The Russian dancer Anna Trebunskaya is best known for her turns on TV's Dancing With the Stars, during which she tutored the likes of ex-boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and retired football player Kurt Warner in the art of popular dancing.
Now she's the latest dancer to tango to haunting Argentine rhythms in Forever Tango.
Replacing an injured dancer in the long-touring tango extravaganza, Trebunskaya performs with the troupe in this Friday night's performance at Centennial Hall.
"I'd seen her in the program Dancing With the Stars," said Luis Bravo, Forever Tango's creator and choreographer, by phone last week from his home in Lexington, Ky. Trebunskaya had seen the long-running show and told Bravo she wanted to join.
"I sent her to Argentina to train with my dancers," Bravo said. As of last week, she was rehearsing intensively in Los Angeles while the rest of the company was practicing their moves elsewhere. "We'll all get together in Phoenix," Bravo said.
Trebunskaya was to make her debut with the company Wednesday night, Jan. 25, at the Mesa Arts Center. The popular TV star will join 11 Argentine dancers, partnering with Ezequiel Lopez Hudyma.
"I go back to Argentina every two or three years to take auditions," said Bravo, a native of Argentina who lived there until coming to the U.S. at age 24. "I get the best dancers you can ever find."
Like most of the dancers, the singer, Martín de León, who sings traditional and newly composed Spanish tango songs, is from Argentina. The musicians in the eight-piece orchestra are also from the nation where tango was born in the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires late in the 19th century. One exception: the first violinist, Rodion Boshoer, is a compatriot of Trebunskaya.
"He is from Russia," Bravo said. "We met him in Toronto 16 years ago. He's a master musician, irreplaceable."
Bravo, trained as a musician from childhood, plays the cello in the onstage orchestra. Other instruments include the double bass ("essential to tango"), a piano and three bandoneóns.
"There is no tango music without the bandoneón," Bravo declared. "It has a melancholic, mournful sound that's also aggressive." Like a concertina, but with a different sound, he said, the bandoneón comes from Germany, where it was played in marching bands.
If it seems odd to have a German instrument playing a principal role in über-Argentine music—or to have a Russian dancing a principal part in the über-Argentine dance—it shouldn't. Cultural mixing was always part of tango.
Immigrants from Europe flocked to Argentina in the 19th century, bringing their own music and instruments with them. In the hardscrabble back alleys of Buenos Aires, these displaced workers began spicing up their music with African rhythms played by the descendants of slaves. Once a little Cuban music and Argentine country sounds were added, the new music began wailing in rough parts of town. Men strutted across dance floors, competing in the new dance form.
"It was an anonymous popular creation," Bravo said. "There are elements of gypsy, German and Caribbean music. Musicologists could talk for hours about it."
The clergy and the upper classes were scandalized by the erotic partnering in this new working-class amusement. Tango only turned legit when it took Europe by storm in the early decades of the 20th century. Back home in Argentina, it was finally embraced and eventually became a quasi-official national dance. Today, tourists from all over the world go to Buenos Aires to see tango in its birthplace—and they want to dance it as well.
"Foreign people are coming to learn it," Bravo said. "More than ever, young people are claiming it." Above all, tango is "about the relationship between men and women. It's a social dance" structured around the couple. Each of the dancers in the 12-member troupe is always paired with the same partner.
Some of the dances in Forever Tango—such as "Romance del Bandoneón y la Noche" (Romance of the Bandoneón and the Night), performed by Victoria Galoto and Juan Paulo Horvath—feature just two dancers battling it out in a single duet. In others, a number of couples dance in succession; the grand finale has all six couples performing.
Bravo choreographs the pieces in collaboration with the dancers. "First comes the story, then the music comes—and the humanity of the dancer. They're highly trained. Every choreography is well studied and practiced."
Most of the show's dancers came up through the tango houses in Buenos Aires, but some have had a somewhat different trajectory. Horvath danced with Ballet Folklórico Nacional de Argentina. Galoto paired her tango-training with modern dance, studying with a trio of leading American modern-dance companies: Trisha Brown and Alvin Ailey (both troupes will perform at Centennial Hall this spring), and Merce Cunningham.
Forever Tango debuted in 1997 on Broadway, and has returned twice. Tours have brought tango around the world, and Bravo said more than 6 million people have seen the show. Reviewers have called it steamy, sizzling, smart and funny.
"Today, tango is one of the most-popular dance forms," Bravo declared, "and the hardest."