Argentine tango dancer, instructor and musician Alex Krebs will be performing with Company Artist Grace Shibley at OBT’s upcoming Gala, Viva la Danza, on April 14th. Brook Manning, OBT Teaching Artist, sat down in Mr. Krebs’ tango studio to talk with him about his background, the process of setting a tango performance on a ballerina and the crossovers he sees between the two forms.
Brook: How did you come to tango?
Alex: I was listening to public radio in California, probably in ’95, and I heard Carlos Gardel, who is an old tango singer from the 1920’s. It was just him and guitar. The music was, for me, the link and the hook. Then I discovered the intricate footwork of the dance, and then, after eight months, found the tango connection. I didn’t know that was part of it, this moving in unison with one person. Then I started learning the bandoneón and got reconnected to the music via that. I formed a group and went down to Buenos Aires. When I came back, people said, “Do you teach?” I didn’t expect to teach tango. I was studying physics and music at Reed and was planning to go to graduate school in music. I graduated and what was going to be one year off before going to grad school has now been 13 years and tango has just kept growing and growing. I’ve taught, performed and dj’d all over Europe and the States. I bought this studio in 2001.
Brook: Can you touch on the history of tango?
Alex: Tango’s history is a bit mysterious. The word on the street is that it started in the brothels, but there were many scholars in the ‘90’s in Buenos Aires who were debunking that. As early as 1900, tango was already in the big downtown dance halls being danced by people with money. In the ‘30’s, there were conservative media that wanted to kill tango. They didn’t like it representing their culture so they painted it as something that was danced in the brothels. That just made it more interesting to people, made them more curious. …Debunking these myths is very important. I took down a lot of the artwork that I had in my studio. I realized that I didn’t want to keep portraying the stereotype, the cliché that has nothing to do with the reality of its history. It’s like this fantasized mythical tango that never existed.
Brook: I was thinking about the structure of the dance. Tango is obviously shared because you start with this leaning, A-frame structure. Then there’s the whole improvised side of it; versus ballet, which is largely an independent, choreographed experience.
Alex: I often say in this dance, the leader’s the choreographer, the follower’s the dancer. …In tango we have structures of improvisation. When I teach, I tell people that I’ll teach you the words, you form the sentences. We’re not trying to teach people to make up words. There are certain words: there’s walking, there’s the cross, there’s ochos, there’s the molinete. I sometimes say there are 12 or 14 words that you learn. Then how you combine them is up to you and that’s where the improvisation starts. Once you learn those rules and learn that basic structure, then it frees you up to improvise.
Brook: Did Grace have any previous tango experience before working with you?
Alex: No. None. Never heard the music. Never seen the dance. But, I think it’s interesting that since, I’d say, 2000, ballet technique has more heavily influenced follower technique than any other dance form. Many of the embellishments are rond de jambes and attitudes. A lot of ballet dancers in Buenos Aires took up tango and learned it very quickly and somehow morphed what they were doing. Whether it was conscious or not, I don’t know, but they started fusing movements. Because tango before then was a lot more raw. You didn’t have four inch, spiked heels. You had chunkier heels; you had chunkier movement. It was still elegant and fluid, but the lines weren’t as graceful, as Westernized.
From working with ballet dancers in tango in the past, I know that collecting the legs is hard; that when you plié in tango your knees have to be together, not apart. Or when you start reaching, ballet dancers want to turn out and then reach, but you have to reach and turn out more as the reach goes on. Then there’s getting the grounded feel and look. Ballet dancers, although they’re grounded, everything is up. The arms are up, you’re on pointe; everything is up, up, up. While in tango, the ribcage is up, but the elbows and shoulders have to have an earthiness. There’s also a forwardness that we’ve been discovering. In ballet you’re a lot more upright. In tango the body language is forward and you’re projecting yourself through your partner in a forward way.
Brook: How did working with a classically trained dancer like Grace affect your approach to the dance?
Alex: Sometimes when she would do full extensions I would have to actually change my technique in a good way. Usually I can’t do a full extension because whoever I’m dancing with doesn’t do a full extension so I have to mirror, otherwise I’m just running over my partner. And I have long legs. She’s also tall and she does a real extension. Literally, when we’re rehearsing here, it’s four steps and we’re on the other side of the room. So we actually had to modify a few things because in three slow beats we cover the entire 30 feet.
Brook: What music will you be dancing to at the Gala?
Alex: Pugliese’s version of “A Los Amigos.” Everyone loves Pugliese. “A Los Amigos” is from 1952 or ‘54, right at the end of the Golden Age. It’s a piece that’s not overplayed at the tango dances. And I’ve never seen a choreography done to it. Often you see a choreography and then you can’t let go of it. So for me it doesn’t have any attachments to a person or to a situation, which is nice. But I was telling Grace, from here on out I won’t be able to social dance to this song. It’s been bronzed.
Pugliese is probably the easiest for me to choreograph to because I’m very used to social dancing to it. It tells me what to do. I don’t have to think about it. There’s a storyline that’s already been weaved in. The movements are already there. They just have to be plucked out and that’s the easier part.
Brook: For those who’ve only seen Hollywood tango with a rose clenched between the teeth and dramatic dips, what should they expect to see?
Alex: What you’ll see definitely is not the cliché. This is the real deal. This is a very traditional interpretation to a very traditional tango. I am more a milonguero (social dancer) than a performer. That I think is an important distinction. My main focus is the feeling, the musicality. So they’re getting an amped up version of what I would normally do on the social dance floor. There is never a rose in the mouth. I don’t know where that came from. We never use dips, so there’s a big difference between social tango and show tango.
I think part of the show is for the audience to be like a voyeur looking into the experience of the connection. Rather than you saying, “Here I am. Look at me, audience”; it’s more like the audience is not really there. I mean they’re there, but you’re focused on each other and the connection and the music. I think that’s interesting for an audience to see. It’s a very different way of performing. What you’re projecting is that something internal.
Brook: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Alex: I think people have a preconception of what tango is, that it’s more recreational, but there is depth to it – this is my lifestyle, my art, my science, my religion.
Mr. Krebs will host a milonga (social dance) on April 7th at his studio, Tango Berretín, where he and Ms. Shibley will be previewing their performance. There will be a beginner’s lesson from 8:00-9:00 followed by social dancing and their performance at 10:45. All are welcome to join. Details can be found online at www.tangoberretin.com