The afternoon before, I watched Zotto rehearsing Tango por Dos, his company of Argentine dancers, for the show, Perfumes de Tango, which following a European tour, arrives in Britain on April 7. As he paced the stage at the Teatro Olimpico in Rome, watching the dancers like a hawk, occasionally swooping in to rearrange the grasp of a hand, the flick of a leg or the tilt of a head, you could see that, to him, these were not mere details but a matter of life and death.
After rehearsals, Zotto disappeared and returned
dressed in a dinner jacket, his short, dark hair gelled and glossed to
such a pitch that it reflected the stage rigging above it. The transformation
was startling: a pleasant-looking shortish man of 39 had metamorphosed
into an ageless, lean Latin Lothario with dangerously good looks. He
closed his eyes and began to beat his foot to an internal rhythm. He
and a male dancer embrace and begin to dance, a woman walks by and stops
to watch. Slowly she walks over to them, separates them, and insinuates
herself between them. For a while all three dance, their legs flicking,
sliding, gliding to the music they hold in their heads. She is making
up her mind. Which will she choose? Finally, she selects
the weaker, and pushes Zotto away. He walks off, his body shrieking of defeat,
of dented machismo and hurt pride. Another man enters and the
woman's disdainful decision-making begins again. As suddenly as it began, the dance is over: I realise that I'd stopped breathing for the duration. The tension was unbearable.
Tango was born in the immigrant suburbs of Buenos Aires in the 1880s when males far outnumbered females; men often danced with each other, and women could take their pick. I ask Zotto about the story I'd seen him dance. "It came from my life," he tells me. "I met a woman who had a boyfriend. I became her lover and we were in a trio amoroso [love triangle] - she had to choose between us." All the dances, which he choreographs with Milena Plebs, his co-artistic director and former lover, are tales of their personal loves, lives and obsessions. Their aim is to preserve the art of the tango. Zotto, the son of a construction worker brought up in the Ballaster suburb, did not discover tango until he was 17 when an uncle took him to a dance. "It was like walking into another world. They had a live orchestra, it was incredible. There was this beautiful girl of 23. I went up to her and said, 'Dance with me.' " He lasted a few minutes until, embarrassed, he led her back to her seat. "I promise you," he told her, "I am going to learn to dance the tango for you and I am going to come and find you." Well, he never found her again, but he did discover the love of his life.
He started to dance professionally in 1986 and founded Tango por Dos with Plebs in 1990. "Tango wasn't appreciated by Argentinians," he says. "It was not considered artistic; nobody would go to a theatre to see it, they thought it belonged to tacky cabaret and dance halls." Tango por Dos changed all that and put the tango back on the cutural map both at home and away. "I want the world to see it," says Zotto. "Tango is the most important thing Argentina has got. No, it's the only thing we have got. We are an immigrant country and tango is the one thing we have managed to make from the mix of cultures."
Zotto and Plebs want to show tango in its purest form, but know they need to inject youth and modernity to keep the audiences coming. "Our dances", says Plebs, "are as close to authentic tango as we can get, but we also borrow from modern choreography."
Perfumes de Tango displays every permutation of physical and emotional interaction: from coy come-on, to post-coital tristesse.
On seeing the tango for the first time in Paris in 1913, the Comtesse Melanie de Pourtalés said, "Is one supposed to dance it standing up?" Kaiser Wilhelm banned it and the Pope said it was "a pagan attack on family life". The tango, with its hints of sex and violence, and sense of voyeurism, has always had the capacity to shock. Plebs, 36, who was prima ballerina with a leading Argentine modern dance company before hooking up with Zotto 12 years ago, says: "When you dance ballet or modern dance all the expression goes out towards the audience, but with the tango all the expression goes to your partner."
"You are connecting yourself with your heart and to him. You share an intimate space and the audience is very attracted to that, they feel they are seeing something intensely private."
Zotto goes even further. "It is very hot," he says. "Hotter than anything else." It's easy to reel off the names of other sexy Latin dances: rumba, lambada, mamba, but they all involve some independent movement. Tango is the only dance in which the couple are locked into an embrace, stretching from the ankle to the cheek. "In the tango," says Zotto, "you become intoxicated; you smell her perfume, you feel her breath on your face, you are touching almost her entire body, and you concentrate yourself on her."
Originally the tango, as danced in the streets and brothels of Buenos Aires, was literally foreplay. And Zotto says that element has not changed. He says there is a point in dancing the tango when it becomes sexual. "It is inevitable because of the amount of physical contact you have. I wouldn't say it happens every time but 90 per cent of the time, it can lead to sex, yes." There is, he says, such an intense "wave of bodily communication", which is the same as that which people can find together in bed.
The man leads in tango, but it is an equal embrace. "He provokes a movement and she accepts it, or not," Zotto says. "It is a game of the legs which she is very much part of. She cannot start it, but she can influence it. She determines how far it will go." For Plebs, this strong definition of the roles is one of the tango's major attractions. "The man is very active and masculine and the woman is very receptive." She believes that, with the roles of the sexes in such a state of confusion nowadays, the tango provides an oasis in which sexual relations remain pure and unconfused. That in part, she says, explains why young people in Buenos Aires are turning away from discos and returning to old-time dance halls.
The global popularity of tango may be at an alltime high: Madonna learnt it for her role in Evita, John Galliano had tango dancers perform before his Paris fashion shows, and Sally Potter made a film, The Tango Lesson, about her passion for the dance. "It was originated by people from all over the world," explains Plebs." That's one of the reasons it's so universal."
is not considered to affect a person's grace or skill with the tango.
One of the most popular tango centres
in Britain is the London Welsh Centre where television presenter Clive
James is a regular; living proof that people of all shapes, ages
and sizes can do it. But perhaps Al Pacino, as Frank Slade, in the 1992
film, Scent of a Woman, got it right when he said: "There are no
mistakes in tango. Not like life. If you get all tangled up you just