Milonga was always going to generate high expectations. The show touched down in Sydney from London’s Sadler’s Wells, one of the world’s premiere dance companies. It is also the latest work from star choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
Born in Belgium to a Flemish mother and Moroccan father, Cherkaoui is famous for diving into different cultures in his work (most notably, the use of Shaolin monks in 2008’s Sutra). In Milonga he turns to tango, and his life-affirming celebration of the Argentine dance does not disappoint.
Milonga stays true to tango in its purist form but at the same time deconstructs the dance, gently playing with convention to create something fresh and new. It is both a paean to tango and a riff on it. And with such varied texture, pace and tempo – in which the dance is broken down and then reassembled – it is bewitching to watch.
On stage, a live band belts out classic tunes as professional tango dancers perform their craft, sometimes all together, sometimes in duos or trios. Videos are broadcast on a vast screen behind them. During one dance a pre-recorded version of the pair plays, although their steps are never quite in time with what is happening on stage. This juxtaposition adds a pathos and nostalgia to the scene: their cautious, shy approach to each other, followed by the compact, close-bodied tango, is captured intimately on screen.
Passion packs a punch here. In a particularly fiery display a couple argue and their resulting dance is both furious and fevered, with their legs flitting and darting, intertwined and then apart, with astonishing speed and pent up anger. But Milonga rebuffs clichés: it is never just about sex. Instead, Cherkaoui plays with expectations: in one majestic scene three men dance together, their grace over-laced with an undercurrent of brawny male competition.
Interjecting the tango are two modern dancers, who dress and act differently. While the tango women wear slinky, sparkly dresses – with high slits at the leg, their backs bare – the modern female dancer only has tight, androgynous leggings. She attempts to dance between one man and woman, before being pushed out as they whirl on together. In a painful display of solitude she then performs by herself, her twisting, anxious body lithely sprawled on the ground, beautiful in its own way yet so apart from the glamorous couples orbiting above her.
If there is a criticism of Milonga it is that some of Cherkaoui’s more modern touches can occasionally become gratuitous. At one point, for example, a dancer uses his hands to conjure up city scenes as if controlling a giant iPad. But this is a small gripe in an otherwise utterly captivating show: Milonga not only sings to its own tune but seduces with a verve rarely seen on stage.