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Translating tango: Sally Potter's lessons.

IN the mid nineties Sally Potter, director, writer and dancer, decided to make a film about Argentine tango in which she would play the leading role opposite a well-know tango artist, Pablo Veron. She made two important decisions about the screenplay: the first was that it would be in three languages, Spanish, French and English, the second that the two main characters would be Jewish and exiles who would make a pact and fall in love. The resulting film proved to be an exploration of translation in terms of cultural identity and border-crossings. Sally Potter's film about the dynamics and process of tango also became a meditation on Argentina and on the politics of exile.

A little over a decade earlier, by 1982, Argentina was emerging painfully from the trauma of a dirty war during which up to twenty thousand persons were killed, tortured or disappeared by a succession of oppressive military rulers. Many of the victims were Jewish. Two famous examples of individuals who were imprisoned and tortured are those of Jacobo Timerman and Alicia Partnoy whose testimonies, written in exile, appeared in the eighties. Argentina, paradoxically, is the Latin American country with the largest Jewish population and also has a long history of recurrent anti-semitism. (1) Timerman saw in the dirty war a resurgence of the paranoia and viciousness of the Holocaust. (2) By 1994 there had been terrorist attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and on the Jewish Community Center.


Tango, from its roots among the African and European immigrants in the port of Buenos Aires, has always been a story of exile and crossing borders. Marta Savigliano in her book, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion, discusses the "tango syndrome," the experience of longing and nostalgia connected to tango for any Argentines living abroad (Savigliano xiii-xiv). Fernando Solanas, the Argentine film director, who fled to Paris during the dirty war confirmed her view when he wrote that in exile "music was the most emotional language" of his nationalism and tango the "soul of his nostalgia." Speaking of his own films made in that period, he commented, "I have never consumed so many tangos in my life as in those years of exile" (Winn 431).

Solanas set a precedent for Sally Potter with two tango films about Argentines and exile in 1985 and 1988, Tangos: el exilio de Gardel and Sur. His films helped to launch a renaissance in tango both in Argentina and abroad after the dirty war: tango was danced and rediscovered in London, Paris, and New York; and Argentine tango espectaculos (shows) went on tour abroad from Buenos Aires. Tango became a testament to the resilience and survival of a culture.

Sally Potter tells the story of her seduction by tango in her preface to The Tango Lesson. She was working on another screenplay about the fashion industry when she was lured away by tango. As a director behind the camera she became fascinated by the gaze afforded to her by the spectacle of tango. As a dancer/tanguera she would be the object of that gaze. As a writer/director she could control and explore a whole series of relationships between self and other: she could search the tango story for shape and meaning in terms of gender, race, colonialism and imperialism, even reach to a place beyond these where tension and conflict might be reconciled. Tango, it seemed, told an old story and, at the same time, proposed a new one. She decided to shoot the film in a series of lessons about "love, and work and creation" (Potter x). For her tango, is "a testament to survival and graceful hope in the face of the ravages of ageing, political repression and the apparent meaningless of daily life" (84). In this respect tango would be her teacher and her method one of enquiry.


Sally Potter's film moves between London, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Hollywood just as tango has always done. When Sally Potter discovered tango it had already crossed borders many times and had a complex identity. (3) She says in her Introduction to The Tango Lesson that she "wanted to show the 'real' tango without pretending to come from the culture that produced it" (x). Further commenting on her choice of using three languages, she adds "the film had to become emblematic of the nature of cultural exchange" (xii). This meant that she would not privilege one language over another or use primarily English, the universal language of cultural dominance. Neither would she give into the crass demands of Hollywood for a purely commercial product. This she makes clear in Lesson Six when she figures herself as a movie director in Hollywood meeting with unsympathetic and uncomprehending potential backers for her tango film. Tango had already been to Hollywood (Paramount) in the twenties with Gardel and other tangueros. (4) The impact of Hollywood on tango and on Argentina is an important theme of Manuel Puig's Boquitas pintadas (Heartbreak Tango), a novel that Sally Potter read during the filming of The Tango Lesson. (5) Clearly she was aware of the problematic nature of border-crossings for herself and for Argentine tango. Cultural exchange often involved domination or "colonization" by one country over another, so that the challenge for Sally Potter would be to develop a counter-narrative to this tendency. If tango was to illustrate the art of survival, what might that mean for the country of its roots, Argentina? To answer this question she needed to portray tango from "the inside looking out rather than from the outside looking in" (xii). Dabbling in the dance would not be enough; she had to immerse herself in it. Only by doing this could she distinguish between the "kitsch eroticism of the Europeanized public image of the tango" and the "wordless expression of life force" (85) she experienced in Buenos Aires. Her quest became cultural, political, artistic and personal.


