How does one take advantage of that extra day that comes only once every four years?
I would say experience something out of the ordinary and if you were at the Duncan Theatre’s third presentation of its dance series this Feb. 29, that is exactly what happened. Those of us who were there experienced an extraordinary show that both informed and thrilled us. It is clear why Che Malambo, the folkloric dance group from Buenos Aires, is so quickly becoming a sensation.
I had recently seen Dorrance Dance at the Duncan and the memory of their terrific tap-dancing was still resonating when I entered the theater that Saturday night but it was quickly displaced by the enthralling percussive stomping of the Che Malambo dancers. Many of us are drawn to the passionate music and dancing of the Argentinian tango, or the milonga, which is performed by fiery couples, but everyone should experience the malambo as performed by this troupe’s 12 sensual, dark-haired men strutting their stuff as they hammered out intricate rhythms to the intense beating of the legüero, an Argentine bombo (drum) that they say can be heard from a league away — hence, its name.
Gilles Brinas, the director and creator of the group, is responsible for the concept of bringing this remote folkloric dance of the Argentinian cowboys (gauchos) to the concert stage. Brinas, who is a known choreographer and former ballet dancer in France, was drawn to the unique beats of the malambo and felt such an urge to know more that he traveled to Argentina thereby changing the course of malambo’s history by exposing it to the world.
Starting in the 17th century, gauchos would unwind around the campfire by tapping particular fast-paced rhythms that were inspired by the sound of their galloping horses’ hooves. The rapid footwork (which is called zapeteo) requires enormous dexterity as well as agility and strength. The gauchos, after long and solitary days on horseback, would challenge each other to show off of their skills.
In this traditional of dance, the men must not only dance but sing, drum and whirl boleodoras (lassos with stones at the end) and sometimes, they do all of them at the same time. Fascinated, Brinas gathered together the best malambo dancers he could find and with their artistic input, he created this show to highlight their prowess. Since premiering Che Malambo in Paris in 2007, the show has been seen in more than 200 cities in 11 countries and through this exposure, malambo has gained popularity not only throughout Argentina but also around the world.
Twelve thunderous drums started the spectacle. Hung from one shoulder, the drums, played with a soft and a hard stick, had an amazing resonance. The explanation for this particular kind of vibration is that the stretched skin used on the drumhead still has the animal’s hair inside of the drum body.
Rawly energetic, the 12 drummers beat furiously as they challenged each other and moved across the stage to change formations. Dressed simply in skin-tight black pants, cinched black, sleeveless tops that bared toned arms, the 12 men started to dance. The sleek, heeled black boots they wore were their next instrument as they resoundingly hit the floor with increasingly more complex rhythms.
To obtain different sounds, they often hit the floor with one side or the other of their feet. In order to do this — needless to say — their foot is required to be at the most extreme, awkward right angle to their ankle which wrenched this former dancer’s stomach.
Often action ended with a brazen raised arm while standing in a stylized fight stance with feet planted wide apart and a challenging, locked stare. The men’s gestures in any other setting might have appeared overly macho but here they simply set the stage and reminded us of the long history of the dance form. The show ran almost one and half hours without an intermission. As the performers introduced other typical elements of the malambo such as the singing of lyrical songs called payadas and the playing of guitars and violins, the energy onstage strategically lowered to a simmer but it was always quick to return to the rapid boil that kept everyone’s attention.
The bare, black stage was sometimes highlighted with a red light which illuminated the sprays of sweat drops that were flung from the men’s long hair as they danced and whipped their heads from side to side. Watching the speed that the 12 men swiveled their hips as they pounded out rhythms with their feet, I was amazed that their boots didn’t come flying off.
In one section, the men removed those black boots with their metal taps on the heels and toes to dance barefoot — barely touching the ground with their feet — in the slower style of malambo from the south. In another moment, they impressively played different time signatures with different part of their bodies with the utmost of ease.
The best — and the most sensational — of the malambo was saved for last. The men introduced the boleodora, which is a type of lasso that has a leather sack on each end with a stone sewn in it. Used by the gaucho while on horseback, it was whirled around and thrown out to bring a cow to its knees or stop an enemy in his tracks, but around the campfire, the boleodoras were incorporated into the dance adding another layer of rhythm as it struck the ground.
Here onstage, the lassos were illuminated by the lights and made beautiful, gossamer circles when they were twirled around the performers’ heads and a soothing whirling sound as they cut through the air. Despite the hypnotic image and sound of the boleodoras, their lethal aura was omnipresent especially when there was a stage full of men each twirling two boleodoras and boldly moving around the space breathtakingly close to each other.
For me, a memory that is sure to last for a long time is the astonishing solo performed by Walter Kochanowski. Dancing up a storm as part of finale of the show, Kochanowski simultaneously manipulated multiple boleodoras with such velocity that his long hair would rise in a cloud as the cords of the lassos narrowly missed his head. His skill was mesmerizing transforming the boleodoras from dangerous weapons into something of beauty.
All 12 members of the Che Malambo troupe were outstanding — each was engaging with a distinct, individual look and all were passionate about sharing their traditional dance form with the world.
Editor’s note: Publication of this review was delayed by technical problems. The Duncan Theatre’s dance series had planned to feature Pilobolus from April 3-4, but that show has been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.