Ismene Brown

Walking with cadence

Plus: why London Road is such a dazzlingly good film - it’s as much to do with Javier de Frutos’s choreography as Rufus Norris’s direction

Walking with cadence
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Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui — milonga

Sadler’s Wells

London Road

Cinemas nationwide

I often regret that I’m writing in the past tense here, but never more than about milonga. It is such a smash show in every way that by rights it would be having a six-month run where everyone can see it, rather than five measly days at the elite Sadler’s Wells dance theatre where people aren’t put off by a choreographer’s tripartite name that takes several goes to pronounce.

Tango has a way of curdling in show presentation — just to say ‘thrusting loins and stiletto toes’ is already a Strictly-type parody. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is something of an expert cook, however. Uncategorisable except in that mysteriously wide umbrella called contemporary, now 39, he has made an outstanding creative virtue of his polyglot background and Belgian–Moroccan parentage, rather as Akram Khan has alchemised his British–Bangladeshi roots. In fact, they appeared in a show together a few years back, two of the most fascinating male dancers of our time not quite convincing as a harnessing.

Cherkaoui’s unbridled curiosity about what can and can’t be combined found a home with Sadler’s Wells, under its admirably eclectic artistic chief Alistair Spalding, who sent him off to Buenos Aires. After three years’ delving he produced this mesmerising production, in which tango is danced in all its sharp, dark gloriousness by four classic tango couples and a wild-card contemporary couple, who try to either meld in or challenge the milonga (that’s the name for a tango dance club). I believe that ‘interrogate’ is the right sponsorship-attracting word — and indeed it’s because there are 11 partnering theatres and organisations backing the show that we only get a few days’ viewing of it on a world tour the size of Michael Flatley’s.

Cherkaoui does things to tango couples that Relate would not recommend. He has them dance back-to-back — who would think that could be even more erotic than the usual two-inches-apart power-eyeballing? Or there is a sort of three-in-a-bed arrangement where a man has a woman plastered fore and aft as they whip those toes like needles through lethal-looking footsie.

There is a gorgeous evocation of the birth of the tango in canyengue, the word for ‘swing’, or ‘walking with cadence’. It’s that transitional, magical moment when people walk on to a floor and their walk imperceptibly becomes a rhythmic signal to dance that someone else will suddenly tune into and react to. It’s clearly a pheromonal thing. You see the soft, rather aimless massing of the individuals and then in a trice, with a flick of the eyes or tiny beckoning shrug of the shoulder, they’ve coalesced into pairs who represent every fantasy in that peculiarly charismatic trance that comes over dance couples. The skittish older pair, the S&M couple, a dagger-eyed man manipulating his victim — there are shades of Pina Bausch’s fascination with the friction of love, and how we all basically want a bit of it.

With some super playing of café tango new and old, especially by the (South Korean) violinist Ahram Kim, and a set made of dancer silhouettes who can be suddenly blazed into a surreally convincing crowd by Eugenio Szwarcer’s expert digital projections, milonga is — was — a joy to see. The tour’s finished, but there’s another Cherkaoui coming soon at Sadler’s Wells. As Forrest Gump said, you never know what you’re going to get.

Javier de Frutos is a choreographer of equal unpredictability and always compulsive viewing, in my opinion. He has done some sterling work tearing dance’s preciousness down over the years — violent gay sex, anti-Pope blasphemy, and nude dancing to Madame Butterfly, all managing to grab sensational headlines and yet be powerfully good, seriously provoking theatre art. He’s also one of London’s multiculturals, being a Venezuelan Brit — again I think there’s a message there about London’s melting-pot role in top-class dance art.

Recently this brash, camp, mouthy gay became Rufus Norris’s favoured choreographer at the National Theatre, and it’s been an object lesson in his choreographic skill to see the essential role of his movement element in London Road, the film of the original play.

It is dazzlingly good, pure film, not theatre now — its artificiality in every aspect self-complementing. You will already know about the speech-singing, the ingenious way that Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork conjured some actual things said by the residents of that unfortunate Ipswich zone into a quasi-operatic libretto. Equally effective is de Frutos’s ‘verbatim’ choreography of the crowd movement which is — link back to canyengue here — walking with cadence. Drone cameras observe Christmas shoppers whose milling becomes, unwittingly, a flashmob, or there’s a brilliantly coordinated multiple newscasting by TV presenters, whose hand-jiving so fruitily satirises the present cumbersome gesturing of reporters. And that all works because de Frutos, Norris and the camera directors are as hand in hand and eyeball to eyeball in their intentions as tango dancers.