In the personal sense Sally Potter crossed borders and became more herself because for her "tango expresses a kind of desperate extremity that has no voice in English culture" (83). By following tango's trajectories between countries and across the decades she arrives at its heart. She describes this process in detail in her Postscripts to the screenplay. She discusses gender definitions in her section "On Following." What does it mean to lead? What does it mean to follow? These questions, political as well as personal, are played out in her tango story. She uses tango as a way to think about power, even about terror. In her film her character, Sally, makes a pact with Pablo Veron. He will teach her to tango and she will put him in a film and make him a star. But who will lead and who will follow in this arrangement? Who will exploit whom? When the two put on a tango performance in Paris, what results is Borges's famous "war of legs." Pablo says that Sally cannot relinquish control and follow him. She is furious and hurt because he danced as if she wasn't there. Julie Taylor writes cogently of tango in her book about its poetics, Paper Tangos, and her words give us insight into what Sally Potter is conveying to us on the screen:

The dancers share their loneliness, their loss of contact from each other's world while they share separation from the onlookers whose gazes provide the criteria for inclusion in or exclusion from still other worlds. The rejections are related: the first feeds off the second. An Argentine couple can enact, within an embrace, the exclusions that the world for which they perform inflicted on them. (Taylor 70)

This exclusion is experienced as a form of violence by the Sally Potter character. This is because, as Taylor says, violences are exclusions, and terror, absolute exclusion. Sally Potter acknowledges the violence present in her film. Her alter ego asks in her Postscript, "Why do you want to kill him at this point? And he you?" (97). Her characters are dealing with the forces of crimes of passion. However, Sally recognizes that she had a lesson to learn: "as someone who leads for much of her working life (as a director), the opportunity to learn what it means to follow was a blessing" (84). Ideally, when two people dance the tango together "each enhances the other's sense of self and feeling of freedom" (85). In other words, tango is a paradox: it involves tension, conflict, exclusion but also mutuality and harmony. In this sense it is a process and never predetermined.


Argentina's experience of the dirty war had been marked by absence, rupture and violence and the shadow of that past loomed over the terrorist bombings of the nineties. Sally Potter's pivotal scenes in her film come in Lessons Five and Ten. In Lesson Five, Sally and Pablo meet in Paris as Jewish exiles; they are equally lost and adrift in an alien culture. This is the one thing that unites them besides tango. It is also this fact that reunites them after their bitter quarrel following their tango performance.

During the Fifth Lesson Sally Potter and Pablo Veron share thoughts about their Jewishness. Then the director cuts to each of them separately immersed in a book. While Pablo reads Brando, Sally reads Martin Buber's I and Thou in which he wrote "...modern developments have expunged almost every trace of a life in which human beings confront each other and have meaningful relationships" (Buber 97). His work draws on Judeo-Christian thought and eastern philosophies and is centered on Hasidic teaching and Jewish doctrine. It became popular after the Second World War and the Holocaust for its humanity and its injunction to let go of greed, selfishness, power-grubbing, racism, even murder, in order to enter into a relationship with one's whole being. This is a lesson Sally and Pablo must take to heart in order to come together again in the church of St. Sulpice in the center of Paris. In this scene Sally Potter, the director, images a Jewish story, that of Jacob and the angel, inspired by the great painting of Delacroix which hangs in the church. In this painting Jacob and the angel are wrestling and locked in what resembles a tango hold. Sally tells the story to Pablo:

Jacob was alone in a valley, and there he met a stranger. They started to fight. They fought and wrestled through a long, long night. But as dawn broke Jacob realized that he could never defeat the stranger...... ...Because the stranger was an angel. Or God. Or perhaps all along, Pablo, Jacob had simply been wrestling with himself. (55)

Sally Potter brilliantly evokes the conundrum of "I and other" in this scene. When Pablo appears, he takes up the position of the angel. Sally Potter presses her head against him, like Jacob, and they assume a tango hold, mirroring the painting. To this point in the film Pablo has been the angel and Sally, in following him in tango, Jacob. Now he must consent to follow her if he is to star in her film; their roles will be reversed.

