There is an ongoing social debate in tango communities about whether or not improvised social dance tango is more faithful to the original spirit of this dance, implying that it is somehow ‘better’ than choreographed, show tango. The social dance side of the debate can become somewhat ‘tribal’ at times. Show dancers could care less. The ‘debate’ may have even begun before the decades of immensely important work achieved by Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves (in particular) as they actualized steady employment for a long succession of professional dancers and musicians. They used the show/entertainment medium to share their beloved culture with millions of people around the globe, which contributed to its international appeal and monumental growth. So the first point in favour of choreographic work is that it creates employment and is a viable artistic outlet for professional dance artists.
Certainly there were no social dance improvisations in the Copes/Nieves shows. An experienced tango show producer or director would never allow any individual the freedom to potentially destroy the entire show with an unknown (improvised) presentation. An improvisation is a performance that an actor, musician, dancer, etc. has not practiced or planned. So, by that definition, I conclude two things: 1) the pro-improv social tango ‘tribalists’ have never witnessed an improvisation by professional teaching couples touring their cities; what they witnessed was practiced demonstrations. And 2) I consider the social dance ‘improvisations’ done by teaching couples to have some dance hall event value, but they have no show production value whatsoever.
With the expansion of the Internet in the mid ’90s I found it interesting to view all manner of dancers in ‘improvisational’ and/or choreographed settings. In those days I was ‘selling’ tango, so it was part of my job and I liked it. However, it was the quality of improvised social dance tango (especially) that turned me off to the point where I rarely watch it anymore. This is what I saw (countless times) due to social dance ‘traditions’ in tango: before the improv even began, the man would indicate that the woman approaches him – viva el machismo latino! (It’s a joke… it can roll up die, for all I care.) The music starts and he stands there without moving for 20-45 seconds supposedly ‘feeling’ the music and transmitting his ‘feelings’ to his partner. Then with great determination and intense expression he leads a single step to the side. Wild applause ensues and the viewing public is completely enthralled… it’s another joke, sorry. The traditional music for social dance tangos lasts two or two and a half minutes; so this guy has used up almost 50% of the available music and he’s taken one step. Good gawd. And if the couple happen to be visiting teachers, they will inevitably ‘perform’ the 8-position learning configuration, which they have inevitably referred to in their lessons as “the basic step”. (It is not.)
I have a particular interest in how tango develops in Montreal because I live here. So where possible, I view video presentations of shows that I do not attend in person. There was a series of (four) improvisations in 2019 by Jean-Sébastien Viard and Veronica Toumanova that deserve special mention. (I should have written about them at the time.) The dances occurred at an event in Montreal called Tanguerafest and were recorded by Robert Verge for his YouTube channel. This was the first time I had seen Veronica dance. She’s delightful. Jean-Sébastien I have watched develop over several years here. He is a real gentleman, and now a fine dancer. These two were brought together for the event; Veronica lives in Paris, Jean-Sébastien in Montreal. I doubt that they ‘practiced’ much together before the event. As such, their (4) dances together were true improvisations. You can feel this about the dances, even through the two-dimensional medium of video.
For those that don’t know, I criticized Jean-Sébastien in the past for looking stiff in a performance. After watching these four improvs though, I realized that the ‘wooden’ characteristics I identified at the time of my observations were most likely the fault of the choreographer of the (amateur/community) show he was in at the time. It was either that or perhaps he has difficulty learning and executing a choreography. Either way, the on-stage product was recorded and there is no denying the result. In any event, left to his own innate talents J-S shows us in these improvs that he knows very well how to move in harmony with a woman and help to make her look fabulous! So let me clear the air here and apologize sincerely to Jean-Sébastien if I upset him with my comments at the time.
What was so impressive about these four improvs? First of all he walks his partner around the dance floor in all the improvs; after all, tango’s fundamental characteristic is that it is a walking dance. How many ‘improvs’ have you seen over the years where the man mostly stays on the spot doing complicated, leg-gyrations and who-knows-what?-figures for the entire musical piece? (The answer: too many!)
Jean-Sébastien adeptly listens to the music and presents musical opportunities to his partner FIRST and foremost!! He does not construct his improv with himself as the centre of attention (like so many of the so-called “masters” in tango). This he offers to his partner. What a gentleman! What a breath of fresh air!! You see this in their improvs, how he discreetly gestures to his partner, how he presents moments for her to shine, and that he allows the music to take its rightful place in their ephemeral intimacy. In this respect J-S was the perfect choice to present this particular guest artist at the event.
Veronica accentuated her partner’s graciousness by being totally present with him, enticing the viewing public with her sensuous femininity and sublime tango skills. Her sense of musicality and in-the-moment nuances are resplendent in these dances.
Beyond (those) wonderful improvisations, there is one other incontestable point about the value of choreographic tango that should be made: choreographic works can be preserved, repeated in their original state, and/or improved upon, as is often the case with repetition. There is no question that there’s a time and a place for both dance forms in the grand scheme of tango culture. Let’s enjoy them both, shall we?
Here’s a professional tango couple performing a single choreography of theirs, twice: once in 2015 then again in 2019. These performances occur in social dance milongas, but I can assure you, they would easily fit into a grand theatrical environment or show program.
I rest my case.