Sally Potter and Pablo Veron tango on the seine

The Architecture of Tango

Sally Potter begins a screenplay

I envy the pencil being held carefully between her fingers, the rasping sound the sharpener makes as a thin layer of wood peels away from the instrument’s body. I am fascinated by her hesitation, the dark point poised above the supple blank pages so pristine the sight sends ripples of resistance through the synapses of my mind. It takes an audacious writer to stare down nothingness, and Sally Potter, sitting bolt upright at a table as she readies herself to begin the process of writing a screenplay, is up to the task. She records one word, rage, in a neat cursive and nothing more. For now.

Suddenly she is rushing along a street in Paris as the staccato strains of tango music waft from a Bandoneón, drawing her into a performance hall where Pablo Veron is dancing on a stage, leading his female partner through a perfect performance. Potter is enraptured and, as the applause reaches a crescendo, the camera cuts away from her animated face to the stage; then to a close-up of the famous Argentine dancer, who peers into the camera with eyes I’ve seen before.

Pablo Veron and Carolina Iotti
Pablo Veron and Carolina Iotti dance tango.

His stare is akin to the predatory gaze I saw one summer afternoon in the zoo in Buenos Aires, the black panther pacing behind a glass partition having just awakened from an afternoon nap. The big cat’s eyes held the same mix of disinterest and menace. You are now sensually nailed into the world of the Argentine tango.

The Architecture of Tango

Sally Potter and Pablo Veron dance tango.
Sally Potter and Pablo Veron dance tango.

The scenes Potter makes her way through are set within the first few moments of The Tango Lesson, a film she wrote and directed that serves as a a canvas upon which she and Verón compose the story of the dance and its strain on relationships. I have seen her level of passion for tango firsthand so I knew, even before I saw an interview during which she stated that the movie is nothing less than a love letter to the dance, how she felt. “I was totally and completely in love with the music and the dance itself,” she explains, “and I immersed myself completely for about two years before making the film.” This immersion included numerous trips to Buenos Aires where she danced in the city’s milongas, as the tango salons are called. She also took hours upon hours of lessons in order to perfect her moves.

Fernanda and Alberto dance tango.
Fernanda and Alberto are professional tango dancers in Buenos Aires.

Unless the music taps into a deep well inside your being, I believe it is difficult to understand the level of attachment Potter describes. My interest was sparked when I visited Baires a handful of times with a guy I dated for a number of years. His introductions to his hometown included taking me to the clubs where tango enthusiasts, called tangueros and milongueras, circled the dance floors from midnight until sunup.

Sally Potter in an art deco stairwell
This art deco stairwell represents the quintessential neoclassical architecture in Baires.

Certain vignettes in Potter’s film still bring the city rushing back all these years later—the tapered toe of her tango shoes moving across tiled the floors that originated in the sumptuous Art Deco era. It’s as if they are frozen in time, though now they are awash in a tired patina to which the modern-day “Paris of South America” has succumbed.

The Tango Lesson IRL

I became so enamored with the dance, I wanted to produce a coffee-table book, the working title for which was The Architecture of Tango. I set about creating a visual for my tango fantasy—not to compare my effort to Potter’s in the least—with a young fashion student named Maria Elena who agreed wear a sexy red dress she had designed and be photographed around the city in vignettes that were meant to express the longing the dance seems to rouse in devotees.

Photographing for a tango book in Baires
Maria Elena in a dress she designed posing, the word siempre (always) poignant given the implied situation that her partner has moved on to another.

During a handful of balmy summer afternoons, I also photographed a number of dancers, including Fernanda and Alberto who moved through their complex poses with mysterious names like enganchado and enrosque at one of the city’s popular salons. Several things I learned surprised me: except for the professional dancers who make a living performing or teaching, many young and middle-aged Argentines have negative connotations of the dance. They say that in their minds, the whining melodies produced by the Bandoneón, even when the cadence is up-tempo, are rife with sadness.

the Architecture of Tango in Baires
It was great fun creating a visual narrative through which Maria Elena could tell a story.

During the daytime, the only young people dancing are tourists, particularly Asians, who flock to the salons to learn. It’s just the opposite with the country’s seniors—the most poignant memories I have taking place during matinees—the Saturday or Sunday afternoon sessions—during which men and women in the 60s and 70s glided around dance floors with dreamy expressions in their eyes and talcum powder wafting from their shoes.

