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“BUILDING A BETTER WORLD, ONE TANGO AT A TIME”
An Integral Tango Encounter with
Gustavo Naveira: Interview
The following is an extensive interview with tango maestro Gustavo Naveira . The interview began in March 2005, and has continued ever since. The interview is ongoing, and I'd like to include some interesting questions from others - if you have questions you'd like to ask, please send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org for possible inclusion in later segments.
Gustavo Naveira Interview, Part 1
DOTH: When did tango begin for you?
GN: I grew up around tango - my father was a tanguero, and we always had tango music playing in the house. But regarding the dance, there was a special moment that I remember. When I was 12, we went with my family to a wedding. It was nobody we knew personally, my mother was the seamstress for the bride, so we didn?t know anyone there. During the reception, someone put on a tango, and a woman at the reception, when she heard it, asked in a loud voice, "Is there any man here that has what it takes to really dance a tango with me?" Nobody answered at the beginning, but my father, a stranger to that group, suddenly said, "It would be my pleasure, senora." A big silence fell over the room. My father was on the other side of the room from the woman, and he stood there, waiting for her acceptance. When she said yes, he walked towards her & they met in the middle of the ballroom. And they danced. And of course, they had never met before. And they danced perfectly well, as if they had done it for a long time. This situation was amazing for me & for everyone at the party. At that moment, my father became for me a hero.
As a comment on this culture, I should say that another reason this happened was that the women of my family were not there in the room at that moment. It was just my papa & me. If my mother had been there, I think my father would not have done it.
When I was sixteen, I wanted to learn to dance tango from my father, but, well, it wasn?t very successful. So when I was in my twenties, about 1981, I started studying with Rodolfo Dinzel. I was one of his best students within that course, and he took special notice of me and worked me very very hard. At that time, I had found a practice partner that I met at the University of Buenos Aires, in the folklorico ballet. And that partner was Olga (Besio) who afterward was my wife. She began to encourage me to start teaching. I first started teaching with her in 1983.
There was something very important for the development of tango that happened at this point, relative to the political situation in Argentina. Yes, democracy returned to the government in 1983, but the military dictatorship was not the reason that tango had been dying out as a social dance - even in the Golden Age of tango, we had Peron, who was also a military dictator! In Argentina, many people like to blame many things on the government, because then it means that they don?t have to do anything themselves. It's a problem we have...
No, the important thing for tango at this time was that the new president, Raul Alfonsin, took a very significant step. He created a network of cultural centers throughout Buenos Aires, and created a program to hire people to give classes in a wide variety of subjects to the people of the city, at no cost to the students. What they discovered was that, while someone would teach photography and have five students, or teach painting and have ten students, or teach guitar and have fifteen students, people who taught tango dancing had fifty, seventy, a hundred students in their classes.
One time, at the cultural center where I was teaching, the class size limit was supposed to be one hundred and fifty students. The administrators were supposed to stop taking applications for the class after they reached the limit, but someone forgot to do that, and just kept accepting applications. When I went to class on the first day, there were five hundred students packed in this tiny room! I could barely get in the door! I got a chair in the middle somehow, stood up on it, and said "All right, everybody to my left, stay here - everybody to my right, come back in July!"
This was very new - a large-scale structure and program that made it really easy for anyone to learn how to dance tango. And all the teachers taught as best they could, with no organization to determine who was "right" and who was "wrong". I know many teachers who are claiming to be "authentic tango" teachers, who started dancing tango in my classes!
Many people in other countries think that it was the show "Tango Argentino" that triggered the "rebirth" of tango in Argentina in the 1980's. But that show didn't return to Argentina until late in the decade - by that time I had had hundreds and hundreds of people in my classes at the cultural centers and elsewhere. That show went to Paris at about the same time as the popular interest in tango was unleashed in a flood in Buenos Aires, but the flood didn't start with the show - people just wanted to dance, they just wanted to move their bodies. So people in other countries heard about the tango from those shows - but in Argentina it came from inside the people.
And this desire to dance, to move - it wasn't just happening in Argentina, with its return to democracy - at that time all over the world, you saw the same thing - people became interested in participating in sports, running, triathlons, aerobics - health clubs suddenly became very successful and popular - anything to be moving! In Argentina, for many people this movement took the form of learning to tango.
When it was time for me to start teaching my first class, naturally before the classes I was busy working on what I would say, how I would teach. So of course I was sitting down with a paper and pencil, designing the classes. Olga and I created extensive notes before the first classes we taught, which I still have - yes, here they are. (Notes, charts, tables, diagrams, drawings - more than sixty pages worth! -Ed.) In a way, that is what I have been doing ever since - sitting there with that paper and pencil, analyzing and synthesizing, looking for the structure underneath the social dance that surrounded me.
