DANCE / Steps without the soul: Judith Mackrell reviews Tango Para Dos at Sadler's Wells

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Tango Argentina played in London two summers ago, it claimed to be at the vanguard of a global tango revival. Tango's heartsick music, we were told, was speaking to alienated city souls everywhere, while its erotic embrace was bringing sex and sensuality back to the dance floor.

It's true that British dance schools have seen a spluttering of interest in tango steps and Sadler's Wells certainly looked full for the opening of the latest tango spin off, Tango Para Dos. Created by dancers from the original Tango Argentina production, the show promises to deliver a similar dose of 'sultry, sensuous passion'. Unfortunately most of the steam on Tuesday night was provided by the dry ice which gusted atmospherically across the stage. The dancing itself was technically faultless but it didn't deliver either the poetry or the dirt.

This was partly the fault of the young, lithe and lovely dancers, who looked as if they'd learnt to tango at a conservatoire rather than in the back streets of Buenos Aires. This did mean, though, that the steps were executed with startling clarity - particularly the tango's combative legwork, which is as deft and lethal as a flick-knife. As the couples glided and twisted across the floor they seemed to engage in a rhythmic battle of steel. The men's legs flashed between the women's thighs, the women's legs, in turn, hooked themselves predatorily around the men's knees. Feet criss- crossed with dangerous speed, torsos breathed close in temporary abandon, then withdrew in a taunting challenge.

There were examples, too, of later tango where the leg work was slower and more insinuating, where bodies glued together as the couples swooped and swayed. But what makes the tango so sexy is not just its grippingly physical partnerwork, it is the people who dance it. And while the performers in Tango Argentina - some middle-aged, some of them plump - looked as if they had really loved, lost and been betrayed, the dancers in Tango Para Dos looked like dancers.

Without this natural dramatic input, the show had to rely too heavily on a repertoire of stagey gestures, mannerisms and types, as it ran through a semi-narrative history of the dance. A scene in a turn-of-the- century brothel showed men dancing the tango in its most nakedly antagonistic form. So intent were the performers, though, on signalling crude machismo - chins jutted, shoulders squared - that they didn't let the movement speak for itself. And worse, it was women dressed in trousers partnering the real men, so all the potential for showing tango at its most muscular and hard was lost.

Staged scenes of tarts brawling with their pimps were sanitised into bottom-pinching comedy; typical, too, was the arch boy-meets-girl tango, the romantic, tidied-up tango for love's ideal dream. The more the show strained after narrative variety, the more it lost touch with the original dance impulse and the thinner the actual dance content seemed.

Most successful were two short stints of stridently virtuoso dancing that didn't have any attached story- line, and some funny little slots where the show played tribute to Carlos Gardel, a Twenties tango-singer who made it big in Hollywood, re-creating hammy scenes from his films, in which the dancers mimed to a crackling sound-track. These made a surprisingly touching contrast to the slick Broadway delivery of the rest of the show. Tango Para Dos is perfect for lovers of tango music (expertly played, if over-amplified) and for anyone looking to pick up some technical tips. It's not for lonely souls wanting a vicarious wallow in nostalgia, seediness and sex.

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