Monday, April 11, 2016

Our Last Tango: Staying True to the Dance

They were like the Vernon and Irene Castle of tango, except at the height of their success they were divorced and barely on speaking terms. María Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes were the toast of Broadway as the lead dancers of the original 1985 production of Tango Argentino and the 1999 revival, but their backstage relationship was rather frosty. Yet, despite the betrayals and resentments, they always stayed true to the dance. German Kral invites the legendary dance partners to take stock of their lives and careers in Our Last Tango (trailer here), executive produced by Pina filmmaker Wim Wenders, which opens this Friday in New York.

Copes and Nieves first met in the sort of tango milonga that used to be at the center of social life for Argentina’s working class. Ironically, tastes were changing just as the couple’s skills reached their peak. However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Sort of using jazz as a template, Copes moved tango from the dance floor to the stage, presenting it as national art form. It worked well enough to get Tango Argentino mounted on Broadway, but by that time he was married to someone younger than Nieves.

Both dancers reflect on their time together, but Nieves clearly gets more screen time (reportedly, Copes temporarily withdrew from the project at his current wife’s insistence, so he has nobody to blame except himself). Nevertheless, Kral keeps the film reasonably even-handed. Clearly, their relationship is too complicated to be reduced down to a few soundbites. Indeed, the extraordinarily talented and photogenic dancers who play Nieves and Copes in dramatic re-enactments (Ayelen Álvarez Miño being a particular standout) do their best to understand and forgive the failings of their characters in conversations that give Last Tango a slightly meta, deeply humane vibe.

There is a fair amount of archival footage of Copes and Nieves as an established act, but some of their most important dances happened before that. Kral integrates those recreations quite smoothly, giving the film an expressionistic feeling. Years of their lives are essentially papered over, but the essence is vividly captured on screen. Eventually, it all builds towards a reunion between the two dancers, but it is almost an anti-climax following the eighty-year-old Copes’ show-stopping feature-spot.

Last Tango is loaded with wonderfully evocative dance numbers, lensed by cinematographers Jo Heim and Félix Monti with the romantic style tango demands. Arguably, it is one of the most visually lush music-related docs since Calle 54, ranking alongside the dance films of Carlo Saura, even with the emotionally charged interview segments. It is an exquisitely sophisticated, deeply satisfying film that deserves to become a word-of-mouth hit. Very highly recommended, Our Last Tango opens this Friday (4/15) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.