect to understand the text or follow a linear story’, it does provide a brief, enjoyably matter-of-fact written synopsis for each section. ‘The sparrow sings it from the roof’ – that must be the guy up the ladder clacking two slithers of wood together like a beak; ‘Seduced by the bandoneon…’ – so that’s why the younger woman is being swallowed up by what looks like a giant vacuum cleaner bag; ‘The Spirit tells of Maria’s funeral in coffee dregs’ – aha, that’ll be the bit with all the coffee granules. Oh, and the naked man on stilts with only a bundle of fairylights covering his bits.
It’s all very enjoyable, and at no odds at all with a ‘neuvo tango’ score that incorporates jazz and cabaret elements. Meanwhile the world-weary melancholy of the musicians, who sit like crumpled clowns with an eye or nose picked out in white face and at one point play with a knife to the throat, contrasts comically with the manic energy of the cast. But tango fans should be warned that this is as much a history of avant garde theatre as a history of the dance.
As Maria was reborn into a giant balloon that swelled and swelled to nearly the depth of the stage, we couldn’t help feeling things were getting a little bloated. The chaotic curtain call (not helped by the fact the large cast couldn’t see each other on either side of said giant balloon) suggests sheer excitability may be the root cause, and you can’t begrudge them that.