Encyclopedia About Tango 

Argentina's famous dance is the subject of a long-running show coming to Centennial Hall

Luis Bravo is on the line from Buenos Aires, Argentina. His voice is faint over the international wire. But his pride is unmistakable.

"This is Mr. Bravo," he says, emphasizing the honorific.

Bravo has lived in the United States for years, but he's been back in his home country taping a PBS special of his dance-and-music extravaganza, Forever Tango.

"We recorded it here in the opera house," he says. "It was beautiful. We did 14 routines. We taped so much that we can have (multiple) cuts."

The PBS show won't air until March, but Tucsonans can see a live preview this Tuesday evening, when the long-running show touches down at Centennial Hall. Fourteen dancers, 11 musicians and a singer will perform the exact routines that the rest of America will see on the small screen.

Granted, the Tucson audience won't get the ornate backdrops of the 19th-century Teatro Coliseo Podestá, but they will get "an encyclopedia about tango," Bravo promises. "There'll be a wide spectrum of color and repertory. It will be really nice."

The long-running Forever Tango debuted in 1990 in San Francisco, and has since traveled round the world.

"More than 5 million people have seen it," Bravo says, in Italy, England, Portugal, Japan and Mexico. A year-long Broadway production in the mid-'90s generated Tony and Drama Desk award nominations. The New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning rated the show a "must-see."

The cast is exclusively Argentine, Bravo says. Singer Carlos Morel sings the steamy accompaniment to the sensuous moves of the dancers. The musicians include four players of the bandoneón, a tango requisite descended from the German accordion brought to Argentina by immigrants in the late 19th century.

Bravo's show traces the history of tango from the brothels in the port city of Buenos Aires to respectable stage productions like this one, in which ladies wear evening gowns and heels, and gentlemen wear tuxes.

"There are many versions of how tango began," he explains. "It was considered a lascivious dance."

Located along the Atlantic, Buenos Aires teemed with sailors and immigrants from countries all over Europe, from Spain to Italy to Germany. The sailors were called "porteños," Bravo writes in a short history of tango, and in the 1880s converged on the bars and houses of ill repute, mixing with working-class locals.

The men's competition for women helped generate tango: The stylized back-and-forth dance mimics sex itself. But it sometimes enacts the jousting of young men pushing each other into greater feats of bravado. Even today, the melancholy music and dramatic dance moves are popular in Argentine clubs, he says.

The music that came to be linked with tango is a "heady cultural brew," Bravo writes. That German accordion is in there, and so are Spanish rhythms, the milonga music of the pampas and possibly African beats handed down from the slaves. The word "tango," he says, may come from African drums called tan-go, or from the Latin word tango, "I touch."

Forever Tango has "group numbers and musical interludes. It's very elegant, a social dance, but it's about the dark side."

Bravo grew up in Anatuya, Santiago del Estero, in the "middle of the country, a poor area," and came to tango through music.

"I started as a cellist, and I have always been involved with tango as a musician. It's in the atmosphere here. It's everywhere."

His family moved to Buenos Aires when he was 8, and he studied at a municipal conservatory and at the University of Buenos Aires. After playing with the Argentine National Symphony, he came to the United States and studied and performed here, including with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute Orchestra.

When he returned home, he says, "I didn't find the country that I had left. I wanted to come to the U.S. and pursue a career." He hit on the idea of staging a tango revue, and has been directing Forever Tango ever since.

Bravo still performs music, in Argentina and elsewhere.

"I make recordings as a concert player, and sometimes, I play with orchestras." He has also produced a second stage production, Malambo, which showcases multiple strands of Argentine music and dance, including the country dances of the gaucho. But his heart belongs to tango.

For him, tango is the music not only of the immigrant, but of the emigrant--"someone who is always leaving and never finds home."

And in Tucson, Mr. Bravo will perform the music himself.

"I will play on stage," he promises.

This weekend, another dance concert, on a smaller scale, will have local dancers and choreographers converging on ZUZI's Theater, to try out work in progress on a live audience. The show's name, Gotta Have HeART, honors not only Valentine's Day, but the grit of those brave enough to unveil their embryonic efforts.

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