Carlos and Maria Rivarola - A dreamlike reality

Interview by Ute Neumaier, Buenos Aires, published in the German magazine Tangodanza 44, October 2010

María and Carlos Rivarola were present when the doors of the world opened for tango.  They saw it almost disappear in Argentina and they accompanied it when it departed overseas. As protagonists of the show Tango Argentino, they contributed to tango coming back to life and taking the world by storm. They have danced on the great stages of the world and in various films. Carlos was choreographer of the Piazzolla-Ferrer opera María de Buenos Aires, directed the National Folkloric Ballet and taught at the National University Institute of Art. Today, María and Carlos are members of the National Academy of Tango.

I met up with them at Los Angelitos, near Congress, on Rivadavia, one of the largest and noisiest roads of the city, which divides the north – economically better placed – from the south – more socially vulnerable. The historic café, like María and Carlos, has witnessed the ups and down of Buenos Aires.

Looking back, the show Tango Argentino clearly marks a turning point in the history of tango. Who knows if I, as a German, would have turned into a passionate tango dancer if it weren’t for the two of you? At the time, how did you view it?

Carlos: When we joined Tango Argentino in 1983, we wouldn’t have dared to imagine that this show would resuscitate tango.  In Argentina the return of democracy, after the dark years, was still very recent and we left to go overseas. Our very first show outside of Argentina took place in the theater “Châtelet de Paris”; then, in 1985, we followed the show to New York. It was an unforgettable time. In the tango and also in our lives there was a before and an after. We stayed an entire six months in New York, danced seven days a week, and the show was full night after night. Can you imagine?

Why was this show the great success for Argentine tango?

Carlos: Tango Argentino exhibited a different style – completely unknown beyond Argentina – and the elegance of the milonga. What was seen on Broadway was more colorful, garish and sensationalist; the tango people had known before was an American version with short skirts, wigs, etc.

This more discreet show, gentle and elegant, also captivated everyone in Europe. People were left speechless by this more grounded tango and the close embrace of the couple, by the speed and skilful footwork of the men and the women’s sensual adornments. The world had not seen this before.

The directors of the show, Claudio Segovia and Héctor Orezoli, knew how to show off the strengths of each of the artists; this contributed enormously to the success of Tango Argentino. Each dancer could express in their individual way their passion for tango, and that was directly transmitted to the audience.

Tango Argentino had men in black smoking jackets and with gelled-back hair; the women wore modest but exceptionally elegant dresses. It was “the” event that brought our tango, the authentic tango, back to life, and which took it to the whole world. As a result of that show other shows were staged, like Tango Pasión and Forever Tango. At that time there were no milongas outside of Argentina.

How did people react to you?

Carlos: Paris was an emotional experience. There were so many people from our country who had had to escape the terror of the military dictatorship. They rediscovered their roots in our work; we had taken the essence of Argentina to Europe. We were by no means classical dancers; rather we were rooted in the tradition of our country. For Argentines living in exile this was a momentous experience.

María: In the United States for all of the performances people stood in queues to get tickets and there was enthusiastic shouting during each show. At the entrance we saw lines of parked limousines and we were witness to how tango conquered the middle class and the upper class. Performers came to the dressing rooms after the show to congratulate us; fashion designers were inspired by our wardrobe. New York opened to tango and to us the doors to the world.

Carlos: I will never forget how Virulazo made the audience pulsate with enthusiasm (Editor’s note: Jorge Martín Orcaizaguirre, known as Virulazo, was, along with Antonio Todaro and Pepito Avellaneda, one of the legendary milongueros of the forties and fifties). He was 59 years old and looked nothing at all like a dancer. He got up on stage and to begin with did absolutely nothing. The theatre was full, everyone was waiting for this show that the whole world was talking about, and here, standing on the stage, was a heavyset man, getting on in years, doing nothing. Can you imagine the tension he generated? And then he began to dance and the audience was astounded.

How was this period for you both on a personal level?

Carlos: We had an incredible need to express ourselves as artists. Virulazo, for example, hadn’t danced for two years because cultural life in Argentina had been paralyzed. And now he was on stage on Broadway! He was a performer of the caliber of Goyeneche who had had hardly any work at all for a long time, and when he did have it, it was of very low standard. Suddenly we were stars in the United States of America! And we could breathe again. It was incredible.

María: We were overwhelmed. All of a sudden we were free. All of us had left behind us hard years of repression.

What was your experience of the military dictatorship?

Carlos: Until 1978 the Argentine people didn’t really know what was happening. Leading up to the Football World Cup of that year, the military had for the most part worked in secret, since the eyes of the world were on Argentina. But afterwards that ended. It became more and more dangerous for us to go out, even when we had nothing to do with politics. As performers, we would often be out at night and for that reason we would find ourselves in more danger than others.

It was terrible not to be able to express ourselves. Until 1983, when the terror of the military regime ended, fear and arbitrariness had reigned in the country. Tango seemed to be slowly going extinct or disappearing. There were just a few milongas, like “Sin Rumbo” and “Salón Caning”.

