The dazzling and immaculate footwork of the dancers in "Tango Argentino". which came to the Hellinger last night, makes the National Football League look like a swarm of flatfooted stumblebums.
With legs liike tempered steel, the elegantly apparelled couples - the men in dark, double-breasted business suits, the women in sleek black gowns with lacy white touches - spin about the stage with more variations on the tango than one thought possible. It's mostly gliding softshoe, with legs intertwining and separating exquisitely, with only an occasional tap of toe or heel.
This is the show that was enthusiastically received during a brief June engagement at the City Center, which I did not catch. Probably the mike system was as raucous then as it is now, but that only applies, to the efforts of the 11-piece orchestra upstage, and the four singers who belt and croon sad songs about life and love in Spanish. (One program traslation reads, "Your luck is so bad that when you want to put the last bullet in your pistol into your head, it won't fire".)
But you forget the distorted sound as the show builds to its swirling finish - all couples spinning about in sensuous, disciplined body language.
Age and weight don't seem to matter in this art. One male dancer is almost portly and quite mature, while one of the females comes close to being tubby. Yet they are the epitome of grace. And there are indescribably sleek pairs, such as Nelida and Nelson, who twist and whirl through that old tango standard "Jealousy."
Among the four singers, I was most taken with Alba Solis, a sequined blond woman who delivered a number called "Uno" ("One is so alone with her pain, one is so blind to her sorrow") with the fierce conviction and thrust of Piaf.
But all together, singers and dancers and musicans bring a special kind of theater to the Hellinger, one not so much dependent on sock finishes (a song ended, the singer slips quietly off, though not without applause) as on a special art filled with nuance and precisely timed movement.
It takes more than two to tango. With the magnificent, all but incredible, and sensuously appealing Tango Argentino, which swayed and swaggered its way into the Mark Hellinger Theater last night, it took 15.
And that doesn't include a superlative procession of four torchy tango singers, and a lounge-lizard tango orchestra of 12, including four (count 'em!) Bandoneon player - a Bandoneon being a tango concertina with tango soul.
But what is tango? Well you should find out for yourself, but let me assure you it is something betwixt Rudolph Valentino and Rudolf Nureyev. It is a style more that a dance.
It is insults at midnight, a drained bottle of cheap whiskey at 4am, or a love letter never sent and never answered. It is love, betrayal, and death - all executed with an impassive deftness.
Tango is both cool and tawdry, smart and sleazy, elegant and vulgar, and the dance itself is peculiary spectacular.
It is a gaucho dance far from the pampas, cultivated in the backstreet bars of Buenos Aires, and given that veneer of sophistication which is Latin America's peculiar gift to civilization.
It is a dance of sexual awareness and tantalizing sexual presence. Its pauses, swoops, and dips, even the magnetic closeness of its partnering, all combine with low-keyed animal vitality, giving it an aura-like presence of barely polite sensuality.
Tango Argentino - which is something one would have to call a revue for want of any title more applicable - was conceived and is directed by Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, and originated in Paris for a festival two years ago.
Its success was more instant than Nescafe. The troupe tangoed its way across the festival landscape of Europe, before landing for an all-too-brief week's session at New York's City Center last spring.
After this runaway but fugitive canter, it is now back, where it belongs, on Broadway, for a still sadly limited five weeks.
The choreography - which is the vital ingredient of the show's stature, if not its flavor - is by the super-elegant Juan Carlos Copes, who, with his equally exquisite partner, Maria Nieves, provides the touchstone to the evening's dancing.
They are, to twist a word, peerless among their peers. Their movements are faultless in line and control, showing exactly the fine demarcation between style and mannerism.
But these two are merely part of a dance entertainment that proves totally absorbing, with dancers lost in the perfection of intricacy and the fine control of swirling temperament.
Of course it is the dance aspect of the show that first strikes to the heart - but this dance would be nothing without the music with which it is intradependant in a unusual symbiotic fashion. One feeds off the other.
The songs - given by three women and a man, Jovita Luma, Elba Beron, Alba Solis, and Raul Lavie, all top Argentinian cabaret performers - are horsely passionate in their despair. A Spanish Canto Jondo heard through a husky haze of nightclub smoke.
And then there is the music itself. If you thought the Tango began and ended with Gade's Jealousy (and, yes, that is here) you are in for a surprise.
This is music of pain and survival, characterized by the plangent squeeze-box passion of the Bandoneon and its two devoted exponenta here, Jose Liberella and Luis Stazio.