Gustavo Naveira Interview, Part 2
DoTH: During the first workshop we took with you in 1999, organized by Daniel Trenner, we visited your Friday practica at Cochabamba 444, and heard the stories about how for many years this was a famous gathering spot for you, Fabian (Salas), "Chicho" (Frumboli), and others who worked closely with you for a long time. How did this begin?
GN: I had been attending the practica of Pepito Avellaneda, at Cochabamba 444 in the Club Belgrano in San Telmo. At one point in the 1980's, Pepito was very much in demand as a dancer and teacher in Europe and elsewhere. So he asked me to take over his practica on Friday nights. Students who were working with me would come and practice things there. I remember Fabian in the beginning - he was kind of a wild man. I'd be the one to organize the space, rent the rooms, then we would get together and try crazy things, to find the underlying structural possibilities. I remember one night we discovered that there were 98 possible ganchos in the turn!
We were forever discussing tango, looking for good information and ideas from anyone who would talk to us that seemed to know something. You know, in my study of tango, often I would encounter a "tango master", and even if you approached them respectfully, they would have an attitude of, "I know everything, you are sh**, don't bother me". This is a typical attitude from an earlier way of looking at tango. So it was often very difficult to learn useful things about tango from them.
One night, I remember Fabian turned to me and said, "Gustavo, we are on our own. We need to look at the dance from a point of view of underlying structure, and rebuild our approach to the dance from the things we discover trying to do that." (Note: Fabian's point of view of many of these events can be found in a fascinating interview at Keith Elshaw's website at www.totango.net - Ed.).
DoTH: "Chicho" (Mariano Frumboli) said in a recent interview that everything he knows about tango structure he learned from you. When did Chicho enter the scene?
GN: I don't remember exactly the dates, maybe around 1990. I was very successful as a teacher from the beginning. And at that time the tango community was very small, so everyone knew about me more or less immediately. I met Chicho through Victoria, his partner at the time. Victoria was a contemporary dancer, actress, & many other things, a great artist. And she was learning tango, & she met Chicho as a partner in her acting work. Chicho was going to play a character in a piece of dance theater with her. It was necessary for him to do a few steps of tango as part of his role. So, she brought him to me for lessons.
By the way, it's interesting about Victoria. Before, you mentioned how Ana Maria Stekelman's work was important for you in Boulder. (Stekelman's "Tangokinesis" dance troupe gave a very influential series of tango performances at the Colorado Dance Festival in Boulder in 1997. - Ed.) Some years before that, I was called to be the "tango maestro de baile" in an opera in Teatro Colon, where Ana Maria Stekelman was working. She was the primary choreographer for the work, & she & the director hired me as an "assistant director of tango". They needed a full choreography of "classical tango". It was a major opera with 15 soloist singers, 100 musicians, & 300 singers in the chorus. The production was called "Maratón" - a world premier of a new opera. Stekelman, right at the beginning of the work, had to travel, and finally she couldn't continue, she left. So the director named me to be the primary choreographer. He told me, "You need an assistant," so I called Victoria to help. Finally that was not enough, so the director called another woman to work with us on the choreography. This new woman, Lea, Victoria & me - we built between us two hours and a half of choreography for 50 dancers in 22 scenes, in 3 months in 1990.
But, with Chicho, around this time, with only 6 months of study, he was amazing as a tango dancer. After that, I think he left acting, music, and everything else. He became so obsessed with the tango - I will always remember one day, in my studio, he looked at me very seriously and said, "Gustavo, what are we going to do with this!? This is such an amazing way of making art, we must do something really great with this, something HUGE!!!" And he got very excited, very crazy in telling me this, and, well, in that moment our story really began.
Chicho was absolutely the best dancer I ever saw. He started working with us, with Fabian and me, and we said, "Well, we have to get him to really join us in this work, or else we have to break his legs!" He did crazy things no one else could do!
DoTH: In your seminars, your students often videotape themselves practicing the material, but you discourage this. Could you explain?
