Sarah Crompton on the addictive power of m¡longa

“I can recommend tango to anyone,” says choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, with some enthusiasm.


Sarah Crompton

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Photos: Tristram Kenton

“It’s so enjoyable. You are in movement, and someone joins you. You really have the feeling when you are dancing, that you are not alone. You are at one with the other. And it’s something I find intoxicating. You just want to keep going.”

His personal passion has found a professional outlet in m¡longa, a show in which the art of tango is both held up for wondering admiration, and simultaneously thrillingly taken apart and re examined. Created in 2013 for a cast of seventeen performers – ten Argentinian tango dancers, two contemporary dancers and five musicians – it allows Cherkaoui to present tango with his own distinctive twist.

In fact his fascination with the dance form goes back to the earliest years of his career. In 1999, he visited Argentina and tried tango for the first time. “I was unable to follow or to lead,” he says laughing. “And I remember thinking who are these people who are dancing with such skill? It was like magic.”

“As a dancer I have always been searching for connection and tango is the ultimate physical connection between two beings. It’s an art form that draws from physical contact; dancers don’t have to see each other, just to feel each other. You don’t worry about how it looks from the front. You’re together and it is beautiful from all angles. That sense of being entwined is a beautiful, chemical reaction between two people. I have always been deeply drawn to that in all my work.”

He was determined to learn more about it, enlisting a tango teacher to help him improve. When he choreographed his first piece, Rien de Rien in 2000, he incorporated a tango performed by two dancers who never touched. “So already I was exploring.” In his next work, D’Avant (2002), he created a quartet where contemporary dancers sang and danced to a tango rhythm. All of this, however, was leading up to m¡longa, Cherkaoui’s most complete love song to the form.

A milonga is specifically a tango dance party that originated in Buenos Aires, where participants dance to between three to five songs in a row, followed by a pause in which they change partners and then go on dancing. Over time, it came to define a distinct style of tango, characterised by its rapid pace.

But Cherkaoui wanted to do more than simply to reproduce the traditional lines of tango. “This was the first time I had dared to work with professional tango dancers and to propose things to them. I am still their student, but I want to challenge them to try different things. We had an exchange.” Tango superstar Nélida Rodriguez, artistic consultant to the production, was central to this. She introduced Cherkaoui to different professional couples, who all had their specific style, some more comical, some tragic, some acrobatic. “Nélida was like a big sister to me,” Cherkaoui says. “She had real faith in what I was doing and understood that my approach was constantly respectful while at the same time pushing things around.”

The inclusion of two contemporary dancers in the mix helped these explorations but the Argentinian experts themselves were also open to experimentation. “I don’t want to take the tango technique apart,” Cherkaoui explains. “I want to find out where it reaches, how far it can go before it becomes something else. My whole identity has always been about borders.

“We grow up with this illusion that there are borders, that ballet, hip hop or tango are these forms that – sadly in my view – have been put into little boxes. But their box is much bigger than people think. I want to show that.”

This runs deeper than dance. Born in Belgium, the son of a Moroccan father and a Flemish mother, Cherkaoui has always refused to be constrained by simple definitions of identity. “I am a Belgian but also European and Arab and a world citizen. I am very connected to Japan, I know a lot about China,” he says. “Your identity isn’t confined by where you come from, it also depends on where you go to. It is the same in dance. I think a dance style is a living breathing thing that can voyage and travel. It is up to us as choreographers to keep exploring. That is my aim and my nature.”

But talking about questions of identity takes Cherkaoui back to the reasons he is fascinated by tango in the first place. It is a dance that relies on balance and trust, on a perfect understanding between two people; you cannot dance tango alone. It is also a dance that – in a milonga – allows two strangers to come together and share a sense of consolation and togetherness. It is both erotic and comforting. All of this emotion is released in Cherkaoui’s choreography.

“It’s so rare,” he says. “Most of the time you feel you are alone, but in tango you are never alone. You are walking and breathing together. It’s a conversation without being one, a place where you share time and space instead of words. If I tell you something, I am sharing my past. But if I am dancing with you, I feel it here and now. I’m sharing my present. Tango is very powerful. It’s a miracle – and it’s also just a dance.”

Sarah Crompton is a writer and broadcaster