I admired their formal politeness, which I recognized from my boyfriend’s mother’s attitudes. I would walk down the hall of their flat to hear her humming strains of Astor Piazzolla’s melodies to which she had danced in the parlor of her home when she was a teenager—the act forbidden for proper young girls in public at the time. She loved to talk about those days as we lingered over post-lunch cafécitos or gathered in the living room as the evening light infused her apartment in a mellow glow.

Alvear Palace ballroom
A ballroom at the Alvear Palace hotel in Buenos Aires.

I visited the most famous tango halls and was given a behind-the-scenes tour of historical properties like the Alvear Palace hotel, which holds a sumptuous ballroom that evokes Parisian luxuriousness (in the image above). When I snapped the shot, I wondered if his mom had ever moved agilely around the carpeted floor, sat with her girlfriends on the velvet tête-à-tête or strolled out onto the rooftop terrace for some fresh air after a strenuous round of tango.

Alvear Palace rooftop terrace
The Alvear Palace rooftop terrace looks over Buenos Aires.

Sadly, my book never found a home but my fascination with the Argentine tango has never wavered. For now, I plug in Potter’s film when I need to slake my thirst for the sensuousness of the music or the architecture of the dance. It is time well spent: I doubt anyone would argue that watching Pablo Veron for a few hours isn’t worth the effort! Aside from a few moments of preciousness that invade the storyline, I admire Potter’s efforts greatly.

She defends the tenderness by asking, “What’s wrong with sentimentality? Real sentiment is the innocent, natural way of a child in a state of wonder at the world, which we eventually forget so we can become blasé and cool. One thing this film is not is cool! I wanted to make a very uncool film that wasn’t detached, wasn’t ironic; one that was raw!”

the architecture of tango narrative
We came upon this graffiti, Destino Insaciable, which means insatiable destiny, that was so perfect for the book that never was!

The thing I learned about the Argentine tango that surprised me the most is that it seems so romantic but it is hardly so. It is a brutal dance, both physically and psychically. Someone always gets hurt, regardless of how smooth his or her moves are, which is why the savvy dance partners I met—especially those who also make a living as choreographers and instructors like Fernanda and Alberto—have learned to keep their love lives separate from the drama surrounding tango’s pull. The ones who have not learned that lesson continue to suffer greatly as one heartbreak after another ensues.

Fernanda and Alberto in tango pose
Fernanda and Alberto pose in one of Buenos Aires quintessential tango halls one summer afternoon.

Sally Potter’s Enormous Love for her Films

It’s just so easy to mistake a love for the dance itself for a bond with the dancer sharing the experience, a point Potter made so well in the film. She actually says so in the interview in the video: “I have an enormous feeling for the dance. It’s more than love—when I was learning the tango, I had an adoration for the form. But I feel that way about all my films when I first begin to make them. And then it’s onto something else!”

One of my favorite scenes is when she and Pablo dance along the Seine as one of the Bateaux Mouches floats past, the air so iridescent with fog swirling within the brightness of the lights on the boat they are bathed in an ethereal beauty that only Paris can inspire.

Sally Potter and Pablo Veron in Paris
Sally Potter and Pablo Veron dance along the Seine near the end of “The Tango Lesson.”

During the interview, she was asked whether her films are concrete personal histories. She answered that they are “made on an autobiographical principal but not, strictly speaking, autobiographical. It’s a subtle and fine line—sometimes a confusing one, even for myself. But if a film is not a documentary (I’m stating the obvious here), it’s not putting a camera in an existing situation but creating a situation by constructing everything with artifice with the intention, in this case, to appear natural, to have authenticity and to feel very close to the bone, to the skin. It’s something intimate, which it seemed to me was the only way to get close to the tango itself, to its interior world.”

Sally Potter and Pablo Veron tango on the seine
The mists swirl around Sally Potter and Pablo Veron in “The Tango Lesson.”

As I watched the interview for the first time, my mind exploded with her answer when she was asked why she needed to dig so deeply into the world of tango if the film is merely a piece of fiction. It is fiction that is playing with reality,” she answered. In this one sentence, she summed up so much of what I am inspired to do here on The Modern Salonière. And if you haven’t seen the film, be prepared for the emotional roller coaster ride: given her desire to plumb its depths, there were bound to be tears!

The Modern Salonnière and The Architecture of Tango © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.

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