Cigarettes, high heels and fancy footwork fill the Shubert Theater, as "Forever Tango" struts back onto Broadway. The two-hour extravaganza is one of several shows sweeping into the city in tandem with the fourth annual NYC Summer Tango Festival -four days of classes, music and, of course, dancing under the stars.
"Forever Tango," which opened Saturday, contents itself with a starry backdrop, a sea of green-yellow lights that blink on like fireflies as the theater hums with the evocative strains of the bandoneon, the accordion-like instrument so essential to the dance. Dancer Gabriel Ortega's emergence from a giant bandoneon replica in the show's prelude underlines this close relationship.
Created and directed by musician Luis Bravo, the all-Argentine revue features 15 dancers, crooner Miguel Velazquez and a 12-man onstage orchestra anchored by four bandoneons. Fedoras and aggressive male partnering give way to a ballroom-like atmosphere, as Bravo whirls the audience from the art form's birth on the streets of 19th-century Buenos Aires to its more modern manifestations.
Led by men with slicked hair as shiny as their polished shoes, the women whip across the floor like human compasses, feet inscribing invisible circles in and around their partners' legs or lashing up and out at improbable angles. Plunging necklines and sultry stares aside, the action happens below the belt in tango, as partners hook legs, parry and thrust in a sexual battle of wills.
Those legs can be formidable weapons – especially clad in spike heels, as a hapless Marcelo Bernadaz discovered in a broadly comic duet with Veronica Gardella. But, despite poor Bernadaz's best efforts, one finds little of the dance's dizzying sense of risk and restrained violence in "Forever Tango." Instead, the dancers play it safe. The result, though accomplished and pleasing to the eye, provides few thrills in a show too sanitized to satisfy.
'Forever Tango," which debuted on Broadway seven years ago and has made a triumphant return, raises an interesting question: Why, of all dances, is the tango so well-suited to the stage?
As you watch the splendid troupe - assembled, directed (and lit) by Luis Bravo go through their dazzling paces, you're aware of the many contradictions inherent in the tango.
Its origins - in the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires - could not be more base.
Yet, unlike contemporary dances, which make the body seem disjointed and broken, the tango demands a bearing that can only be called aristocratic.
And though the tango and the music it has inspired over the decades are passionately sensuous, its erotic impulses are not expressed in languid or loose movements, but rather in steps of rigorous precision.
Perhaps these paradoxes are at the heart of why the tango is so intensely dramatic.
Onstage is a small orchestra that includes strings, keyboards, percussion and four bandoneóns, the accordion-like instrument associated with tango.
They keep the intensity high as seven pairs of dancers and a few singles go through their demanding but exhilarating paces.
One of the impressive things about the evening is that the dancers work within a simple vocabulary but manage to make the steps endlessly fascinating and involving.
At one point, Jorge Torres and Guillermina Quiroga do a number to canned music that approaches the balletic. But for the most part the choreographic language the dancers speak is entirely "colloquial" rather than highfalutin.
Bravo's lighting enhances the dramatic aura considerably. But so do the erotic glances of the dancers. Even Marcelo Bernadaz and Veronica Gardella, who satirize the erotic component in comic dances, fill their gazes with longing.
As has always been the case with tango shows, most of the dancers are older. Part of the pleasure of the dance is that age seems to only deepen its fascination.
When Luis Bravo 10 years ago started a spectacular tango show with his life savings, he called it "Forever Tango."
He must have had a special premonition because internationally it's been going "forever" ever since, and on Saturday night it returned to Broadway for a special six-week engagement at the Shubert Theatre.
With 14 dancers, a singer and a 12-piece onstage orchestra, the show - which had a year-long Broadway run, plus multiple Tony nominations, during the 1997-98 season -seems as blithe, sensuous and steamily innocent as ever.
Knees are constantly slightly bent, the man's body, impassively aggressive, is usually more rigid than the woman's, which bends pliantly, while flicking legs are forever intercutting and entwining, symbols almost of the dance's impersonal, genderless sexuality.
