Film: Let's get ready to tango

In his latest film, director Carlos Saura continues his infatuation with Latin dance. This time, though, it's tango instead of flamenco. By Nadine Meisner
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NEVER, O Film Director, work with children or animals. Work with tango instead. In the 100 years or so of its existence, tango has enjoyed several peaks of popularity, and another is upon us. It is not just the Argentines who are mad about their national dance, but the rest of the world, especially the Japanese.

There have been good and bad films about tango. But here comes a real pro, the Spanish director Carlos Saura, whose 30 or so films include a remarkable clutch showcasing Spanish dance. The best known are Blood Wedding (1981), his first, and Carmen (1983), made with the flamenco superstar Antonio Gades. They manage to combine commercial appeal with an art-house aesthetic, exploring cinematic form yet still keeping the focus on the dancing.

It helps that he has a long-standing affinity for dance, starting when he was an 18-year-old photographer specialising in music and dance festivals. It also helps that he is especially interested in communicating the preparations and processes of dance, so that we can almost sense in our own bodies the sensuousness and muscular effort.

"There is something mysterious and special about rehearsals, classes and auditions," he says, "performance tends to be antiseptic."

Tango, nominated for the last Academy and Golden Globe awards, is a fictional documentary, a film about the process of making a film about tango. The protagonist is a middle-aged director, Mario Surez (Miguel Angel Sol), whose own film and experiences become Saura's film.

You watch him auditioning dancers, discussing ideas with the film crew, choreographers and musicians, and enter his mind as he imagines scenes. Through this you learn about tango's skill and addictive power. I will never forget a particular tango, shot in a milonga (dance hall): the couple start slowly, caressing the music; then, as the pace quickens, the camera concentrates on the split-second, millimetre precision of feet jabbing like embroidery needles in and out of each other's gaps.

Tango is a sum of the cultural strands contributed by the immigrant mix of Buenos Aires. That's why Saura likes it: "Tango is a cocktail of many different kinds of dance and the result is something new. Much popular music and dance exists without developing, but flamenco, tango and jazz are constantly changing. New things come into them, so they are alive, a link between the past, the present and the future."

Saura's film shows tango's past, through old film clips of singers such as Carlos Gardel, and its future, not only in the scenes of children learning to dance, but in the choreography. "The choreographers and I tried to show the multiple possibilities of tango. It's usually a pair dance, but we tried to use the rhythm to tell stories." Pair dancing extends into trios and ensembles; sequences are used to symbolise dramatic situations; and ballet dancer Julio Bocca (much admired in America) introduces streamlined classical contours.

Like the film's protagonist, Saura himself chose the dancers and choreographers and wrote the script. I didn't like to press Saura on whether, like Mario, he fell in love with his young leading lady (Mia Maestro), but many of Mario's concerns, he agreed, his own. One of the most heartfelt aspects is Mario's determination to pursue his artistic vision and not yield to pressure from backers. He presents a brutally graphic dance depiction of South American political oppression. After the viewing, the backers declare their opposition: "the generals won't like it".

As the backers point out, dance films are not normally conceived as grisly agitprop. So why did Saura include the sequence? "It's not just a whim. It shows why Mario is the way he is. And I had a lot of friends in Spain who were Argentines and Chileans in exile. For anybody in Argentina or Chile over 40, it is a part of their life; and, as we can now see, it still isn't resolved. So I couldn't ignore it."

Fact follows fiction. "There have been attempts to have that scene removed," says Saura. "There have even been death threats." This is not new to him. Under Franco, his films were censored. But he is too much of an enthusiast to let that dampen his appetite for work.

Saura is a cuddly, simpatico 67-year-old who slots into my idea of Mediterranean warmth. He is brimming with ideas. A film about Brazilian dance, perhaps? Or there again, what about Cuban music? He has a lot of musician friends in Cuba...

`Tango' opens on 9 July at the Curzon Mayfair and at selected cinemas nationwide