GN: In our classes now, we often tell the students that we encourage them to take written notes, instead of just making video records of the moves. First of all, when you perform the action of making a video, what you are actually doing is practicing using your camera. This may be beneficial to you, but in itself it has nothing to do with learning tango. Then, most likely you will never look at the video again. And if you do, we predict it will not be nearly as useful to you as you had hoped when you made the video. We say this from personal experience. When I first worked with Giselle in 1995, we had both been invited to teach at a festival in Sitges, Spain. Since neither of us was attending with a partner, the organizer suggested that we perform together during the festival. We agreed, and in two days or so we put together a performance, which went quite well. After the festival was over, we did not see each other for a year, until the same organizer asked us to return to the same festival. But we didn't have much time to prepare, so we were not sure about performing together. The organizer assured us there would be no problem, because someone had made a video of last year's performance, and we could use it to reconstruct the same performance this year. What we discovered was that it was much more difficult and took far longer to reconstruct the performance from our own video than it had been to come up with the performance in the first place - and we had designed it ourselves!
I should say that one unexpected benefit was that the joint effort to accomplish quickly this very difficult task was the main reason we fell in love.
But the real point is: if you take written notes instead of just making a video of yourself, it's true that you may never look at the notes again either. But the ACT of making the notes will start to change the way you think about your tango. You will find a way to analyze and explain what you are doing to yourself in symbolic terms. These symbols will become valuable tools for you to analyze the tango you do and the tango you see others do, and will remain at your disposal when you are improvising the social dance. So the act of writing notes about your lessons WILL make you a better dancer, much more than the act of operating your camera.
DOTH: We often have great difficulty making our private practice effective, because of the conflicts that can arise. We know this is a difficulty for other tango couples as well. How is it for the two of you?
GN: It is an important thing that took me a long time to learn: sometimes you should not worry about doing it perfectly - you should just let things happen, for whatever reason they are happening in your dance at that moment. Often, if I wasn't practicing as well as I wanted to, I would start to get very upset with myself, and become even less able to dance well. If you judge yourself too harshly about not doing what you intended as well as you wanted, you will simply become more tense. This won't help you or your partner. It is important and useful to find a way of relaxing as you do your work, especially when you are working on difficult things together.
Gustavo Naveira Interview, Part 3
DoTH: You have said that about half your performances are improvised, and about half are choreographies. In terms of the choreographies, what are your methods of practicing?
GN: I don’t really have a method, but I know I have real control of the choreography after 2 years. We create it…then when it’s finished, when we’re more or less satisfied with what we did, we start doing it in performances. For the performances, we have to practice each time. Normally there is a regularity for these practices…once, twice, three times a week…but the frequency changes depending on our jobs…but more or less in the way we work, it takes that time.
DoTH: You've mentioned that the performance you gave in Long Beach, California in July 2003 was a particularly excellent performance up to that time...
GN: I tell you why and how we reached the best performance in Long Beach. We had the choreography for some years, but for that particular one (to Carlos Di Sarli's arrangement of "Don Juan" -Ed.), we had 10 days before, practicing with much regularity until the day of the performance. We reached that moment in a very good state, very good shape. Maybe half an hour, but daily. This regularity was the reason for a good technical level that we reached. We normally don’t have such regularity. For that occasion, we worked very precisely for the 10 days we had. The whole choreography was perfectly known, so those days we fine-tuned.
DoTH: We would be fascinated to know about the choices you make in your choreographies, especially Don Juan, for example.
GN: I remember one of our first choreographies was Emancipacion. We decided to change everything…but now, I would change it AGAIN. Something interesting: Giselle and I, we are keeping everything we’ve done. We also did much more, many choreographies for other people, for groups. But choreographies we did for us, we have them all, we didn’t lose them. I’d like to remake or revise them continuously.
DoTH: So you have how many choreographies exactly?
GN: We’ve been dancing together 10 years. We started in 1995 at Sitges, when we did our first choreographies. She was living in Europe, so we met there and danced in different festivals. So I would say we started dancing like partners at that time, and developing choreographies. At any given time, we have a dozen or so that are in a good state of readiness.
DoTH: Practice is difficult for us...so we are very interested in your method. We basically FIGHT! And this is the problem for many people coming to us as students of the dance.
GN: The truth is I could not solve the problem of fighting with my first partner. With Giselle, we have the possibility to solve it. On one side I accept it as part of "the life", but we do get results and we can improve and "go up the stairs", so in this case for us it works.
The way to do it is to go very deep on the technical situation and arrive to the foundation…when you reach a point where you can’t go on in this way, you need to negotiate, to make an agreement. And later on, you know more about technique, return to the conflict. But you must be both honest in the discussion of technique. To have an agreement on the identification of things – what you call a strong beat, must be the same thing SHE calls a strong beat. Identified by the same word, then you are mentioning the same thing…otherwise the conversation is a mess. Because finally you don’t know what the other one is talking about.
DoTH: So it begins with a shared concept.
GN: Yes, it comes with the identification of the problem.