María: The police would burst in on performances to check everyone’s identification papers. When there was no longer enough money to pay the orchestras we danced to recorded music. You couldn’t even celebrate carnival any more. Often on my way home from work I would be arrested and taken in, without motive, without explanations, it just was. Suddenly they would appear from nowhere, take me off in the patrol car and treat me like a criminal. Most times someone found out and let the security guards at the cabaret know and they let Carlos know. Usually they would free me after a few hours. But one minute of fear can feel like an eternity.

Once they took both of us in, shut us in separate rooms at the station and asked us different questions in the hope we would contradict each other. They went through my bag and questioned me about the objects I was carrying: brush, lipstick, simply everything. I don’t like recollecting it.

Particularly the last years of the dictatorship were terrible. During our performances the tension was so thick you could cut the air with a knife. In addition, there was almost nothing to buy; we were practically isolated from the rest of the world.

And what was happening around you, outside of the theater?

María: They ransacked the house of my aunt in her absence, turned everything over, took valuable objects and so on, all because her husband’s name appeared in the address book of a suspect. The word “suspect” no longer had any meaning, because when you least expected it you became, without cause, a suspect. The first thing they took was a person’s address book, and depending on the situation it could cost the lives of those who appeared in its pages.

Carlos: Of those around me, they took the son of our neighbor, and a guy from my primary school disappeared without trace. They weren’t communists and, despite that, they couldn’t escape their destiny. I don’t know of tango dancers who suffered that destiny, but many actors were never seen again.

What a miracle that the tango survived! In the years prior to that, in the 1960s and 1970s, you began your dance training. What was it like in those days?

Carlos: I began dancing folk when I was 6 years old, and started tango when I was 15. I danced everything you could dance. In the 1970s I was on stage with Armando Pontier, Carlos Copes and Sexteto Tango.

María: I started with ballet and folk when I was 12, and at 18 danced in a tango show with the musicians Leopoldo Federico and Julio Sosa, but in the 1970s I was on tour throughout South America, again in flamenco shows. Then Carlos and I met and from then on our lives revolved with more and more intensity around tango.

How and when did you meet?

Carlos: It was at the “King Club”, a high-class cabaret. We were dancing in a show under the artistic direction of Nelly and Nelson, and later of Eduardo and Gloria Arquimbau. In those days it was the norm for high-quality shows to be offered in cabarets.

Were they not places with very bad reputations?

María: I never saw it that way. I always arrived before the show, just in time to put my make-up on, change and start dancing. Of course there were things happening beyond the stage that I could easily imagine. But it didn’t interest me.

Carlos: The audience was made up of tourists from Japan, the United States, Brazil and Europe. There was a show of tango and folk dancing with excellent musicians like Oscar Alemán and Roberto Goyeneche, and, much later in the night, a striptease show. The so-called “coperas”, well-dressed striptease waitresses, were there to enthuse the customers to drink. What they did with the customers after the show was their business. It was obligatory for men to wear a suit; those without were loaned one by the club. People were accustomed to that, and maintained the strict customs.

How did you live in the 1970s?

María: The beginning of the 1970s was an important time for us as dancers. We had wonderful companions, we danced in an excellent show and we worked with passion seven days of the week.

Carlos: Sometimes we danced in other shows at the same time and we would travel from one place to another in the middle of the night. Buenos Aires was and is a very busy city at night. Usually, the fastest way to get around was to take the bus. You would often see dancers traveling with their wardrobe, already dressed and made up.

María: I never traveled by bus. I would have been ashamed to. I always took a taxi. (She laughs)

Carlos: There was a doorman at the King Club, an unassuming man we all liked. After the show we’d sit at a table, exchange our impressions of the night, discuss this and that and, above all, the dancing. Everyone fitted in. In the early hours, when the last show was over and everything was closed, the dancers would meet up with actors and radio, film and theatre musicians in large gatherings. For us, these were the golden years in Buenos Aires.

Those gatherings with other performers were like an incredibly inspiring university that gave us what we needed to progress our careers as dancers. We learned from our colleagues everything a performer should know: how to work, how to make costumes, how to put a show together and a choreography. These days, dancers develop very much on their own, they’re engrossed in themselves, they’re loners. They miss out on a lot of what you can learn as part of a community of artists.

After having so much success with Tango Argentino, you worked a lot overseas. How did that go for you?

Carlos: The New York season ended in 1986. Through Tango Argentino we received an invitation to go to Japan to put a show together with Japanese dancers. We worked like slaves for six weeks, day after day. The challenge was to transmit to the Japanese the meaning of tango. You give a choreography to an Argentine and he fills it with life. That content has to be “translated” for a Japanese dancer. Their discipline, which makes so many things much easier, is fantastic. In all those years I never heard a single protest. With an Argentine you have to argue; they think they know more than you about everything.

Do you have a particularly special relationship with Japan?

Carlos: On one hand there’s the dance, and on the other there’s a spiritual connection. We both practice Japanese Buddhism and for that reason we’re better placed to understand the mentality of people there. We’ve learned a lot from them. For example, that work is not first and foremost for making money, but is a service to others, a contribution to society and is, therefore, something idealistic.

