27 November 2013

The tango performance - inspiration and interpretation

"The criticism of tango performances not being close enough to an idea of what 'social tango' should be, is a bit silly to me. It's a performance - dance is about connecting to music AND to the space. The space of a performance will influence the dance. Criticising that is almost like criticising operatic singers for not singing like choir singers." (comment in a Facebook discussion about tango performances)


What does a tango dancer want to achieve with her performance? What do we as onlookers want to achieve from watching it? And what could happen in the meeting point between these two perspectives?

When I'm listening to a pianist performing, I look for three factors that are important to me:

- musical interpretation

- choice of repertoire

- technical skills

Whether I like the performance, depends on these factors and how they work together. Not all three are equally important to me at all times. I can be impressed, but not necessarily moved, by a technically brilliant performance. I can be moved by a beautiful interpretation of a piece I love, even if the performance isn't technically the best - although technical skills are very valuable as a tool to bring out a musical interpretation.

I would imagine that these three factors are important also to people who don't play an instrument themselves. Since I'm a musician, these three factors often produce an additional factor:


This inspiration could be to work harder on my technique, to find new ways of interpreting music, to try new repertoire, and maybe also to look for new ways of expressing myself. The last point depends on whether self-expression is important to me. It isn't to all musicians: some have the philosophy that their work is to serve the music and the tradition.

When our four factors work together, it could look something like this:

(article continues under the picture)

If I'm going to use this newfound inspiration, I might want to have an idea of what I'm going to use it for. Is it to play for my own enjoyment? Is it to improve my own skills? Do I want to play in a concert? Am I going to play with other musicians?

In many ways, this translates nicely into dancing. There are some differences, though:

We'll often find an important difference in repertoire and progress. Music students start with easy repertoire and progress gradually to more difficult. The teacher decides the speed of the progress plus makes sure that the student does technique exercises. Even if there seems to be more focus on base technique in tango these days, the repertoire that's taught to beginners is often the same as the repertoire the "tango heroes" use when they perform, like boleos, ganchos, sacadas and volcadas.

We also have the artist's job description. The typical famous musician doesn't teach beginners and intermediates as a big part of his work. His teaching is probably also more "hidden". The typical famous tango dancer has teaching as a big and visible part of her work role. When she performs at festivals, she has probably just given classes to many of the people in the audience, also to those who are beginners.

So the distance between a tango performer and her audience will most likely seem smaller than the distance between a musician and his audience, and so roles, goals and expectations in tango are more unclear, maybe especially to the beginner.

To add to the confusion, there's the setting. The typical tango performance feels a lot like a concert with an audience. The difference is that the tango performers' entire audience consists of people who "perform" themselves and might want to be inspired - but they'll most likely be using the inspiration in another setting: on a social dance floor.

Then there's an additional matter: the reasons why professional tango teachers give performances in the first place, and how these reasons influence the way they choose to perform. This is an important issue because it will have an influence on how we are inspired - and by what. It could also be problematic. If the audience is looking for inspiration to use in a social context, and the inspiration they get from the performance is based on the performers' need to impress with technical skills because competition is fierce, we often end up with an intention mismatch.

This shouldn't necessarily have to be a problem. But we'll have to admit that in real life, it is. Very often, the floor changes after a performance. Many of us have been kicked in the butt, bumped into, stepped on, or been generally hindered in the ronda because people are doing things that don't work well on a busy dance floor.

It seems to me that misunderstandings are common in the meeting point between performances and the audience.

So. How do we understand and interpret the professionals' skills, so we can channel our inspiration into something constructive and use it for something that's relevant for our own dance? How do we adapt difficult performance content to our own competence level? How do we translate it into something we can use in a social context?

Or should we understand, interpret, channel, adapt, translate? There's always the option of just enjoying the dancers' performance, admiring their skills, allowing the dancers to shine, forgetting about yourself for a moment before you return to the real world with the ronda, the floorcraft and the simple moves.

And the performer: should she take her audience into account when she decides how she performs? Does she have any responsibility to "educate the masses" through her artistic work? Should we demand of her that she restrict herself just because the audience consists of active dancers that might (and will) misunderstand her intentions?

I think it's a pretty cool phenomenon that a whole audience can be inspired by a performance. If we compare it to other types of performance-audience settings, I also find it quite unique. But maybe because it's a different setting, it also demands something different from us as: the understanding of what and how we're watching, and an awareness of what can be created - good and not so good - from what we're watching.

This understanding is something that I believe everyone - dancers, teachers and performers alike - could think more consciously about, even if we won't reach the same conclusion.