Tokyo says 'Bravo!' to tango explosion

by Yuko Naito

The hottest song now in Japan is undoubtedly “Dango 3 Kyodai,” which humorously depicts the story of three dumpling brothers. Though originally composed for a children’s TV program, the song appealed to adults as well, and 3 million CDs have been sold so far.

The charm of the funny lyrics is undeniable, but at the root of the song’s success is the tangolike melody. Alongside ballroom dancing, tango has enjoyed immense popularity the past few years.

Spurring the boom was last year’s 100th anniversary of a treaty of commerce and friendship between Argentina and Japan. To commemorate the event, a stream of tango musicians and dancers have visited Japan, and tango-related publications and CDs (such as those of the late tango composer Astor Piazzolla) have seen brisk sales.

One of the highlights of the tango boom has been Luis Bravo’s “Forever Tango.” The longest-running tango show in Broadway’s history, the production finally came to Tokyo in February, filling Tokyo’s Aoyama Theater for six nights.

The spectacular show of tango music and dance features an all-Argentine cast, including seven pairs of dancers and an 11-piece orchestra with four bandoneon players.

The first act is set in a brothel in Buenos Aires about a century ago, when immigrants from Europe and Africa flooded the city. The dance first developed as an acting out of the relationship between a prostitute and her pimp, and was generally considered obscene.

Early tango represented not only sexual relationships, but also violent fights between two men over the same woman. Other parts of the program portray various dramas between men and women, some evoking laughter from the audience.

Thanks to media coverage and good word of mouth, the show was such a tremendous success that the group has been engaged to return to Tokyo this May with the same production.

“I heard Japanese people don’t talk much and are kind of shy, but I don’t see any difference [in terms of their reaction to the show] from any audiences in other parts of the world: a big explosion at the end of the show,” says Luis Bravo, the show’s creator and director.

Bravo, however, is neither a professional dancer nor a choreographer. He is a classical cellist who has performed as a soloist with many orchestras in the U.S. and South America.

“Many people may be impressed by dance, but dance is merely one visual element of tango, and there are other elements such as music, lighting, acting and costumes. I put all those elements together on stage,” Bravo says.

“I’m involved in every aspect of the show — not only the selection of musicians and dancers, but also makeup, hairstyle and even the height of the heel of women’s shoes. That is why the show looks very homogeneous, because it comes from only one person, not from many different creators and designers. That’s why my name is included in the title of the show.”

In terms of dance technique, tango allows tremendous latitude in personal interpretation and even encourages a certain amount of improvisation. Bravo says, with this in mind, he first suggested the idea of “three-minute wordless dramas” for each dance piece, and collaborated with each couple.

Bravo was born in Anatuya, Santiago del Estero, “the poorest neighborhood in Argentina,” and moved to Buenos Aires when he was 8. Though poor, his parents, who were teachers, provided him and his sister with an educational environment.

Bravo started playing the guitar at the age of 4, and later took up the cello and showed talent in the instrument. Fortunately, his parents discovered his musical talent and fostered it.

After studying at two universities in Buenos Aires, Bravo joined the Argentine National Symphony at the age of 21, and performed for three years with them until he moved to the United States to study further under Ronald Leonard at 24.

While playing Schubert’s or Mozart’s concertos, he never stopped loving and playing tango, which is “something I was brought up with,” Bravo says. When he turned 34, he decided to stop playing classical music for a while to concentrate on realizing the idea of “Forever Tango.”

The foray was a tremendous success. It premiered in 1994 at Theater on the Square in San Francisco, where the show ran for 92 weeks and broke the theater’s box-office records.

After touring major cities of Europe, Canada and the United States, the production arrived at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater in June 1997, and later on moved to the Marquis Theater, where it was performed till August of 1998.

The show is still touring the world, and more than 3 million people have seen it. In 1998 it was nominated for best choreography at the Tony Awards.

He says the worldwide tango boom “helped to spread the reputation of tango,” but he emphasizes that tango is nothing special in his home country. “Tango is our culture, heritage, the way we talk, and the way we make friends,” he explains. “It is everywhere on the street for everyone.”