In the Bible story Jacob has betrayed his brother Esau to get his birthright from his father, but is now returning to his homeland and his brother. Eventually the angel blesses Jacob and tells him that henceforth his name shall be called Israel. Jacob continues his journey, having "seen the face of God." This is a story about recovery from the dark night of the soul and also about those who are lost and in search of home. If Jacob's name is Israel, where is "home"?


Sally and Pablo travel together to Buenos Aires in search of "home." There they dance in the street to Milonga de mis amores in a downpour of tropical rain and the tension between them is washed away. They meet with two more tangueros, Gustavo and Fabian, and Sally begins to meditate on what it is to lead as a film director and what her gaze means to them. She and Pablo quarrel again about who is following and who is leading in the making of the film. The movement of the film-making goes forwards and backwards, like a tango, and reflects the tension and conflicts inherent in the figures. Sally, Pablo, Gustavo, and Fabian cannot find a place to dance; but at last, in an abandoned department store, they find a space where all four come together: their "energy, frustration, competitiveness and exuberance" find form in Piazzolla's "Libertango," a dance not of exclusion, but of inclusion with Sally at its center. This is the moment of greatest release and freedom in the film, the moment in tango that Sally Potter would later describe in her notes as one of "alert receptivity" when the dancer is in complete control of her body, yet surrenders control of where she is going... completely in the present (85). As Buber comments, "It's only from the presence of the spirit that significance and joy can flow into all work" (99). This reciprocity and joy are, for Sally Potter, the key to tango and by extension to all relationships, personal, political, cultural. In this way in her film the lost, alien woman director translates tango for the exile, Pablo, and his two compatriots, Fabian and Gustavo, and she, in turn, is translated. In the Twelfth Lesson, Sally and Pablo gaze at each other's reflections in a mirror as Sally watches over a rehearsal of Fabian and Gustavo. Sally Potter, the director, images herself as inside and outside the gaze at the same time and we, as spectators, are made more keenly aware of the potential problems created by a lack of cultural sensitivity and by cultural exploitation. Perhaps there is no single solution to these problems. Sally Potter is inside tango but she is not Argentine.

Julie Taylor quotes a protest sign from 1994 when a massive bomb demolished the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires two years after another bomb left a crater in the Israeli embassy.

Tenemos otros 70 desaparecidos. Todos somos judios, pero tambien todos somos Videla. Decidamonos. (We have another seventy disappeared. All of us are Jews, but all of us are also the Junta. Decide.) (Taylor 81)

Behind the act of terrorism lurks the shadow of antisemitism of the dirty war and Argentina's schizophrenic Jewish and Nazi history. In real life Sally Potter is not a Jew, but in her film she figures herself as a Jew. In the final lesson Sally and Pablo enter the synagogue of Buenos Aires. This is in answer to Pablo's question, "I want to know why we met" (77). Inside the synagogue all is intact: a cantor is singing in his high, wailing, joyous voice. But Pablo remains unconvinced:

Tell me Sally. What does it mean to feel like a Jew? Because, you know, I don't really feel at home in a synagogue. And of course, even less in a church. And.... I don't really belong in France, but I don't belong here any more either. I am afraid .......of being someone without roots. I don't know where I've come from or where I'm going. I'm afraid I'll disappear* without leaving a trace. (78)

* my italics

As Sally Potter adds ruefully in her Postscript, "he has forgotten who he really is" (97). In crossing and re-crossing borders as an exile, he has undergone a fragmentation of his original cultural identity which may well be impossible to reconstruct.

