Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Special Topic: Ballroom Roots

Ice dance began its life as "hand-in-hand skating," something separate from the "combined" skating also en vogue around the turn of the twentieth century, and analogized to waltz and polka by Captain J.H. Thomson in Norcliffe G. Thompson and F. Laura Cannan's Hand-in-hand Figure Skating (1896). Indeed, forms of the waltz and other simple in-hold dances were the first real ice dances, and this is no accident; concurrently, no social dance had greater stature than the waltz in Europe and North America of the late nineteenth century.

And as I hope this blog has amply suggested, these fortuitous turns -- so many ballroom styles paired with compulsory patterns of a related name -- were no sort of pure good fortune at all, but entirely deliberate. Ballroom dance expanded in scope and public success in the 1910s and '20s courtesy of popular performers like Vernon and Irene Castle, a shift in societal perceptions of moral propriety, and an overall turn towards social good times in the post-Great War era. The Blackpool Dance Festival, contributing to the process of codifying the ballroom dances, began in 1920, while the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing began formulating its ballroom syllabus in 1924. A decade later, under the auspices of the National Skating Association, British rinks would host ice dancing competitions with an eye towards developing and codifying new ice dance patterns like tangos, waltzes, foxtrot and quickstep. If it's a constant challenge to discern the link between today's ballroom figures and yesterday's compulsory steps, it's not to argue that this kinship with ballroom was ever meant to be forgotten or discarded.

But perhaps most telling of the relationship between disciplines in this foundational period is the gift figure skating left to ballroom in 1938: a scoring program still called the skating system. Though today such a link is more irrelevant to ice dance than a foxtrot is to Dancesport, it's worthy of recall.

Ice dance has developed far beyond its initial strict requirements of hold and close skating, the more staid ballroom trappings of its first decades as a world-contested discipline. But in a scored, competitive system -- and in the absence of alternative dance standards to draw upon, like ballet's strict and clear-cut steps and demands of technique -- ice dance must either find a wholly new form of legitimately difficult, objectively assessed separated movements upon which to base itself as a discipline, or accept its roots as a couples' discipline, one that sets itself apart from pairs by virtue of the literal partner connection.

Given the ever-changing and ever-curious tweaks to the discipline's rules and syllabus on a near annual basis, some small heed to history -- and a form of objective fact no matter how scored -- seems essential.

20. Tango Pt. 3: Vintage

If ice dance tangos can be ballroom and Argentine, compulsory, short-form or freestyle, they can also take their cues from a wholly other source: history. More than seems to be the case with other styles, like waltz or the Latin dances, tango seems to inspire choreographers and skaters to a vintage tribute.

Our source today is the tango that first developed in North America and Western Europe in the 1910s and '20s. In the wake of its introduction by Vernon and Irene Castle, it would be popularized through Rudolph Valentino's performance of an extremely stylized and less-than-authentic tango in 1921's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, set here to that utmost staple of tango, 1917's "La Cumparsita" by Uruguayan musician Gerardo Matos Rodriguez:

Some have observed that this performance is really more of an apache dance, but the identification of it as a tango, as performed by rising star Valentino, was sufficient to raise the dance’s profile further. And so the tango continued along its merry standardized way as a social dance, one performed to contemporary popular music, one increasingly-distanced from its Argentinian roots -- as suggested by this quite staid 1928 film, courtesy of British Pathé:

As demonstrated by Valentino and partner, the dance can have those slinky, staccato steps, but can also take on a livelier, more flirtatious character. It's like the early stage behavior cheekily ascribed to the American Tango style: happy, romantic, and only vaguely uneasy around the other. (Worth noting that the prospect of revisiting a Charleston-era version of tango is not alien to the ballroom world, as demonstrated in this show dance.)

But it's this ur-version of the tango that informed Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir's 2010-11 short dance. The two each described the piece as having a “Great Gatsby era feel.” But here's another twist from the other tangos we've discussed: the program, as required for that season's short dance, was actually constructed around the Golden Waltz pattern.

So with that bit of technical exposition out of the way, let’s get to the root of those “Gatsby era” allusions:

The tango music is indeed of era -- 1928's "Schenkst Du Beim Tango Mir Dein Herz" -- and while we've seen other takes on tango from Virtue and Moir, they have typically come in the form of something more closely related to the Argentine tango, with the force and passion associated. And this is key: we know that they knew, and that choreographer Marina Zoueva knew, how to craft a tango. The choices made here, avoiding much in the way of traditional enganches and boleos, is intentional. Instead, they've taken things in a rather more unusual direction, one which offers up a stagier sort of styling. Where the waltz is a true moment of connection, the tango framing is a narrative device which shares some of the propriety of that 1928 interpretation; there is a self-consciousness that's deliberate, and it feels in line with a sense of embodying a sort of play-acting old-fashioned tango dance: it's an imported, vaguely exotic style adapted for American (and European) society, popularized by an actor. The program's point of reference is a novel. It's far easier to see a reflection of that old British film footage than, say, some demonstration from a South American club.

But Virtue and Moir weren't the only couple to take up the vintage-imbued wango challenge that year, nor even the only Canadians. And this aesthetically vintage tango for Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam offers up quite a reverse interpretation; instead of setting apart tango as a form of dance-driven plot device, it instead functions as dominant theme, with the waltz itself subsumed by the other dance's character courtesy of a 3/4-time arrangement of "La Cumparsita":

"A Los Amigos," the primary music selection, is a contemporary tango composition, but one that blends well with the traditional piece; tango movement at 1:18 and 2:26 is used to transition into and out of the Golden Waltz and obviously comprises the in-hold segments that sandwich that Golden Waltz. The dance itself is more familiarly Argentine than Virtue and Moir's, but neither was this an entirely foreign notion even in the Gatsby era:

The 1920s rendition may lack the more complex footplay of the style's later twentieth century re-emergence, but there are still elements worth noting for comparison here, like a demonstrably dramatic opening and an early form of the assisted leap Paul executes at 3:26 in the skating performance, seen here at 1:23 -- while the skated leap could also be considered a more refined and foot-intricate form of the salto at 1:06 in Valentino's dance.

And this past season, though music selection ("Con Buena Onda") was entirely modern, costuming -- reminiscent of this 1930 Louise Brooks clip -- suggested another spin on a mid-century sort of vintage for Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier in a tango free dance:

There are nods as expected to Argentine tango movement, such as the pasadas at 2:21 and 2:51 and the sequence from 3:18-3:25, but more central in connecting this dance to vintage tango is its dramatic nature. Tricks like Gilles' pass through Poirier's legs at 2:00 are not tango-traditional, but do contribute to a theatrical conceit, while the opening sequence could remind one of the highly stylized nature of the apache approach.

Given the recent welcome announcement of Tango Romantica- and Argentine Tango-based short dances for the 2018-19 season, our series on skated tango should offer a few relevant previews of routes teams will take; should the secondary rhythm be (as presently indicated) even more wide-ranging than those on offer for couples in that 2010-11 Golden Waltz season, the chance of a more creative take -- tango as story, tango as historical artifact -- is even more likely. But the most pressing question of all: will that bold couple, too, be Canadian? The season will tell.