In addition, in 1988 we began giving classes in Japan, at first in English with the help of an interpreter. But it was complicated and required a lot of energy, so I began to learn Japanese. Since then, we’ve traveled every year to Japan and to many other countries to give classes.

Today what are you, stage dancers or milongueros?

Carlos: First we were stage dancers and later we became milongueros, for which we also have Tango Argentino to thank. Since then we’ve danced differently. Our attention to the dance comes more from inside, and consequently we improvise much more. When you get to know the milonga, you change your priorities. It’s no longer about the dexterity of the feet, but about expressing your experience of life. In the milonga you follow an inspiration, an impulse that you receive from your dance partner. You never do anything on your own, it’s always two. This is the truly fascinating thing about tango, the marvelous thing about it.

María: Before, we danced the choreography, coming to it from outside. That changed with Tango Argentino. Since then we’ve danced more simply, we do less, but we feel more.

Do you still go out to the milonga?

Carlos: I go on Fridays and Saturdays to “Sunderland” and “La Baldosa”, when I’m not on tour.

María: I go out dancing less and less. I’m not so tolerant as Carlos.

What are your thoughts about the more recent developments in tango?

Carlos: In my view, “tango nuevo” isn’t “Argentine tango”. It’s something else. There are magnificent dancers that I regard highly, but their essence is different. Tango nuevo came about due to the demand of the European public, although it was developed by Argentines. They did it for the European market. There was a niche there for it.

And then, “electronic tango” is a different thing altogether. For me these are musicians who are not able to interpret classical music. You can’t compare it with Piazzolla, who developed within that tradition then consciously chose to take a different path. He mastered them both. That’s indicative of a magnificent ability and that’s why we respect him so much.

What’s the fundamental difference between the tango scene in days gone by and the scene today?

Carlos: These days people often have an extreme attitude, as though tango for them is a refuge, an oasis. It’s true that it’s a marvelous setting: relationships develop, you embrace for nine minutes, you float with the music. All of that has a tantalizing effect, but you have to enjoy those passions with care. You can compare the way people respond to tango to milk being boiled. With heat the temperature rises in a few seconds, and then it drops rapidly. But that doesn’t necessarily have to happen, if learning tango is approached methodically and slowly and by constructing good foundations, that way the fall doesn’t occur.

These days there isn’t one tanguero tradition that serves as a foundation, nor social groups focused on tango in which good foundations exist. Before, there was a community that didn’t allow people to dive headfirst into the milonga and lose themselves in the scene. There were standards, rules, principles you had to learn to be part of a group of milongueros, which existed so that the novice could move as he should and in time to the music and with good posture. Until the beginner had learned these criteria, they wouldn’t have “permission to dance”.

Women also had a different attitude. Before, there’s no way they would dance with a man who wasn’t well dressed; today, even men wearing running shoes can get a dance. But we shouldn’t be so rigorous about the rules. For tango to survive, new and young people must come to it, and they do some things differently to how we, the “elderly”, imagine they should be done. But the fact is, the woman is very important in tango and always has been, contrary to general opinion. They make the decisions, they always have. The man wanted to dance well, look good, make an impression, because he wanted the woman to like him. That’s what he was there for.

After so many years, have you never had enough of tango?

Carlos: Never. I can’t even imagine it. Tango is simply our work. It’s our life, you know? I cannot imagine myself, we cannot imagine ourselves without tango. It’s unthinkable.

Well, excluding tango, is there nothing else that has been significant in your lives?

Carlos: During our successful tour of Tango Argentino, María fell pregnant. We had reached the peak of our career; I couldn’t decide. For me it was clear: If we dedicated ourselves to a family, we would have to leave everything else behind. And we were just beginning to reap what we had sown during so many years.

María: For me there was no conflict, I didn’t doubt for a second. I was nearly 30 and I knew immediately what I wanted. We decided to have a family, to have our son. If you were to meet Julián today, you would understand why.

Carlos: We made the decision thanks to María. At that time, it was recommended to us that we stay overseas, because things still weren’t going well in Argentina. The military dictatorship had ended, but that didn’t mean everything was back in order; the country was in economic ruin. Today I’m pleased that we chose to have a family, and that we returned to Argentina, and that’s the important thing in our life.

María: We have two wonderful children, we’re a family, we’re part of the community in which live, in Martínez (a suburb of Buenos Aires). For me, our life is much more than tango.

What has been your greatest dream? And your greatest disappointment?

María: There was no dream; it was all reality. A reality that felt like a dream. If we had wanted to dream it all up, we couldn’t have done it. We exceeded all our expectations. I never imagined myself on Broadway or dancing in the greatest theaters in the world. I was happy just imagining myself on stage in Argentina; I never dreamt of Russia, Germany or Norway.

Carlos: I always had a goal and a desire: to be a good dancer. Everything else came along. We’ve traveled to innumerable countries, we’ve danced three times in the Colon Theater. You can’t plan that sort of thing. It’s a gift from life, from the universe, for which we are both infinitely grateful.