These two - a transported duo, one all engrossed grimace, the other all white-hot poker - look like character actors from a Warner Bros. melodrama of the '30's and act, in effect, as much as decor as music.
But what music this is, and what dance! Here is a night to stir the soul, and remind it gently of those wee small hours of loneliness, and the agonized pleasures of love.
Forget about the deficit. Stop brooding over the state of the New York subway system.
Cross everything off your worry list, in fact, and head over to the Mark Hellinger Theater. ''Tango Argentino'' is back in town. As high-spirited and stylish as ever, this salute to 100 years of the tango opened last night at the Hellinger, where it plays for a limited engagement of five weeks. And the audience greeted it like a long-lost friend.
Conceived and directed by Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, ''Tango Argentino'' was a hit earlier this year in Paris. It sidled modestly into City Center for a week in June, and by the end of the week, it was one of the hottest tickets in town. Who, one might ask, would want to sit through two hours or so of tango music and dance? But the evening flies by. The staging is seamless, as song, dance and instrumental numbers quickly succeed one another, each with a flavor and excitement of its own.
The musicians sit on a raked bandstand at the center of the stage, rising occasionally for solo or particularly impassioned playing. The tango has never seemed so hot-blooded but delicate, and the sounds the accordion, bass and piano players and violinists wrench and tease from their instruments are alone worth the price of admission.
It is night, even a starry night. Dancers appear from the shadowy wings, dressed in a variety of chic blacks and whites, edge toward each other at the front of the shadowy stage, then grab their partners and whip into high-stepping, sexy action.
A woman's leg rises slowly from under her satin skirt, telegraphing an unmistakable message. It lowers then pauses, caught and kissed by a partner's extended foot. Seasoned performers, the dancers bring a good-humored knowingness to the dance that gives it a wonderfully decadent air.
From time to time a singer strolls on stage to croon or cry into the night. ''I'll toss the cloak of dawn around my shoulders,'' a woman sings in Spanish. ''My next to last whisky will age in its glass, my death, in love, will arrive on a tango step, and I will die precisely at six o'clock.'' This is not the tango of Hollywood movies, a matter of slinky glides and soulful expressions. ''Hernando's Hideaway'' is nowhere to be heard.
Instead, 30 of Argentina's leading tango dancers and musicians offer a lesson in star performing. Among the highlights is ''El Apache Argentino,'' in which, as the program notes describe it, ''two thugs entwine and dance the tango.'' In ''La Morocha,'' two maidens in white ''dance the tango 'discreetly.' '' An innocent young girl, played by the lovely Naanim Timoyko, dances herself into ruination, watched by a tough madam, in ''Milonguita.'' There are boisterous dance hall tangos and sleek seduction tangos. And there are numbers clearly designed to showcase the special talents of each of the seven tango teams.
The fleet-footed Dinzels dance as if the stage were burning. Juan Carlos Copes, the company's choreographer, glides imperturbably through the fray even when he and his partner, Maria Nieves, are the cause of the excitement. There is the radiantly elegant Nelida and her partner, Nelson. The tall, smiling Elsa Maria and Mayoral, her genial partner, offer two of the evening's happiest moments in the ''Danzarin,'' the revue's breakneck finale, as they dance head to head and Mayoral flips her into a slide. And Virulazo, partnering Elvira, is a dancer whose massive proportions make his suave seductiveness even more amusing.
Elba Beron, who has a show-stopper in ''Desencuentro,'' sings as if she's lived through it all and enjoyed every minute. Jovita Luna is her coolly impassioned counterpart. One misses Maria Grana and, particularly, the unforgettable Roberto Goyeneche, singers from the City Center engagement who were unable to perform at the Hellinger due to prior commitments. The miking is often excruciating, however, which to a degree flattens and hardens all the songs, robbing the revue of some of its variety. But that didn't diminish the lilting sweetness and power of ''Adios Nonino,'' the revue's orchestral high point, from coming through. And here, as through the evening's 30 numbers, Jose Libertella was easily the star, coaxing the most amazing sounds from his accordion, his broad, flat face a map of emotions.
The company also included the dancers Maria and Carlos Rivarola and the sleek Gloria and Eduardo, the singers Raul Lavie and Alba Solis, and lead musicians Luis Stazo, Mario Abramovich, Eduardo Walczak, Oscar Palermo and Osvaldo Aulicino.
The evening ended in a standing ovation. But something was missing, as one member of the audience observed, and that was a lobby signup table for tango lessons.