Tango Por Dos, Peacock Theatre, London

Taking your kit off before you tango? It's like reading the last chapter first
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The Independent Culture

However little people think they know about dance, they know it takes two to tango - two, and only two, a fact that Miguel Angel Zotto, world ambassador for Argentina's national social dance, has worked long and hard to turn to his advantage. Tango Por Dos, the company he set up with his one-time partner, Milena Plebs, some 16 years ago, didn't get big by acting small. It has taken bags of commercial nous, as well as theatrical imagination, to turn what is essentially an intimate couple dance into a large-scale variety phenomenon.

However little people think they know about dance, they know it takes two to tango - two, and only two, a fact that Miguel Angel Zotto, world ambassador for Argentina's national social dance, has worked long and hard to turn to his advantage. Tango Por Dos, the company he set up with his one-time partner, Milena Plebs, some 16 years ago, didn't get big by acting small. It has taken bags of commercial nous, as well as theatrical imagination, to turn what is essentially an intimate couple dance into a large-scale variety phenomenon.

In Una Noche de Tango (1999), and even more in Perfumes de Tango (1994), Zotto proved it could be done, stitching the predatory clinches and virtuosic tics of the dance form into stylish, half-naturalistic scenes depicting Buenos Aires's social history. Over the past 100 years everyone has danced the tango, from the dockers and prostitutes of the barrios to downtown businessmen and glossy socialites, and Zotto's trick was to harness an essentially limited form to this almost limitless human variousness. His shows were anthropology dressed up in seamed stockings and sharp suits.

His latest show, Tango una Leyenda ("Tango: the Legend"), follows roughly the same format, but the effort of ringing the changes is beginning to show. While the steps themselves still offer a certain amount of drama - slicing up the four-square rhythms like automated flick knives, or pawing the floor with a fevered lover's touch - the mini-narratives around them seem contrived and threadbare, the human lives within them stereotypes.

Which isn't to say the show lacks incident. There's almost too much here to take in. Early sequences dip into tango's sordid past, with a steamy cameo involving a prostitute, her pimp and a gaucho, whom she stabs to death after a spot of prowling and scowling in a hut. Next, immigrant girls are seen arriving at the dockside, only to be stripped to their undies and set tango-ing in a brothel. The salaciousness of this scene seemed to me particularly misguided. In a dance that's all about seduction you don't go stripping all your clothes off in the first five minutes. It's like reading the last page of the story first. Projected photographs of docks and slums make handsome backdrops, but an attempt to insert a spot of political history falls on its face. No doubt Argentinian audiences pick up all the references, but the spectacle of protesting workers collapsing under the weight of a large flag while a jack-booted officer struts Latin rhythms on a plinth is offered with so little explanation that British audiences are lost. It could be Les Misérables or the miners' strike for all the clues we're given.

While the show's second half offers more strenuous bouts of dancing (which is good), disconcertingly it seems to switch to a different script. Instead of working through a chronology of tango styles, it plunges into surreal fantasy. A bored office clerk passing a department store imagines romantic encounters with the mannequins in the window. There are mystifying scenes (do I detect the influence of Cirque du Soleil?) involving a winged angel, a clown, and a caped, masked man.

Nonetheless the dancing is, albeit erratically, magnificent. Zotto himself, looking like the Godfather's nerdy younger brother, glides his charges round the stage with the slightly pained air of a librarian trying to ignore noisy talk behind the shelves. But his legs lead a life of their own, flicking wickedly like lizards' tongues between his partner's thighs, or slipping cunning rhythms into the tiny gaps between her feet.

In a tradition that naturally favours the male, Zotto lords it over his 14-strong cast, especially the women, who rarely succeed in breaking free of the cheesy showgirl mould. Again, previous Tango Por Dos shows have presented a greater variety of age and body type. Tango, like flamenco, is a dance where maturity, and even plumpness, can hold a premium.

The music - most of it performed onstage by a very youthful bandoneon band - also suffers in comparison to previous showings, which featured more of the droll old coves one could imagine had actually lived through tango's golden era. The potency of Astor Piazzolla's tunes are hardly diminished, though, and it's still a treat to see the players jiggling long, thin concertinas on their knees, for all the world like happy fathers dandling babies.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

'Tango una Leyenda': Peacock, London WC2 (020 7863 8222), to 24 April

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