Essential to the tango is the bandoneon, that eccentric Argentinean button accordion, a squeeze-box of infinite variety in its plaintive nostalgia, and "Forever Tango" has four bandoneon players, plus two violinists (how could you play "Jealousy" without a violinist?), a violist, a cellist, a bass player, a pianist and a guy on keyboard.
This latest edition of "Forever Tango" apparently dates from 2000, but it is pretty much the same mixture of grace and snarl remembered fondly from its earlier incarnation.
Although the performers - and indeed the show itself - never quite reach the artistic level of that 1985 granddaddy of tango spectaculars, Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezolli's "Tango Argentino" - this is a smooth, superbly entertaining introduction to a glittering dance form, where even the men's brilliantined hairstyles can almost shine in the dark.
A fair number of quips about shows for tired businessmen, or at least tired Argentine businessmen, come to mind while watching ''Forever Tango,'' which opened on Saturday at the Shubert Theater. The revue has about the same balance of vital tango dancing and music, nostalgia-inducing song and schlock as in its first appearance on Broadway seven summers ago. Conceived and directed by Luis Bravo, an Argentine musician and record producer, ''Forever Tango'' has toured the world since, a sultry Latin variation on ''Riverdance.''
But there is real gold for those patient enough to wait for the second act, after the show has sped through a supposed history of tango dancing whose only recognizable vignette is a tacky bordello number early in the evening. The idea there, presumably, is that women began to dance the hitherto all-male tango in earnest when it arrived with the customers after late 19th-century sojourns in the streets and cafes of Buenos Aires. As the tango was taken up by daring middle- and upper-class ballrooms and moved north to the United States and east to Europe, the dance's rough working-class edges were smoothed and its raw sensuality distilled into what pours out across the Shubert stage.
Sex and danger still shimmer like a summer heat wave beneath the surface of the most traditional dancing in ''Forever Tango.'' The taut torsos and stylized leg and footwork of Carlos Vera and Laura Marcarie -- he wonderfully thuggish and she sexily deadpan -- say it all in wittily stylized dancing in several numbers.
At the other end of the spectrum from their tantalizingly minimalist razzle-dazzle is the performing of the comic duo Marcelo Bernadaz and Verónica Gardella. They are pure cartoon renditions of an overeager man and an increasingly interested woman. With his misplaced cowlick, Mr. Bernadaz resembles Dagwood of American comic-strip fame. But their lightning-speed, cross-stage backward slithers, rubber bodies and her propeller legs are the true heart of their virtuoso dancing.
Miguel Velázquez had only to begin his crooning for the audience to clap softly with delighted recognition of each song. For those in the audience with no knowledge of Latin popular music, Mr. Velázquez's voice was enough to conjure up potent images of piano bars in imaginary small beachfront hotels of simpler times. The fine onstage orchestra delivered on standards like ''Jealousy'' and ''Besame Mucho.'' But there was also delicately atmospheric solo piano playing by Jorge Vernieri and, even more important, star turns on the accordionlike bandoneón, performed by Victor Lavallén.
''Forever Tango'' was choreographed by its dancers, veteran tango-show and competition performers, who also included Jorge Torres, Marcela Durán, Guillermina Quiroga, Gabriel Ortega, Sandra Bootz, Natalia Hills, Francisco Forquera, Melina Brufman, Claudio Gonzalez, Juan Pablo Horvath and Alejandra Gutty.
They hold each other close enough to kiss, but their gaze remains stony. With eyes locked and upper bodies stiff, they swivel, stamp and whirl with urgency. They seem constantly about to injure each other. She kicks sharply between his legs, high heel pointed up. He flings her carelessly to the ground. But then he caresses her cheek and she swoons.
Will they kill each other or make wild love? Impossible to know, since this is tango, a dance mingling passion and violence while the bandoneon sings its plaintive accompaniment. Luis Bravo's "Forever Tango" returns to Broadway with a tribute to the art form invented by immigrant workers frequenting Buenos Aires' bordellos at the beginning of the 20th century.
"Forever Tango" is a grand affair, with 28 numbers and a dazzling cast of 15 dancers and one tango singer, Miguel Velazquez. The dancers have pride of place, but there are also instrumental pieces showcasing an 11-piece orchestra, including four of the world's 200 bandoneon players. Pianist Jorge Vernieri also deserves special mention for his moving and expressive solo.
