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Milonga

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Sadler's Wells Theatre

The Milonga company Credit: Tristan Kenton

Milonga is a style of music and dance that was centred around the Rio del Plata region of South America, more relaxed than the tango, which developed from it. It can also mean a place or an occasion where tangos are danced.

At a milonga, there are breaks between dances to facilitate an exchange of partners and apparently unwritten rules about how you change them and navigate the space. Milonga is usually faster paced than a ballroom tango and supposedly simpler.

Cherkaoui’s Milonga, a Sadler’s Wells production seen here back in 2013 and now returning after a world tour, was created with ten Argentinian tango dancers and a pair of contemporary dancers from France and the UK. It is an intriguing fusion of classic tango and modern dance in which the choreographer both exploits and extends the pattern of tango. It frequently has the fast tempo of the original milonga but there is nothing simple about its complex choreography.

This milonga begins on film with a roomful of dancers, image piled on image in multiple exposure then the screen flies out and just two dancers stand, back to back, a reversal of tangos usual direct confrontation, their isolation, spot-lit against a dark stage marking this as performance, not social dancing.

Tango is essentially a twosome and that’s how this starts, but as well as conventional pairing, there are threesomes, ring dances, at one point a woman crawling across the stage in danger of trampling by the fast-moving couples.

Tango dancers take on moves never seen in a dance hall, contemporary dancers master tango steps. A black-gowned man looking like a Sufi spins dervish style, a woman tossed overhead like a matador on a bull’s horns. There is a pair caught up in a violent argument, dazzling display by a male trio that could develop into a stand-alone ballet, dramatic choreography with only tangential links to tango.

However, though dancers bring passion to their performances, it is precision of the dancers and the complexity of the movement with its rapid leg kicks and flicks intercutting each other, even intertwining, that fascinate rather, only intermittently is one caught up in drama.

In fact the greatest sense of the theatrical is the jokey kind of cleverness with which Cherkaoui uses not only video but a second cast of cut-out figures to complement living ones.

Sometimes the dancers are replicated giant-sized on the screens and moving panels behind them, or form a group image to extend the choreography, at one point the image fragments into kaleidoscopic complexity. At other points a group of white silhouettes appear, like a ghostly company or by precise positioned projections seem to turn into real people. So accurate is the technology, it's a challenge to know who is real and who is not.

On a cityscape filmed moving through the avenues and plazas of central Buenos Aires, new buildings pop up like cardboard cutouts, or a camera pans along the buildings of side streets as dancers run and walk on the spot or varying pace to match the pace of the projection.

Set and video design are by Eugenio Szwarcer. Costumes are by Tim Van Steenbergen and lighting by Adam Carrée plays a strong role in design and dramatically, though with dancers so often in black against a dark set there are times when it needs more.

New music by Fernando Marzan and Szymon Brzóska sits alongside established tango tunes and its played live by an excellent band.

For ninety minutes, Milonga gives a non-stop display of skill that is exciting to watch but the sequence of numbers doesn’t give its glimpses of drama a context and that weakens their impact—but my, what dancers!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton