Created and directed by Luis Bravo, Forever Tango features 14 world-class tango dancers who share the stage with a vocalist and an 11-piece orchestra in a celebration of the passionate music and dance of Argentina. The dances, performed to original and traditional music, are the result of collaboration between each couple and director/creator Bravo. “The tango is a feeling that you dance,” says Bravo, “a story you tell in three minutes. It’s passionate. It’s melancholic. It’s tender, violent. You dance it with somebody, but it is so internal, you dance it by yourself. More than just a dance, the tango is music, a drama, a culture, a way of life.”
The History of Tango
The tango may be Argentina’s best-known export. Forever Tango tells the story of the birth of the tango in 19th century Buenos Aires where thousands of men fled from the disparate poverty of a disintegrating Europe to emigrate to South America.
Instead of wealth, they found the horror of the crowded abattoirs (packing houses). The men worked from dawn to sundown in the heat and stench of the buildings along the docks of Rio de la Plata. At night the Italian, French, Irish and German immigrants crowded into the bars and street corners of outlying barrios, or arrabales, where they drank and sang the mournful Neopolitan and Andalucian love songs to the women they’d left behind.
Urban and nocturnal, the tango was initially a man’s world. Knife-wielding toughs, called compadrones, ruled the arrabales. The tango was born of this lonely and violent existence, and many early tangos tell stories of these violent confrontations. The tango was at first danced solely by men, who dispensed with social conventions and danced in pairs with each other.
Eventually women, many of them prostitutes, came to the ports, and they too found their way to the tango. The enramadas (brothels) became the show place for tango. “The tango is known as a music of passionate love,” says the Argentine philosopher Ricardo Gomez. “It is not. It is actually the music of loneliness and lust.”
In its early stages, the Argentine tango was mainly the dance and music of the urban poor and the socially unaccepted in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. Even though prostitution ran right through the social scale, and the art form made its way into high-class bordellos, tango was still originally shunned by Argentine high society as indecent. During World War I, a group of Argentine intellectuals on their annual sojourn to Paris decided to have fun by teaching the “indecent” tango to their friends. The tango became a ballroom craze among wealthy Parisians.
The tango quickly spread across Europe and to America, and was eventually re-imported home to Argentina, though not unchanged. The compadron locked in combat was replaced with compadrito, with a wide-rimmed hat thrown over one eye, a white handkerchief tied around the neck, a short coat and tight trousers. A knife at his side was the only lingering reference to toughness of the docks.
As the tango evolved, Argentineans from all walks of life found something appealing in tango. The upper classes used it to break social restrictions; for the lower classes, the lyrics expressed the alienation of urban life, while the dance provided a form of release. Today tango is recognized worldwide, its unmistakable form and intense movements familiar well beyond the borders of Argentina.
Tango music and tango dance developed hand-in-hand; like the dance, tango music first emerged from the immigrant populations of Buenos Aires. The first generation of tango players was called Guardia Vieja, the Old Guard. By the end of the 19th Century, this blend of salon, European and African music could be heard throughout metropolitan Buenos Aires.
Early tango music was played on portable instruments like the flute, guitar and violin.
The bandoneón arrived in Argentina at the end of the 19th Century, when it was brought over by German sailors and emigrants. The accordion-like instrument was incorporated into the local music and plays an essential role in the orquesta tipica, the tango orchestra.
Angel Villoldo made the first tango record in 1917. The track was played by French musicians in Paris because at the time Argentina had no recording studio. In 1917, folk singer Carlos Gardel recorded his first tango song “Mi Noche Triste,” forever associating tango with the feeling of tragic love depicted in the song’s lyrics. Classically-trained musicians weren't associated with tango music until violinist Julio De Caro formed an orchestra in 1920 and made the tango more elegant, complex and refined, as well as slowing the tempo somewhat.
Lyrics are a key piece of the art of tango. They relay stories of jilted lovers, betrayal and despair. Tango lyrics from the Golden Age, from the 1930s to the 1950s, also used Lunfardo. Lunfardo is a secret slang language, or argot, of Spanish. It developed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in the lower classes in and around Buenos Aires. The argot takes words from Italian, Spanish and French dialects and from vesre, a wordplay that reverses syllables; tango becomes gotán and café con leche is feca con chele.
During the 1950s, Ástor Piazzolla sought to create new sounds, breaking the classic forms of tango. The 1970s saw a fusion of tango and jazz music, and electro tango emerged in the 1980s. The four representative schools of Argentine tango music are Di Sarli, D’Arienzo, Troilo and Pugliese. Each school is named for the musicians, composers and conductors who, with their orchestras that performed specifically for dancing, defined the sound of early 20th-Century tango.
Argentine Tango Dance Styles
Tango canyengue is one of the original root styles of tango. It contains all fundamental elements of traditional Argentine tango. The dance’s main characteristics are its musicality and playfulness.
Tango orillero developed in the outskirts and suburbs of Buenos Aires, where larger dance floor spaces lent to the growth of a looser, freer dancing style.
Salon tango marks the Golden Era of tango. The 1950s gave birth to tango parties known as milongas. Most milongas were held weekly and often began with dancing classes and demonstration dances. Salon tango is characterized by slow, measured, and smoothly executed moves.
Tango apilado/confiteria originated as the petitero or caquero style in the 1940s and 50s. Closely packed dance halls and confiterias necessitated a closely embraced dance. Partners dance chest-to-chest and lean slightly towards each other to allow space for the feet to move.
Tango nuevo is a result of the work of the Tango Investigation Group. In the 1990s, Gustavo Naveira and Fabian Salas analyzed the physics of tango. They created a method to attempt to determine the complete set of possibilities of tango movements that could be created by two bodies. Tango nuevo is often misunderstood and mislabeled as “show tango” because a large percentage of today's stage dancers have adopted tango nuevo elements in their choreographies.
Creator/director of Forever Tango, Luis Bravo was born in a tiny town in Argentina and moved to Buenos Aires when he was 8 years old. He later studied guitar and cello at the University of Buenos Aires and the Municipal Conservatory of Music. Bravo became a world-class cellist and performed with major symphonies throughout the world, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Buenos Aires Philharmonic.
In 1989, Bravo decided to forego the cello and produce his own show, an illustrated concert of the tango. Forever Tango opened in San Diego. It was voted Best Touring Musical by Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle in San Francisco where it played an unprecedented 92 weeks at the Theatre on the Square. Truly an international event, Forever Tango was also awarded the coveted Simpatia Prize at the 1996 Spoleto Festival in Italy. The show opened on Broadway June of 1997 for what was expected to be an eight-week engagement; the show ran for 14 months. Bravo says he feels a strong connection to tango’s origins. “All my life,” he says, “I too have been leaving somewhere. I was an immigrant in my own country. The tango feels like my destiny.”