The term "disappear" is loaded in Spanish, especially for Argentines. Julie Taylor quotes the grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo:

We know what it is to search desperately for a son, a husband, a brother who one day left for work and "disappeared": under the mortal blow of those irrational beings who do not know how to co-exist in peace, who cannot admit disagreement, who cannot stand difference, ideological, cultural, or historical ... (82) (6)

Through tango Sally Potter, echoing Julie Taylor, confronts doubts involving difference, in negotiating domination, in managing the physical dimension, in dealing with loneliness within an embrace. In the last scene of the film she embraces Pablo because this is the only way she can be sure that neither of them will disappear: tango is the only place which may afford them, if briefly, through "alert receptivity" to each other, the consolation of work, art and love. Sally Potter does not pretend to offer solutions for Argentina's crisis of identity, but she does propose the possibility of union and pluralism as a counterpoint to the harsher realities of rupture, violence, and loss. While acknowledging the difficulties inherent in any encounter, her tango lessons proscribe open attentiveness and care for the other and suggest the possibility of equilibrium (eje (7)) and a space where coercion, prejudice and abuse may be relinquished in favor of respectful listening, tolerance and community. In translating tango and crossing borders, Sally Potter shows us, the spectators, that in one sense, as members of the global community, we are all exiles searching for mutuality and "home."



Borges, Jorge Luis. "A History of the Tango." A Book About Old-time Buenos Aires. Tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1984. 131-148.

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Tr. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Collier, Simon, Artemis Cooper, Maria Susana Azzi & Richard Martin. (Tango! New York: Thames & Hudson, 1995.

Helig, Aline. "Race in Argentina." The Idea of Race in Latin America. Ed. Richard Graham. Austin: U. of Texs, 1990. 37-69.

King, John. Magic Reels: a History of Cinema in Latin America. London: Verso, 1990.

Partnoy, Alicia. The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival in Argentina. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1983.

Pinet, Carolyn. "Tangoing the Text: Manuel Puig's Boquitas pintadas." Hispanofila 138 (2003): 95-110.

Potter, Sally. The Tango Lesson. Sony Pictures Classic Release Adventure Pictures, 1997.

--. The Tango Lesson. London: Faber & Faber, 1997.

Puig, Manuel. Boquitas pintadas. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Salas, Horacio. El tango. Argentina: Editorial Planeta, 1986.

Savigliano, Marta. Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Colorado: Westview Press, Inc. 1995.

Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. De/Colonizing the Subject. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Taylor, Julie. Paper Tangos. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1998.

Timerman, Jacobo. Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. New York: Random House, 1988.

Winn, Peter. "The Magical and the Real." Americas. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992. 394-446.

(1) Argentina has the largest Jewish population of Latin American of at least 250,000 individuals. History shows us that for a long time Jews remained outsiders in Argentina's Catholic culture and were seen as resistant to assimilation. However, eventually many did prosper and win acceptance during periods of political stability and expansion. But they became scapegoats and second class citizens each time skies darkened and hard times returned to Argentina. During the dirty war Catholic Nationalism, which had originated as a movement in the 20s, reasserted its influence.

(2) Jacobo Timerman, editor of the newspaper La Opinion, was attacked in the magazine, Cabildo, and organ for right wing Catholic Nationalism, as "a despicable Ukranian" who "vomited his hate, his ambition and his irreverence on the very roots of the nation that so casually sheltered him." Articles appeared calling for a national revolution to remove the "Jewish danger." According to Cabildo, the Holocaust is the "Great Fraud of the Century" and Anne Frank's diary "a jungle of falsehoods." Zionism, of which Timerman was accused, was seen as pernicious and a danger to Argentina's security as a nation.

(3) Tango's identity in relationship to culture, race, class and gender is discussed at length by Marta Savigliano in her book, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion.

(4) Tango's Golden Age, the age of the Gardel, is documented in Tango! by Simon Collier et al.

(5) I discuss cultural bordercrossings for tango and Argentina in my article, "Tangoing the Text: Manuel Puig's Boquitas pintadas."

(6) In a recent article in Le Monde (11/06/04), "L'Argentine s'engage a rechercher les enfants d'opposants a la dictature," it was announced that the President of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, has created a special commission to locate the children who were "disappeared" (that is, illegally adopted) during the military dictatorship of 1976-83. In other words, in Argentina, the search for the disappeared goes on.

(7) Julie Taylor, speaking of the term eje (axis or equilibrium), comments, "The eje... is the key to tango. Each partner must maintain his or her independent axis or alignment while dancing. Most important, this allows for the very different steps performed by the two companeros" (Taylor 85).
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Author:Pinet, Carolyn
Publication:Romance Notes
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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