Cheek to cheek and hip to hip, Milonga works its magic on an ever changing dance floor

In Milonga, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has reprised, but bettered, the concept of Sutra, his 2008 production, in which a contemporary dancer – an outsider – mingles with an altogether different tribe.

In Sutra, Sidi Larbi danced the role of the outsider himself, with his lanky, bendy body in dramatic contrast to the much more specific moves of kung-fu monks from the Buddhist Shaolin temple.

Milonga’s tribe of 10 professional tango dancers from Argentina initially ignore the outsiders, a couple of contemporary dancers, who attempt to enter the territory of the others. By the end of Milonga, the opposing dancers accept one another, reaching a resolution. The message – each dance style has its own integrity and each can comfortably emulate the other.

Sidi Larbi does not dance in Milonga, but one of the two contemporary dancers, Damien Fournier, seems like his alter ego. He resembles Sidi Larbi, with whom he has worked extensively and shares the same looseness, flexibility and meditative presence.

Milonga’s strength stems from Sidi Larbi’s confidence to leave well enough alone. He doesn’t distort the tango or dress it with showbiz glitz and he never falls into the clichéd world of the theatrical tango world that we know all too well with its nightclub settings, unsubtle sexuality and compulsory musical interlude.

The cheek to cheek embrace of the tango is his central theme yet the embrace means much more than the way a man and woman hold one another. Milonga’s first duet is danced back to back, reversing the implication of closeness. As well, Sidi Larbi’s interpretation of the embrace shares something of Pina Bausch’s male-female advance and retreat relationships and their mixture of sensuality and insecurity.

As in Bausch’s Kontakthof, Sidi Larbi’s partners are observed by the others. Sometimes the watchers sit on chairs upstage. Often the watchers are represented by cardboard cut out figures that switch into realistic life when they are lit with projected images of dancers. The designer, Eugenio Szwarcer, and lighting designer, Adam Carree, play a major role in the concept and mood of the production.

Milonga’s is danced within a shadowland of black, with Tim van Steenbergen’s monochrome costumes, punctuated by dresses of red and silvery-gold illuminating the dance floor that is transformed by lighting into a maze of spirals, or tiles or spots. Milonga’s many video projections work best when they mirror the dance steps and gestures of the real dancers on stage and are least effective when they depict fast moving, vertigo-inducing images of Buenos Aires that are repetitive and often detract from the dancing.

Each of the five tango couples has their moment in the spotlight, with one playful couple captured by a follow spot before a projected red curtain, reminiscent of the ‘make ‘em laugh’ downstage numbers of the vaudeville days.

Interspersing the duets and ensembles with their twisty leg play-as-foreplay, hips sits, and a fabulous overhead spin, Sidi Larbi introduces fascinating trios, one for three men that was so muscular, fast and exhilarating that the entire theatre seemed to crackle with energy and joy.

Less successful was the solo for the contemporary dancer, Silvina Cortes, in which she represented at length her anguish at not being accepted into the clan of the elite ensemble of tango dancers. But when Fournier joined her, the overriding concept of Milonga became clear. In their languid duet, his compassion and his calm confidence indicated the way that dance styles can live side by side in harmony.

Five excellent musicians sat to one side of the stage, only descending to the front only to take their bows.

Milonga is not just a word but also a logo for the show, with the word written as M¡longa, with an upside down exclamation mark, in the Spanish style, so that Sidi Larbi seems to be saying that his interpretation of tango not only turns the dance upside down but aims to surprise and awaken.

Usually, fiddly typography is annoying, but this time, for me, it works¡

Milonga premiered more than a year ago and unless you’re going to be in France next month, there’s no further chance to see it live in the near future. Let’s hope it’s eventually released on DVD.

If there are any errors in the identities of the dancers in the images, please let me know.

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Gisela Galeassi and German Cornejo, Milonga, photo © by Diego Franssens

Damien Fournier and Silvina Cortes, Milonga, photo © by Diego Franssens

Silvina Cortes, Maricel Giacomini, Bruno Gibertoni, Milonga, photo © Diego Franssens