Tango, with no holds barred

The Holy Body Tattoo/Tiger Lillies, Barbican Pit, London

The Holy Body Tattoo, Barbican Pit, London

By Jenny Gilbert

09 February 2003

Submission and control are what tango is about, and it's not so simple

as a question of male dominance and female compliance. I have hugely

enjoyed the big, highly polished tango shows that have come here from

Argentina. But the psychology of this sexiest of dance forms goes

beyond the sharp suits and killer heels. And it's that unspoken

dialogue of carnal desire, the subtle advance-and-retreat tactics of

seduction, which inform the latest work by the Vancouver-based outfit

The Holy Body Tattoo.

Holiness is the last thing that comes to mind. The name stems from the

notion that all life experiences leave their mark, and performers Dana

Gingras and Noam Gagnon certainly look as if they've lived a bit, as

well as done their share of loving. The 70-minute show takes the form

of a (very) intimate cabaret, ruched red drapes and plastic chandeliers

creating an atmosphere of seedy decadence, projected film of crumbling

quartiers of Paris adding location and charm.

Eccentric three-piece band The Tiger Lillies do the music, though

hardly as background, since falsetto vocalist Martin Jacques is a

theatrical event in himself. Grimacing and cackling like some

demi-devil stoking the fires of hell, his songs (accompanied by

squeeze-box or musical saw) muse on lugubrious subjects in Brecht/Weill

fashion. They tell of a pretty girl whose tattoos disguise the bruises

inflicted by her pimp, and a man who collects venereal diseases. An

unflinching ditty about death ends with the happy thought: "food for

the maggots tonight".

The show avoids being merely outrageous owing to the fervent intensity

of the dances, which run the gamut of styles in their quest for tango's

essential impulses. The pair start with a languorous traditional tango,

legs interlocking knee to groin, shins slicing into each other's

personal territory like flick-knives. The intimacy of the venue enables

you to notice the tiniest details, so when passions begin to simmer,

you see each new stimulus as notches on a thermometer.

When the pair kick off their shoes for the sequences that follow, the

gloves come off too: literally no holds are barred. One number has them

slamming their bodies at the floor or grappling in quasi-sadistic

combat. Another has them hovering over each other's mouths as if the

ultimate kiss were about to materialise ? it never does. The final duet

sees them dancing out their brutalising loves with out-flung arms like

crucified Christs while film of a Parisian cemetery plays behind them.

Connecting sex and death is hardly new, but The Holy Body Tattoo bring

a compelling focus to the old paradox. They also show how a dance can

be hard and brutal, yet ultimately glorify love. Which is almost the

reverse effect of Maurice B?jart's latest ballet, Mother Teresa and the

Children of the World, which made me want to go out on the street and

break something.

Smugly virtuous in its spoken quotations from the sainted missionary,

this is ballet with a message and then some. B?jart's startlingly

young, gorgeous dancers are nicely trained, but their blithe naivety

suggests something missing from the neck up. I dare say this

Benetton-advert tosh goes down a treat in Switzerland, where King

B?jart holds his court, but British ballet audiences are not yet so

desperate for new material. Bring on the villains, I say.

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'The Holy Body Tattoo': Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), to Saturday