The Art History of Love
By Robert Farris Thompson
Pantheon. 360 pp. $28.50
The word "love" in the subtitle of Robert Farris Thompson's new work reflects the passion that the author feels for his subject. Actually, it would be more correct to say subjects, because he has gone far beyond the conventional notion of tango. His book is an energetic, vivid account of the music, movement, poetry and songs that evolved into the beautiful, difficult and sensual dance that is tango today. "It was the fabulous dance of the past hundred years," he writes in his preface.
But Tango isn't just about one particular dance. Thompson, a gifted art historian, also examines the way the body enhances and shapes our culture. He addresses various human habits, including ways that we touch, our sensuality and even our facial expressions, making it clear that our bodies carry cultural references that are given public expression by dances such as the tango. Writing from a perspective that moves forward and backward in time, he helps us understand the way in which artistry and ancestry combine in individual dancers to make an art form of the body in motion.
Thompson's research took him into clubs, dance halls, bars and movie theaters. He met with current practitioners, their teachers, their fans. He has organized his material into chapters on the text, the music and the early and later influences of certain dances. He begins with "Tango and Hollywood," a brilliant idea that encourages us to imagine a different dance from the one we have been served up in films and other popular culture; not until the 1990s, he argues, did Hollywood's version of tango approach anything authentic. He wittily describes the costumes worn by Valentino -- "the first man to tango on the screens of North America" -- and a partner in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921) as so heavy that the "dance reads . . . like a ballet between the Monitor and the Merrimac ."
Tango is a thrilling ride, though not always a linear one. More than once I lost the thread and had to go back and reread. Sometimes I wished a concluding paragraph had come at the beginning of a chapter or section so that I could better follow the flow of Thompson's active and fertile mind. Even so, I was rewarded with a constant flow of ideas, images and challenging information.
A key element in this work is Thompson's commitment to making clear the deep contributions to tango made by blacks in South America, first as slaves and later by way of the thriving Afro-Argentine culture they developed. The author frequently plays detective, seeking clues that illuminate various signs of black cultural influence. He has synthesized valuable information from interviews and exhaustive and detailed research from other authors. Thompson's visual arts background enables him to bring a different eye to the world of dance; he can see what others missed or wouldn't have noticed. The engrossing passages describing early African dances brought to the Americas clarify why authorities throughout history have banned dancing: It is scary in its power and capacity to bring people together.
Thompson's points of reference are diverse and illuminating. Assessing the contribution of the great tango bandleader Astor Piazzolla, he quotes a fascinating comment made by the composer Bela Bartok during a lecture at Harvard, in which he said that composers could respond to folk music by either quoting the tunes or examining the elements of those tunes -- modes, patterns and ornamentation -- and therefore creating something new. By drawing a parallel between Piazzolla and Bartok, Thompson illustrates the way artists borrow, fuse, synthesize and learn from each other.
As a choreographer, I was particularly stimulated by Thompson's descriptions of the milongo and the canyengue , dances that preceded tango. His detailed discussion changes our understanding of the origins of tango, which until now was perceived to be primarily working-class and nurtured in whorehouses. Thompson doesn't deny this as much as give due consideration to other possibilities.
As a dancer, I appreciated his effort to place certain dance rituals within African traditions. It adds weight and spirit to the dances. But sometimes his enthusiasm overtakes reality. It is true, as he suggests, that in African dance the knee is bent. But the knee bends in every dance form, so it is not absolutely clear that the way it bends in tango can be attributed to African influence.
Thompson's gift for language is especially evident in the myriad ways he conveys artistic action. Sometimes he can be wildly poetic, even overblown, as in his description of tango critics at work: "Steeping ourselves in this rich sensibility we find ourselves wafted toward value and possibility." Sometimes he can be vividly concrete: "the dancer taps in front, to each side, and behind the foot that is stationary." But it is entrancing when he is both: "He's leaning forward. She's leaning back. He raises his left hand but angles his right shoulder down. The break with the ordinary is total: lightning-like limbs, angular elbows, and a woman's left foot that shoots back like an arrow. . . . Her knee parts his thighs, his leg shoots through hers." Simple language conveys the thrill and physicality of the dance.
Because tango is a dance form that straddles art and life, and because some of its best practitioners were never on a stage, many of them might have been left unnamed. Not if Thompson can help it. He names the names. He tells us their stories, their habits, their contributions and especially their styles. Though this litany at times becomes exhaustive, dance practitioners and admirers will feel validation in reading about so many amazing artists. This book is a tribute to brilliant dancers, poets and musicians, people of imagination and passion. It is a paean to all the feet, hands, hips that went before us, to all the dancers who saw, borrowed and stole movement that they loved to see, had to do, needed to try in order to make their place in the world matter. Thompson makes sure we see their value.
Liz Lerman is founding artistic director of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, a professional company based in Takoma Park, Md. In 2002 her work was recognized with a MacArthur "genius grant" fellowship.