Monday, July 02, 2012

Who would have branded this man a legend?

One Sunday evening a few years ago I was sitting in front of my computer in Perugia, Italy, alongside my dear friend and colleague from Rome, Filippo Avignonesi (the bearded man in my logo picture above). We had just finished another weekend workshop that I had invited Filippo to do for my students and we were unwinding after dinner by . . . what else?  . . . watching tango videos on Youtube.  Filippo had been showing me video after video of some young, emerging, as well as world-class talents from Buenos Aires in a hot new show.  In between the impressive, original jumps, virtuoso turns and steamy theatrics performed by these brilliant, athletic young artists, Filippo and I chatted away about many topics. 
Then one of us clicked on a sidebar link to a video of the late Gerardo Portalea (1928-2007).  Portalea was known and is remembered today as one of the legends of the Villa Urquiza** style of tango. Our chattiness disappeared and for the 3 minutes of this tango we watched with our mouths shut.  There was nothing breathtaking about it, but Filippo and I, each with our then-15 years of tango immersion, sat quietly mesmerized. When it was over, we kind of shook ourselves a bit as if to wake up and come back to reality.  I was amazed at what had just happened.

Here's a piece of Portalea's story in this segment of the documentary "Tango, Baile Nuestro" ("Tango, Our Dance"):
(See a whole tango by Gerardo and Marta Portalea, next link below.)

** "Villa Urquiza" (VI-zha oor-KEE-za) is a neighborhood of Buenos Aires, far from the city center, that is the home of the style of tango dancing I often show you in videos, and also home of two famous "milongas": Sunderland (during the week a gymnasium, yet a highly regarded tango destination), and Club Sin Rumbo. You can bet that I'll be spending a lot of time in that neighborhood during my 4-month Buenos Aires sojourn next winter! Villa Urquiza is the place that gave birth to what I call my "Rose Vine" Tango!
One friend studying tango introduced himself to me by email a few years back, stating that his dream was to someday dance in Club Sin Rumbo.  In contrast to milongas in the center of the city, that are historically very crowded, producing over the decades a style of tango, "tango del centro", or "tango milonguero", with short steps and many tight turns and rebounds all done within a square meter, Tango Villa Urquiza is usually characterized by its long, gliding steps, long stretches of elegant walking (allowed by the spaciousness of the suburban venues), with particular enjoyment of the pauses in the music, subtle rhythmic games and occasional bursts into surprising, dynamic turns (which I think of as "Roses" that grow along a "Vine" made of elegant walks). 
To my eye, Gerardo Portalea breaks the "flowering vine" aesthetic, with his frequent use of his unique rock-step, which you may have noticed, known as in tango as "vaivĂ©n", which means "to and fro", or "seesaw". In milongas, he was often called on to give an impromptu performance with his wife Marta, and every tango I've ever seen him dance was to music of the orchestra of Carlos Di Sarli.  If you snoop around on Youtube, you'll find him dancing to Di Sarli pieces like "Viviani", and "Indio Manso", perhaps his favorite, as seen here:

Now that you've seen the unspectacular exerpts of Portalea's dancing in the two clips above, what do you think it is that made Filippo and me stop chatting and just watch? 
While you're pondering that question, there's another lesson I'd like to point out here: From watching Portalea dance, can you see how one can differentiate oneself while respecting a strong tradition?  Portalea, a very traditional dancer, was still uniquely Portalea.  No one else danced like he did! 

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