Sometime in 1919 the Argentinian authorities passed a law to close down all the brothels. It seems likely that no one noticed. The action passed to the cabarets and cafes, and people kept on dancing the tango. Just as they had done for the previous 40 years, the men went on competing for the women with a dance almost indistinguishable from a street fight. And the struggle didn't stop once they had claimed their prizes; if anything, it intensified.
In Luis Bravo's Forever Tango, an episode called "Buenos Aires 1880" recreates the early, sparring days of the dance. As each man discovers his place in the pecking order and pairs up with one of the watching women, she comes towards him in a slinking, grinding, low-shouldered glide that breathes equal measures of appetite and danger. It's an eloquent message which emphasises he hasn't actually won her yet: he's just won the opportunity to try.
The old cliche - that love equals death equals tango - is refuted by the geometry of these dances. Tango bestrides the vanishingly small gap between two other points: the closeness of the dancers' bodies, and the instant that a stiletto-heeled foot flies backwards before the flailing shoe that appears to savagely kick it away.
The schizophrenia of desire and violence in a tango is most obvious in the "Felicia" danced by Carlos Borquez and Ines. These two also appeared in the hit 1991 review, Tango Argentino, and in the past four years Borquez has refined - if that's the word for it - his grabbing, bully-boy persona. "Felicia" is the rawest tango in the show. Borquez leans drunkenly, possessively towards Ines, grabs her bruisingly by the upper arm and seems to be trying to scythe her legs from under her. Having fought for this woman, he doesn't seem sure whether to take her standing upright, or worry her like a terrier with a rat.
Tango developed a long way from this kind of wrestling. In "Comme il Faut", two of the young dancers, Mina and Roberto Reis, create a lithe, shimmering account of the style that evolved when tango hit Parisian high society in the 1930s. And Borquez and Ines's fellow survivors from Tango Argentina, Mayoral and Elsa Marie, provide an immaculate display of the strictly ballroom style, proving that even a slightly sweaty dignity can be alluring if it's carried off with panache.
If Forever Tango isn't quite as enthralling as the earlier show, it is because the dancers fail to prove that you can stay sexy as you get older. Apart from Mayoral and Elsa Marie, there is really only Robert Tonet, and even he has a young, glamorous partner. One of the joys of Tango Argentino was watching two sexagenarians generating a chemistry that you could taste at the back of the stalls. Between women who look like Louise Brooks and men descended from Valentino, such chemistry is still pretty potent, but infinitely less surprising.
n At the Strand Theatre, London WC2, to 24 September (0171-930 8800)Reuse content