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This article by Nicole Plett was published in the Preview section of U.S. 1 Newspaper

on April 15, 1998. All rights reserved.

Tango — Now and Forever

It’s only a social dance on a dance floor, but when

it’s done well, Marjorie Duryea says the tango "is like a three-minute

love affair."

At the Actor’s Dance Studio on Brunswick Avenue, Duryea teaches beginning

and intermediate tango every Friday night, and once a month transforms

her studio into a Tango Salon. The success of the venture is part

of a world-wide explosion of interest in the tango that’s been gaining

momentum for more than a decade. In London you can tango every night

of the week. And Holland, Germany, Finland, and Japan are just some

of the nations with thriving tango subcultures. This week on Broadway,

Luis Bravo’s "Forever Tango," a dance show with an anticipated

run of six months, is moving, after more than a year, into larger

quarters at the Marquis Theater.

At the State Theater in New Brunswick on Sunday, April 19, the New

Jersey Film Festival screens "The Tango Lesson," a semi-autobiographical

film that also chronicles the passionate collision between a British

movie director and the Argentinean social dance that becomes her obsession.

The film is written, directed by, and stars Sally Potter, known to

moviegoers as the writer and director of "Orlando."

"The Tango Lesson" tells the story of Sally, a filmmaker (played

by Potter) who, dissatisfied with the screenplay she’s working on

in Paris, stumbles upon the tango and an Argentinean tango dancer,

Pablo (played by the notable Pablo Veron, star of the stage show,

"Tango Argentina"). Fascinated by the form and its practitioner,

she places herself under Pablo’s tutelage and strikes a deal: if Pablo

will make her a tango dancer, she will let him star in her next film.

He fulfills his side of the bargain when the duo performs a stage

show. But her attempt to make a film with Pablo in Buenos Aires exposes

the complexities at the heart of the story — and the dance. How

do you follow when your instinct is to lead?

In her notes to the movie, director Potter explains. "When I first

started taking tango lessons it was as a break from the intensely

cerebral, sedentary process of scriptwriting. But what began as something

on the sidelines of my life — something done for pleasure, for

fun — gradually became an obsession. Then the obsession became

a fire fueling a new film."

"Gradually the lovely, visceral, pleasurable world of the tango

itself became the `serious’ work," says Potter. "And, as in

the story, what started out as an exploration of the dance — literally,

a tango lesson — became a series of life lessons."

Although she says she had never desired to perform on film, Potter

knew that she needed top tango dancers in her cast, none of whom had

acted on film before. Which is how she, also, came to make her acting

debut. "I had to climb into the ring with them and be prepared

to reveal myself as much, or more, than I was asking of them."

In keeping with the mysterious magic of the dance, the

genesis of tango is unclear, but it is known that the dance originated

in the bars, brothels, and streets of the barrios of Buenos Aires.

Its mixed origins echo the mixed ethnic origins of its proponents

with African, gaucho, and European folk elements. It’s essentially

an improvised form in which the steps, swivels, and turns are taken

from an endless variety of permutations based on a basic vocabulary

of moves.

The milonguero close-hold tango style, danced since before

the turn of the century in Buenos Aires, retains the pure form. However

an international tango craze of the 1920s began to change the tango.

And today’s stage form of the tango — a fast, athletic spectacle

with high kicks and acrobatic moves — is known in Argentina as

"tango for export" and considered too flashy for the salons.

"Of course, it’s a fantasy that this woman would dance this well

in just a matter of weeks," says Duryea, who saw "The Tango

Lesson" in New York last year. "It only takes a couple of

lessons to move around the floor and tango. But in order to get the

line of the body, that takes years and years." Potter spent about

two years mastering the tango with partner Veron, and Duryea says

her background in modern dance clearly helped. "There’s a strong

technique in Argentine tango, and there’s a ballet-based line. When

I teach, I even have to use ballet terminology like `arabesque’ and

`tendu.’ If you don’t have that training in modern dance and ballet,

it’s going to take you longer." Also concealed from the film-goer

are the physical demands of the tango on the 47-year-old Potter. At

the end of an all-day filming session for the dance finale, she required

a doctor and an hour-and-a-half, just to get her shoes off her feet.

Duryea, a dark, petite woman, also discovered the Argentine tango

suddenly. She encountered it seeven years ago during some ballroom

classes she was taking in New York in preparation for opening her

Lawrence Township studio. "Wow! is what this class said to me,"

Duryea recalls. "It appealed to the actress in me. And when you

dance the tango with somebody — it could be a total stranger —

but the passion of the music is such that it seems that you could

be having a love affair with that person for three minutes."

Duryea grew up in Belle Mead before moving to New York. She began

her career dancing in musical theater, dancing jazz, tap, and ballet.

"I moved into choreography by accident and stayed there,"

she says, "because it was easier to get steady work there."

Yet the show-biz "get your hat and smile" type of dance never

really appealed to her, and she got involved in acting. She has taught

dance continuously since the early 1970s. For the past 12 years she

has taught acting at MCCC and at the Performing Arts High School.

Her husband David Duryea, whom she met in New York, is an actor turned

computer programmer who works on voice access system development in

Piscataway. But at six-feet tall to her five-feet, Duryea says her

husband couldn’t be her dance partner even if he wanted to, so she

switches partner from salon to salon.

Tango orchestras are not prominent in the film, "The Tango Lesson;"

many dances accompanied by recorded music. The reason here is the

filmmaker’s desire to feature the music of many of the titans of tango

composition who have passed from the scene. Among the 20 selections

from the motion picture soundtrack are a host of original recordings

by the masters of tango composition played by some of Argentina’s

greatest musicians and bandleaders. The sounds of these alternately

spine-chilling and heart-rending songs can be thrilling for dancers

and klutzes alike.

At Duryea’s Tango Salon, students dance all evening in a session that

is also open to the public. From 15 to 30 dancers usually participate.

She says many of the dancers have been with her for three years, since

she started her tango lessons. Most tend to be in their 30s and 40s.

"They’ve been bitten by the Argentine tango," she says. "They

have a passion about it. At the end, I almost have to throw them out

of dance class and send them home."

Although you don’t need to bring a partner to the salon, Duryea notes

that she can’t guarantee one of the opposite sex. (At the March salon,

male dancers outnumbered female.) But tango also has a tradition,

for practice purposes, of men dancing with men, and women with women.

"Tango’s unusual because the lead can switch from one partner

to the other. And it’s very hard to follow," says Duryea. And

yes, like Sally Potter, Duryea adds, "I do prefer to lead."

— Nicole Plett

The Tango Lesson, New Jersey Film Festival, State

Theater, New Brunswick, 732-932-8482. Also "Office Killer"

directed by artist Cindy Sherman. $8. Sunday, April 19, 7 p.m.

Tango Salon, Theater/Dance Workshop, Actor’s Dance

Studio, 1012 Brunswick Avenue, Trenton, 609-882-6099. Marjorie Duryea

leads an evening of tango lessons, demos, and open dancing. Reservations.

$8. Friday, April 24, 9 p.m.


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