Tango may be macho and even sexist, but it certainly isn't ageist.
The guest star dancer of Tanguera, the hit show created in Buenos Aires nine years ago and now at Sadler's Wells, is Maria Nieves, 75 years old. Immediately recognisable with her gamine cropped hair and long legs, she will be remembered by London audiences from Tango Argentino, a couple of decades ago. Here she plays the role of a brothel madam, in a narrative that bewails the sad fate of destitute immigrants, fleeing a harsh future in the Old World.
When Giselle (Leticia Fallacara) sets foot off her ship, she is swallowed up by the lowlife of La Boca, Buenos Aires's docklands, the birthplace of tango, with its corrugated tenements, sleazy bars and drug-dealing, brawling compadres. There are no surprises as she falls into the clutches of a pimp and becomes a tanguera (tango dancer) who sells her body. The voice of singer Marianella underlines the narrative (with helpful surtitles) and a band plays live for the first time in the show's history.
Actually, tango doesn't need all the tacky red lighting and dry ice, even if La Boca was full of smoking factory chimneys and nicotine addicts. It doesn't need a narrative either, as Tango Argentino, with its mesmerisingly contrasted couples, well understood. Tango, with its fusion of eroticism and sadness, speaks volumes by itself. The man may lead, but the woman has to agree to follow, so that each partnership is a dense dialogue, a negotiation of moves, now fast and furious, now slow and languorous. Each dance has the consequent ability to be completely different, legs flashing like flick knives or fork lightening, a foot slowly caressing the floor, the woman corkscrewing round the man's body, or subsiding to the floor in arched obeisance. The choreographer Mora Godoy varies the duets with solos and ensembles, but the movement lacks light and shade and is overwhelmed by the narrative episodes. This is tango filtered through the commercial aesthetic of a musical.
Over at the Royal Opera House, the Bolshoi gave us Yuri Burlaka's wonderful reconstruction of Petipa's Grand Pas from Paquita, where the variations are all about contrast. Petipa wanted each of his ballerinas to shine in jewel-like solos wrought finely around their individual qualities. In the fourth
variation, Natalia Osipova floated sensationally through her diagonal of jetés, a swallow cruising on currents of air. But today's other Bolshoi ballerinas don't assert their personalities, while, for all their classical correctness, the lead couple, Maria Alexandrovna and Nikolai Tsiskaridze, barely raised the temperature above warm.
Also on the Triple Bill and more suited to the present company is Alexei Ratmansky's glorious Russian Seasons, a tribute maybe to the Nijinska-Stravinsky masterpiece Les Noces. Originally created for New York City Ballet in 2006 and set to a 12-part score for orchestra, solo violin and soprano by Leonid Desyatnikov, Ratmansky's ensemble dances; the huge, space-cleaving movement suit the Bolshoi manner. The stage, empty save for a coloured backdrop, suddenly looked as big as the world. In it, joyous couples mix their modern classicism with the folkloric and religious resonances of Old Russia, and hint at the rites of mortal life.
The third ballet is the Ballets Russes classic Petrushka. The Ballets Russes never performed in Russia and I don't know the provenance of Russian productions of Petrushka. But Western productions directly from Ballets Russes luminaries such as Diaghilev's regisseur Serge Grigoriev and the ballerina Lubov Tchernicheva. By contrast, the Bolshoi's seems cruder. The solos for Petrushka, the poor, awkwardly built puppet, have been beefed up with explosive leaps and scissor jumps that gild Ivan Vasiliev's reputation as a virtuoso, but contradict the choreographer Fokine's naturalist principles which declare that movement should match subject.
In the Bolshoi's painstakingly reconstructed version of the Petipa-Mazilier Corsaire, Nina Kaptsova and Ivan Vasiliev gave the evening some oomph with their Pas des Esclaves. Nikolai Tsiskaridze was an effectively exotic Conrad, all flashing teeth and black curls. But Maria Alexandrova's Medora and Marianna Ryzhkina's Gulnare needed more differentiation. And with so much clutter – the obtrusive decor, the long list of characters, the endless dances – I left the theatre reeling. Less is definitely more.
'Tanguera' (0844 412 4300), to 22 Aug
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