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Tango, take two.

`Malambo' Theater on the Square San Francisco, California May 7, 2002

Luis Bravo, best known as the creator of the long-running Forever Tango, presented the world premiere of his Malambo May 7 in San Francisco. The one thing Bravo wanted everyone to know about Malambo, which boasted a cast of of more than thirty dancers and musicians from Argentina, is that "it is not all tango." It aimed at quite a bit more, but in the end it was the tango that almost saved it.

Bravo and his choreographer, Oscar Araiz, tried to stage a reflection of their country's vast multicultural landscape. Unlike the unmistakably urban tango, the malambo is a rural dance, the dance of the gauchos. It began in the seventeenth century in the tournaments of Argentina's cowboys in the pampas, yet it bears an exhilarating resemblance to twentieth-century American tap dance with its emphasis on fast and percussive footwork. The influences that gave rise to the tango in the streets of Buenos Aires range from the Cuban habanera to Sicilian folk song and dance. Unlike the tango, the older malambo was not embraced by immigrants in the big city; it remained the dance of the pampas. Today it can have the melancholy of wide-open spaces remembered from the standpoint of urban alienation, and it is this bittersweet point of conflict that Bravo wants to explore.

"It's my life," says Bravo. "We Argentines know the tango is our biggest national product, but it is not our only dance, and Buenos Aires is not our only culture," he said. "There is a clash of cultures. I wanted to put that clash, that conflict I have lived, into this show. It is really my life."

Real life or not, onstage Malambo was simultaneously two shows. One was a brilliant revue with some of Argentina's sexiest dancers, the other a half-baked dramatic exploration of that country's multicultural landscape. The whole affair turned out to be a lively but often frustrating musical hodgepodge. Unlike Forever Tango, which had the lovingly narrow scope of portraying the birth of the tango, Malambo had bigger ambitions. It sought to mirror the rich variety of Argentine culture, the contrasts between the urban tango and the older dance traditions of a people conquered centuries earlier, the cultural shock of a rural immigrant upon arriving in the big city. Add the flamenco tradition that is an integral part of the Latin American dance heritage, and there is more than enough material for an encyclopedia, if perhaps too much for one musical.

Malambo had no plot, but a thin narrative line emerged and it goes like this: A rich Inca heritage is present in Argentine dance and turns up most tellingly in the malambo. That tradition can hold its own against the newer, urban ways of the tango and even against the flamenco that later Spanish immigrants brought to the New World. Bravo did not so much integrate these conflicts into one story as trust two different companies to portray it. One was Grupo de Bailarines Santiaguenos "Raza" from Santiago, a perfectly nice folk troupe that started off Malambo with some impressive if overlong tapping. The other was an Olympic-level team of tango dancers, some of them familiar from Forever Tango, who are as good as one is likely to see. There is also a superfluous trio of flamenco dancers who may not survive the revisions the show is sure to have if it is to live beyond the San Francisco production. In any case, it might be good to rethink the split-level stage that often hides the dancers' feet from most of the audience.

At least in Bravo's treatment, it is the contrast with the urban tango that matters in the malambo. The dance form that made his Forever Tango a hit is the key to the most successful moments of Malambo. Elsewhere, two scenes of culture clash came off as watered-down Sharks versus Jets fights. Another, where the malambo dancers took control of the flamenco ladies, was silly. A lot of Malambo was fun for all the wrong reasons. "La Pelea," a final rumble choreographed to Shostakovich--don't ask--was a hoot.

Then again, there were the dancers. There was the stunning Marcela Duran, whose classical figure is that of a Praxiteles sculpture, whose intense dark eyes pierce the audience in a sizzling seduction. The way she swooned into the steady arms of the veteran Carlos Gavito was alone a reason to save this show. So was Cesar Coelho, familiar from his star turn in Carlos Saura's film Tango. Sandy Brandauer, Carlos Vera and Laura Marcarie, Fabio Narvaez and Lorena Yacono, Oscar Mandagaran and Carina Morrudo were all impressive. Defining Argentine dance by the tango is as reductive as defining American music by jazz, but nevertheless only the tango proved stage-worthy in Malambo.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Malambo
Author:Roca, Octavio
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Sep 1, 2002
Previous Article:New works feel the sting.
Next Article:Tappers gather for rewards, remembrance.

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