Tango is about attitude, and this production is highly stylized. The men's hair is slicked back, they wear hats pulled low over one eye, pencil mustaches, unbuttoned white shirts and black suits. The women are gorgeous and haughty, their voluptuous figures set off by clinging evening dresses. Their hair – shiny black or flaming red - is pulled into severe chignons or cropped short with spit curls.
Not all of the cast is young, which reminds us that tango, unlike ballet or jazz, is a social dance you can perfect over a lifetime.
The evening presents a spectrum of tango's many tonal and narrative permutations. "El Suburbio" takes place in a smoky brothel where two louche men in fedoras quarrel over a woman and dance a violent yet sexy tango together. (In early days, men often tangoed together.)
The cast divides into recognizable couples that perform together throughout the evening. In "La Mariposa," Carlos Vera and Laura Marcarie fit together like erotic magnets. "Comme il faut" features Claudio Gonzalez and Melina Brufman in a lighter, Fred-and-Ginger-style tango with airy lifts and scissors kicks. In "La Tablada," Marcelo Bernadaz and Veronica Gardella do a comic dance with slapstick stumbles, mocking tango's usual seriousness.
In the second act, "Romance entre el Bandoneon y mi Alma" overturns expectations with a ballet-tango between Jorge Torres and Guillermina Quiroga. Former ballerina Quiroga, wearing only a blue leotard, performs classical ballet moves but in sinuous tango fashion, turning her body into acrobatic sculptures.
The evening ends with a group tango in which couples dance in the require counter-clockwise circle, reminiscent of a Viennese waltz.
While the show is too long at two hours, overall it's a delicious night of sexy ballroom dancing, haunting music and beautiful people.
Tango has changed since "Tango Argentino" swiveled its hips on Broadway in 1985 and set off a mad craze for Argentina's national dance. For that matter, the form is not what it was when Luis Bravo picked up Tony noms for his own revue, "Forever Tango," in 1997. This new edition of Bravo's original show reflects some of those modernizations by incorporating balletic, acrobatic and otherwise "artistic" variations into a revue that aims to present a mini-history of tango. But it's the basic, ritual routines danced by a core group of five partner-pairs that still thrill the most.
The woman wears a tight dress with a slit up to there. She has spit curls on her temples and a seductive sneer on her lips, and when she executes a turn, she shows a beautiful bare back that the man can't keep his hands off.
The man has a cigarette in his mouth and a hat tilted over his eyes. He moves like a cat on the pads of his feet, insinuating one leg between the woman's and bending his body into hers until hips and lips are locked.
That's the way they originally did the tango in the dockside bars and whorehouses of Buenos Aires, where ruffians known as portenos asked a lady for a dance by dragging her onto the floor by her hair. The ladies liked it so much, they wrapped themselves around their partners and learned to execute a series of kick-steps for keeping the animals in line.
Now, as then, the tango holds its character as an intensely sensual partner dance, achingly romantic but still something of a contest between the sexes, fueled by underlying currents of desire, jealousy, anger and violence. Bravo pays homage to these origins with the smoldering number "El Suburbio," which is set in a bordello and features the entire 26-member company in historical character. The mood is tense, the dancing rough and the costumes (by Argemira Affonso) deliciously vulgar.
But even when the dancers regroup and return two by two, in elegant black costume and more sedate form, to illustrate their individual stylistic variations, they remain faithful to the basic idiom. Even the balletic movements of featured dancers Jorge Torres, Marcela Duran and Guillermina Quiroga observe the choreographic protocol.
Bravo's shrewdest move in mounting this revival, whose six-week engagement highlights the fourth annual New York Summer Tango Festival, was not to mess with the music. The superb 11-piece orchestra led by Victor Lavallen sits onstage in plain view and provides the heartbeat of the show with traditional songs like "Jealousy" and "Kiss of Fire."
Appropriately composed of strings and more strings, the orchestra also features no fewer than four bandoneons, the accordion-like instrument that carries in its throat the distinctive sound -- the very essence -- of tango.