About the problem of difficulties with the discipline of practice, I think on one side we can’t think about tango as a sport. You know that, in sports, if you don’t practice a certain number of hours, you can’t play professionally…without a certain level. But in tango, sometimes practice is not useful. You can’t direct the practice to achieve your objectives…because it seems to be leading you in another direction. I think, an opinion only, it’s because the tango is still developing. There’s nothing proved. You don’t know what can happen. And there is another problem…in football, it’s YOU who is running several hours a day to get your level, but in tango, it’s all about the RELATIONSHIP. You cannot compare tango to other dances because it’s a dance that sets a new world…it’s NOT individual, how he or she is doing things alone. It’s not fully explored yet, so that’s why I think we are still in a development moment. That’s why I say it’s not a rebirth of tango.
I think that before, the main thing was not the dance. In the old times, the people were dancing in order to express deep feelings about the music. The start of all this was the music, so they were trying to play everything around THAT. A social situation, not a political situation. This was interesting because it was about the relationship between people. But not concretely about the development of the dance through the relationship. The new subject is the development of the dance BASED on the relationship.
DoTH: That which is there until they are apart.
GN: Exactly. It’s what’s going on in the relationship when you dance with another one. As soon as you are alone, it’s over.
DoTH: So are we talking about the theater? A scene between 2 people?
GN: No that’s not it. We’re talking about something universal…something human beings never did before. A dance coming out of relationship.
DoTH: We could say that there are universal aspects of relationship based around male-female, for example. Someone you know was chatting with you, and the subject was "Why do you dance tango?" Your response at that time was, "It makes me feel like a man." That’s very interesting, a powerful statement. So the magic for us is to some degree a new way of looking at our relationships through tango. Until we had the dance in our relationship, there was for us a kind of "gap".
GN: If you thought it was not possible, you are suggesting it’s possible in another culture. I, too, thought in the beginning it was like that. When I started traveling in Europe, it was very difficult to explain to Northerners the concept of leading and following. It was a shock…for me, as for them. When I showed them how to dance, they look at me like – CRAZY! But now I really think that all these problems are a little bit – superficial. Because as soon as you go deeply into the dance and you go through this – well, it’s not something you can understand at first, but when you start going through the path, you start seeing many new things, that are really interesting. So, many people are very impressed by the superficial, but then they find other attractions that they didn’t see in the beginning. You find wild worlds of knowledge that are NOT registered anywhere. It’s like discovering a university, to find something so big and so wild, you cannot believe it. It’s so attractive.
But the thing is, when you get to that point, it’s not anymore a problem of the culture. In my culture, I believe it’s very difficult to go through this. I have to go through the relationship with my partner like it is. The real depth of the tango situation is not any more a problem of the culture. It’s a basic human problem. And those who are still thinking that way are old fashioned tangueros…and you can see that immediately. And for me that’s not interesting.
DoTH: You have given us a language first for the technique, but you’re now saying there’s more.
FN: Yes. I have discussions with Argentineans who hate to discuss this. I think it’s a mistake to believe you have to learn tango by having to go through cultural barriers. This is a superficial barrier.
DoTH: So this new frontier…there is perhaps a new structure to be developed about this world. Develop another new language for this parallel thing. Your original teaching sets the stage for another language to discuss, this deeper area to address.
GN: I’ll tell you something else. There is a very common attitude (of awe or respect), when you’re in front of something, a kind of study or learning with a lineage going back for 3,000 years, yoga for example, or forms of meditation…tango is only 50 years old! Even when we can have respect for something that lasts 3,000 years in the world…yoga or whatever you can find, the importance of the things are not directly related to the time they last. On the one side, it’s true tango is a baby, but on the other side, many people try to bring to the tango the mystery of long-term things, like yoga. Many people are trying to find the ‘old’ line/lineage for tango. But it is not yet in existence. We must not be afraid of not being important yet because we don’t have that. What we are doing now could be as important as these things that have lasted 3,000 years!
DoTH: (laughing) Time will tell!
GN: Time will talk! We simply think that what we are doing is very important!
DoTH: One thing we find fascinating is talking with others about the very powerful experiences that can happen when we dance tango, and how to make a context for that, a frame of reference not just for the movements of the dance, but for what can happen to us as we dance...
GN: During many years, I was thinking it was absolutely necessary to improve - and to be better required discussion, practice, organization, students, shows, milongas, all working together…and now I am in a particular moment, this situation where we are writing the book, trying to take all this that we’ve been doing for such a long time, and put it down on the table…it’s a big task…a monster. I’m revising everything. So now I prefer not to have all the stuff around. I need to be alone.
(To be continued)
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