"It Takes Two Cities to Tango", a review by Michael Greenstein
August 22, 2014
Miguel Libedinsky’s Hearts of Tango offers an affectionate and wide-ranging overview of Toronto’s tango scene, which manages to avoid any clichés associated with the dance. Several vignettes in this unique documentary present Toronto’s tango culture from an Argentinian perspective, so the film is at once local and global.
The impressionistic swirl and blur of the opening captures the milonga’s history and complexity: black-and-white, out-of-focus shots of couples dancing alternate with colourful, clear frames on the dance floor. This shimmering sequence is evocative of Monet’s ballerinas and Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (mirrored in Last Tango in Paris) –French settings for tango’s diaspora.
Like the cities it has penetrated, tango partakes of the immigrant experience in Buenos Aires and Toronto. An opening shot of a bridge focusses emblematically on the bridging function of dance, not only joining couples, but communities and cultures as well. This bridge prepares for the film’s final section, “A Bridge for Dancing,” and underscores the fluidity of the rhythm, which is pointed out in a discussion of its “watery” African roots.
“First Step” introduces Ilona, an instructor who began dancing after the tragedy of “9/11”. She uses mechanical software in her lessons to teach balance, posture, and centre of gravity for understanding the basics of leading and following. After these “first steps,” “Discovery” provides several distinct points of view about how various Torontonians from diverse backgrounds have come to embrace tango. Steve Yee entered tango by way of tai chi, while Mark Thompson watched outdoor milongas in Kensington Market before asking a woman he admired to dance.
“Family” chronicles the chance union of two strangers at a milonga who eventually marry and share tango with their children. In “Why We Tango” the range of opinions varies from meditation to stopping, pausing, and collecting while the music continues to play. The complexity of the tango involves not just physical steps, but also cerebral and emotional responses. Libedinsky documents not only dancing partners but also instrumentalists on piano and violin, bandoneon and guitar. These chance connections from different immigrant backgrounds enhance the passion of tango’s transcendence.
“Coffee with a Milonga Flavour” traces the transformation of a downtown coffee bar into a milonga meeting place in the evenings. The movie ends with Lisandro’s political choreography which dares to speak of Argentinian torture under military dictatorships. His laddered choreography highlights tangled hierarchies between oppressors and the oppressed. This verticality shifts to the horizontal plane in “Bridge for Dancing,” in which Lisandro partners with Spirit Synott in her wheelchair. (Compare that scene with the wheelchair in Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson.) Hearts of Tango captures the spirit and soul of this enduring dance in a city that too often paves over its past. With his camera’s close and colourful embrace, Miguel Libedinsky transcends the cold concrete of Toronto in the 21st century.
Michael Greenstein was a professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes and has published numerous articles on Canadian literature. He studied tango in Toronto for several years.