Two To Tango: Or the Politics of Interpretive Dance

2007fall_theirplace6The stage in The House – our city’s main little theatre – lists to the right. I’m not sure how long this has been so, but it has become more and more problematic as the principal dancers in our town have begun to age. Not nearly as spry as they used to be, the members of our two-pronged production company – half clad in red, the other bedecked in blue – have a tendency to tumble into a two-toned heap. Sliding towards the edge of the stage, it isn’t rare to see dancers reaching out to prevent each other from falling over the lip.

The Reds and Blues – coloured that way since the dawn of the theatre – have staged a show called Tango for as long as anyone can remember. They’ve been marketing it as the greatest show on earth – and taken up permanent residence in The House. And while the crowds aren’t coming to see them in quite the numbers they used to, the dancers remain comfortably in residence. Our little city, you see, knows what it likes.

It’s odd, really, that such a re-tread of a production can still draw an audience – particularly when we used to have such a unique reputation for dance – but, then, Hollywood has proven that this is the era of the sequel and the re-boot.

Part of what has kept bums in the seats is that each of the two main players take turns leading the dance, allowing each (in turn) to perform to their seemingly different respective audiences. A keen eye will reveal that the steps remain the same – that only the music changes. But no one really bothers with a keen eye anymore. They just revel in the familiar. The Reds and the Blues both know: the show doesn’t need to be fresh – I mean, does anyone even tango anymore? It doesn’t have to be innovative. It just has to keep people distracted on a Saturday night. No one knows for certain which colour will lead any next dance.  And that minor mystery, strangely, seems to be enough to satisfy.

The other secret to success? They sign up some darned intriguing guest stars for peak season.

Sure, there is some drama. Sure there is cranky conflict between the two leads. There is even still the odd stale whiff of dissonance. But most of this is part of the performance. It is a part of the dance. It’s what show business is all about – the magic of theatre – making make-believe real.

Or as real as they can try to make it, which is getting tough for these long-in-the-tooth dancers to actually pull off. Quite frankly, between you and me, it’s all starting to look a bit staged. Between the limps and the falls and the not-so-vibrant, threadbare costumes, it’s not nearly the show it once was.

But it’s still the place to be for a night on the town.

And oh, they do try. Trust me on this one. The production company needs to turn a profit. They may call it art, but a simple truth remains: if they don’t fill the seats, the show closes down. Having been at this since 1867, they know this truth to be absolute. And they’ve learned how to pack a crowd while maintaining their aging prima donna roles. After all, the number one goal is to keep the dancers employed. Luckily for them, this two-pronged production has been a cash cow – guaranteeing shared sales and sponsorship. While no one quite knows why for certain, our town just loves the show.

The funny thing is that the dancers aren’t even playing to the paying customers. No, siree Bob. They have their sights set on the box seats – to the rich patrons and corporate sponsors — who are hardly fickle when it comes to which aging dancer takes the leading role. Season ticket holder, Conrad Black, baldly stated so earlier this season.

And if there is preferential treatment given to the people who keep the house lights on, so be it. That’s just the way show business operates. Why, a red-suited theatre manager type just recently tried to give seasons tickets to those big time sponsors from the gas station. No doubt we’ll be hearing shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” coming from the folks in evening wear.

Now, while the Reds and Blues aren’t the only production in town, they are the nice safe bet for the plush-seater – the fancy joint where the old boys are known kick back and relax.

Down at the Community Centre, another troupe has been working out. They’ve gained a bit of a reputation, these folks. Word on the street is that they are, ahem, aesthetes – that they believe in art, that they believe in the passion of dance, that you can actually see them (gasp!) sweat. Reading their programme, you’ll find that they started out as a fringe prairie project and have grown more and more polished and powerful through each leap and twirl.

And an odd thing has happened. Some of the folks in our fair town have taken to popping in to the Community Centre on a Saturday night. Rumour has it that they filled the joint a couple of weeks back. And that’s no mean feat!

But not everyone is pleased with the New Dance Party. For many, they’re just too darned political. Prone to putting on works that address human rights, the environment, the plight of aboriginal peoples – they’re not really a good fit for the folks in the corporate boxes and balconies. I mean, who wants to be confronted with reality when there is, make believe going on? And who wants to be challenged, when there is the comfort of the familiar?

Well, the critics apparently. So I’ve read in the our weekly town rag. And a growing number of audience members who claim to be educated in the world of dance. After decades of watching Tango – with dancers who can only limp in one direction – they’re ready for something more modern. Something they can feel passionate about. Something that they can actually believe in.

I’m going to come right out and say it. I’ve bought my tickets for the next performance. And today we’re getting a family pass. From what I’ve heard, ticket demand might just be enough to push New Dance into the larger venue. The one right smack dab in the middle of Main Street.

The only thing holding them back? An encore performance of that same old dance: Tango and Cash. With guest principal dancers — get this!  Justin Bieber and Wayne Gretzky!

I told you they loved to bring in the big guns!

This town ain’t big enough to support two major productions – and the NDP are still a few tickets away from securing the show.

I’ve heard that some folks are saying they’re pretty excited about the Bieber gig. I mean… that hair!

Dig a bit deeper and you find that they’re actually worried that they won’t get a refund if they splurge for the New Dance – you know, in case the venue doesn’t change and they lose their House tickets for Saturday with the Bieb. They’re buying tickets to Tango in hopes that Justin will get to call the tunes. They’re holding their noses and pretending that Wayne wouldn’t waltz the exact same steps — even if he has lost most of his moves.

Really, they say, if the show was good enough for their parents… and their parents’ parents… well, why not then?

Then there are some that, even after all these years, just seem genuinely satisfied with the show. But hey, there’s no accounting for taste.

Which brings us back to this Tuesday morning, when the box office sales will have finally come in.

If that same two-headed production is still occupying the stage, it will mean something that I’ve feared to admit to myself for a long, long time:

That we’re only capable of the same old song and dance.

And that art, in our little town, is dead.