Watching audience members take to the stage of a Washington theater for a “milonga” — a gathering to dance the tango — one observes a moving milestone in the ending of the drought of human contact. A dozen couples arrive with longtime partners and, after a dance or two and a glance across the floor, find an acquaintance or even a stranger, and approach for a tango with them, too.
“Through the tango, we embrace,” says Alejandro Barrientos, a professional tango dancer from Buenos Aires who now lives in Las Vegas with his dance and life partner, Rosalía Gasso. “Each couple is inhabiting a bubble. And each couple is living a different story.”
Barrientos and Gasso are in Washington to choreograph and perform in GALA Hispanic Theatre’s “Ella Es Tango” (“She Is Tango”), one of the few shows to return to in-person performance since the coronavirus pandemic shut theaters 15 months ago. Conceived and directed by GALA’s founding artistic director, Hugo Medrano, “Ella Es Tango” brings together dancers, singers and musicians mainly from Argentina for an evening of dance, music and sketches. It is intended as a celebration of an undersung aspect of tango culture: its women.
On Wednesday nights after the two-hour show, whose short run concludes Sunday, GALA gives tango lovers a bonus, inviting them to participate in the milonga. Covid-19, among its other, more calamitous outcomes, wreaked havoc with our sense of security in public, with our understanding of the geometry of connection. Shaking hands suddenly became a death-defying act. So what of dancing again, cheek to cheek? Like tango itself, born in Argentina as a musical form of defiant self-expression and intense passion, the physical exhibition on this night by pro and amateur alike seems a call to life again — a declaration of freedom.
It’s the simple things we have missed, like bodies in motion in carefree harmony, that confer on the “Ella Es Tango” milonga a special level of joyous release. Joe Clark and his wife, Sharon Thomas-Clark, came from Capitol Hill to GALA’s theater on 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights to see the musical revue and dance afterward. They were ballroom-dancing enthusiasts who fell in love with tango and commenced lessons a decade ago. Taking a breather from the dance floor, they demonstrated for me that tango clench — a partnering that allows a couple to fall into a close embrace. The style collapses the more rigid shoulder and arm positions of other ballroom dances. It’s warmer, certainly sexier.
The Clarks had been dancing alone for a year, so it was back to a more social dimension of tango that GALA welcomed them. The dance itself carries connotations of sexual danger, but partaking was never meant to include a threat to one’s health in the proximity of other dancers. “It’s a little bit scary, because we haven’t danced with other people,” Sharon says of the return to dancing in public. Still, you can practically imbibe the Clarks’ exuberance. Sharon impulsively holds out her arms to me, eager to show me what that tango embrace communicates. I take her proffered hand. Her face is alight, and Joe beams, too.
“We have missed this,” he says. “There’s even more energy when there are other people in the room!”
GALA has taken the lead in Washington in returning to in-person performance, starting all the way back in late October with an adaptation of Lope de Vega’s classic “The Dog in the Manger” and continuing in April with Caridad Svich’s stage version of Mario Vargas Llosa’s comic coming-of-age novel, “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.” Medrano and wife Rebecca, GALA’s executive director, decided months ago that as the only Spanish-speaking theater in the District, they had a special obligation to get back to “live” as soon as authorities deemed it acceptable. Audiences have been limited, masked and socially distanced in their 250-seat space in the historic Tivoli Theatre.
As the District has eased restrictions regarding capacity, so has GALA relaxed precautions: While “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” was performed by actors behind a plexiglass barrier, “Ella Es Tango’s” 11-member cast faces an audience without a screen. Masking for the paying customers, however, remains mandatory.
A kind of tango variety show, “Ella Es Tango” memorializes female singers and actresses of the early 20th century who represented a departure from tango as a glorification of male aggression. Tango, a style of music as well as dance, had stories to tell besides those of the Buenos Aires demimonde: love stories, stories of social action. “The women of tango were hidden,” explains Argentine playwright Patricia Suárez Cohen in an interview in GALA’s lobby. Her sketches for “Ella Es Tango” recount the experiences, some of them funny, of singers and dancers like Libertad Lamarque (Lorena Sabogal), Azucena Maizani (Cecilia Esquivel) and Tita Merello, played by Suárez Cohen herself.
Medrano’s world-premiere production, featuring a four-piece tango band conducted by Buenos Aires-based Ariel Pirotti, was supposed to have been unveiled last year. Then the pandemic scuttled the plan. The payoff in the delay was more time for Medrano to refine his concept, an advantage evident in the smooth integration of the evening’s elements — and the rich evocation of tango’s varying styles and rhythms. This attribute is dazzlingly apparent in the artistry of the production’s two dancing pairs: Barrientos and Gasso, and Marcos Pereira and Florencia Borgnia.
“This is the songbook of my life,” Medrano says of vintage tango numbers like “Madreselva” (“Honeysuckle”) and “Volver” (“To Return.”) A native of the Argentine Pampas town of General Pico, Medrano made it plain that “Ella Es Tango” is a passion project for him. “You’d hear these romantic lyrics all the time on the radio,” he says.
“The tango is the mixture of the music and the rhythm and the body language,” adds Mariana Quinteros, a gifted Argentine singer of tango melodies who now lives in Miami. In the production, Quinteros, alongside singer Patricia Torres, provides such technically precise and emotionally potent renditions that even in a show in Spanish, with English surtitles, the intense lyricism is easily grasped by all.
“We Argentinians — we have that gene,” Quinteros says. “We are so hungry to transfer that feeling to the people.”
After the “Ella Es Tango” curtain calls, the music shifts from live music to a tango soundtrack, and Rebecca Medrano summons masked audience members to the stage. Some literally put on their dancing shoes. The couples are a mix of young and old, some with serious tango moves — elegant footwork, dramatic dips, seamless spins — and some of more rudimentary accomplishment.
But as Barrientos observes, what’s most important is what is exchanged emotionally, what passes between partners as they create a veritable language of tango all their own. “The conversation is the spine of the tango dance,” he says. “It is the spine of everything.”
Gabriel Gaumond and Catrinel Iftode have come because of their joy of the form. District residents, they are professional dancers; Gaumond teaches tango and is starting up classes in person again — yet another sign of life returning to vibrant three dimensions. I ask them to pause and talk because their movement together is so fluid, so dynamic. Seeing them, a world of worry melts away. Their synchronicity makes it appear they have been rehearsing, but Gaumond assures me the moves are being conjured as they happen.
“What everybody is doing is improvising on the spot,” he says. “Tango brings you joy, because it allows you to live it. It’s beautiful.”