Society for Ethical Culture
November 9, 2012

A Review

Ruth Grauert asked me if I would be interested in writing a review of Polly Ferman’s GlamourTango. Though I am a competitive Pro-Am ballroom dancer (I am the “AM” in this case), I know very little about Argentine Tango. I asked seasoned performer and arts educator Sidney Grant, the 2011 USA Argentine Tango Salon Champion, to join me. The auditorium of the Ethical Culture building was anything but glamorous, the technical and audiovisual aspects rudimentary, but it was an entertaining evening, and I owe Sidney a debt of gratitude for this review.

Polly Ferman’s GlamourTango described itself on the program cover as “Tango in Feminine Form”—and with an ensemble of female musicians and dancers, the feminine was in fine form both musically and choreographically. Ms. Ferman’s opening remarks about the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the rehearsal process, and how circumstances like these bring out the best in human beings, set the tone for the evening.

The program began with a cinematic montage of black and white images from early tango cinema, featuring the legendary Tita Merello’s rendition of “Se Dice de Mi—What Is Said of Me.” Merello proclaims defiantly at the end of her song that (regardless of what is said about her), “Yo soy asi—I am this.” GlamourTango, too, could be characterized as defiant. In presenting an all-female evening of tango—a genre of music, poetry and dance that is historically linked to the passion between men and women—Polly Ferman’s production sought to capture the female artistry and sensuality of the tango equation, with varying degrees of success.

The absence of male energy was apparent as the first instrumental solo began—led by a delicate bandeonista (Eleonaora Ferreyra), whose soft elegance hushed the crowd in anticipation of what sounds these musicians (Iris Ornig on double bass, Ina Paris on violin, and Tali Roth on guitar) would create next. The lightness was unexpected, yet oh so “buenas aires—the fresh airs” of a softer side of tango. And yet the final crescendo of their subsequent solo, “El Choclo,” was noteworthy for its strength and impact, and met with rousing applause.

As the dancing began, one might ask why a piece focusing on the “feminine form” in tango would have the first two dancers clad in men’s attire, vying for the attention of a seated female in an all-too-common scenario that, quite frankly, bordered on the cliché. And while the dancers (Marianna Galassi and Karina Romero) did an amusing job posing with quasi-male bravado, one wonders why there was a need for this hackneyed vignette, especially in a show entitled “GlamourTango.”

However, when Ms. Romero reappears—stunningly coiffed and delightfully dressed in a 1920s satin gown—she seemed to have just stepped off the silver screen! Her vals (waltz) solo was undeniably the most feminine performance of the evening. What followed, though, a “Singing in the Rain”–inspired duet (with choreographer Mariana Parma), seemed out of place. Still, it was fitting that Karina should honor her dear friend’s memory so personally. (Sidney learned afterwards that Ms. Romero’s dress for these two numbers had belonged to Rosa Collantes, a well-respected performer and tanguera and milonga organizer, who lost her battle to breast cancer the year before.)

With the same charismatic appeal of Tita Merello in the audiovisual presentation, Roxana Fontan, arguably one of the finest tango singers in the world today, first sang “Maria de Buenos Aires” with verve, wit, and whimsy. She returned to the stage, blowing the whispered breath of inspiration into the ear of Marianna Galassi, deftly depicting a tortured male poet. Clearly, the give and take of tango exists not only in its movement, but in its lyrics (la letra), which makes the triumphant poetic outburst at the song’s conclusion, “Canta yo!—I sing!” that much more powerful.

Transitioning to a tender piano solo, Ms Ferman demonstrated how the feminine can manifest as both strength and softness. She and her musicians then serenaded us through an audiovisual collage of iconic Argentinean imagery, from the turn of the last century through the present. Feminine form was perhaps best conveyed by choreographer Mariana Parma. This powerhouse performer has the unique gift of telling a story with tremendous physical conviction and genuine emotion—plus few tangueras can chaine-turn across the stage the way she can! Her choreographic contrasts were most apparent when the frivolity and playfulness she shared with Ana Padron and Marianna Galassi (as they prepare to go out to a milonga, no doubt!) transitions to a far more internal and intimate moment.

Clutching her tango shoes, Ms. Parma combines expressions of anticipation and trepidation, yearning and burning, dynamically delivering a nuanced solo that is intense and ambiguous. After all, who knows the complexity of one woman’s relationship to tango? There is no single answer, hence the multifaceted interpretation of Ms. Parma to capture what compels a woman to put on those tango shoes... or put them away.

When the ensemble of dancers returns, we’re reminded of how women can be just as competitive as they are cooperatively creative. Ana Padron—a sheer delight whenever she appears on the stage—is coaxed and taunted by the trio as the themes of independence and conformity craft their way into the choreography. Though at times appearing slightly under-rehearsed, the meaningfulness seldom suffers.

Suffering from a technical difficulty with her cordless mic, Roxana Fontan reappeared to sing “Balada Para Un Loco—Ballad for a Crazy Person.” As Ms. Parma’s cackling intentionally upstages the singer before she starts to sing, we recognize that the feminine can be fragile too. It is this and other emotional/human qualities that tango music and poetry capture so poignantly. With the vocal prowess of Roxana Fontan to showcase this intense lyricism, “the blood of the bandoneon,” the audience was riveted.

Without a microphone, she then delivered her signature solo, “Malena” (which Sidney had the good fortune of hearing her sing almost a decade ago in Buenos Aires). Like fine wine, the depth and body of her voice is extraordinary—every word, every syllable, rolling mellifluously off of her lips to tell Malena’s passionate story. It was an incredible homage to Homero Manzi’s famous lyrics. Although the evening in this Upper West Side cultural center felt more like a salon, an intimate gathering for what one might have expected to be a reading or lecture, the concluding finale, with its Fosse-style attire, was filled with great enthusiasm. But as a celebration of the feminine in tango, sadly missing was the sensuality that is such an integral part of tango’s intensity. And while what was presented was pleasant and palpable, it would have been appropriate to have something capturing the eros of tango’s fire—the kind of intimacy that continues to sustain the dance’s immense popularity, attracting sizable audiences like the one enjoying GlamourTango.

Still, one of the greatest of qualities, feminine or otherwise, is resilience. To think what these four dancers, five musicians and one stupendous vocalist accomplished (with and without a microphone!) is commendable. And while the evening could perhaps have been more thematically and technically complete, their affirmation of feminine artistry transcended Hurricane Sandy’s wrath with talent, grace, and beauty.

—Sidney B. Grant, founder/Artistic Director, Ballroom Basix
with Helen Kent Nicoll, MLDC (1970–77), November 20, 2012