Film Scouts Interviews

Sally Potter on "The Tango Lesson"

by Henri Béhar

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New York, November 4, 1997

There's always something refreshing in an interview with a Brit. Indeed, the Brits (and the Scots, and the Welsh) have a special knack for coming up with sentences that are grammatically correct, syntactically sound, and architecturally complex: full of commas, colons, semi-colons, parentheses and double-dashes. You wonder when - not if - their tongue will trip on the whoms, the whoses, the thats and the of-whiches; you fear they'll never land on their mental feet, yet they always do, with none of the 'ah, well, ahem, it's like, you know, I mean' that sometimes force journalists to turn into fiction writers. Only rappers, perhaps, are as finely attuned to the musicality of their everyday speak.

The case in point is director-actor Sally Potter, whose « Tango Lesson », shown at the Venice Film Festival last September, is due for imminent release Stateside. The story of a film director agonizing in her Paris pad over a script on beauty and the glamorization of death, who attends a tango concert then gets involved with star dancer Pablo (Pablo Vedron), « The Tango Lesson » is a bold, at times fascinating attempt to explore personal experience and sensuality. A performance artist, a musician, a fine arts expert with a keen eye for visuals - as evinced by her Virginia-Woolf-based art-house hit « Orlando » - Sally Potter has added acting to her palette. Her decision to play the lead herself was met with mixed response. A bit guarded at first as she sits in her New York publicist's office, she explains her decision and her fascination with tango - the dance and the music.

FILM SCOUTS: What is so special about tango that you got interested in it?

SALLY POTTER: There is something about it that really inspires obsession, even addiction.

FILM SCOUTS: More than any other dance?

SALLY POTTER: Yes. In fact, people start out with a class because they quite like the idea of it, then it's two classes a week, then three nights a week, then they spend every holiday in Buenos Aires... There's something about it. It's the most evolved, the most complex couple dance form that I know of. And it's still growing, it's got the improvisatory base of jazz, it's not fixed, it's not like a vocabulary that you learn and then you stop once you've learned it all. On the contrary. Everybody who dances it is contributing to its continuous evolution, which is very exciting and makes it very dynamic.

FILM SCOUTS: Wait. By its very nature, jazz allows for improvisation. But tango? One generally has a more rigidly choreographed image of it.

SALLY POTTER: The Europeanized version of it, the ballroom dancing end of it, has been codified and is indeed a more rigid dance. But the Argentinian tango is on the contrary very flexible, physically, and it has endless permutations. It is a vocabulary of moves that you signal, but that vocabulary is a language that can then speak of... anything. So people are constantly refining its poetry, if you like, and taking it in new areas.

And it's intergenerational. You have both the old men and women in their 70s and 80s who've seen all the different parts of it and who are still on the dance floors, still growing and learning, and the teenagers who go and dance in jeans and boots and do wild, anarchistic, incredible things! Marvelous things! And they'll feed each other.

Then there's the music. The real Argentinian tango is one of the world's great musics, but it's travelled very little, because of the political isolation of Argentina. Since Astor Piazzola took the music around in concert halls world-wide, since the show 'Tango Argentino' took the dance out, since Argentinians themselves started travelling and teaching, you have clubs and tango schools and classes in virtually every major city in the world. The 'other' tango has been around since the 1920s, and that's what people thought tango was. Little by little, they are realizing that's actually a different dance. Fine, but different. Much more polite, much more rigid, with jerking moves like birds in courtship. Whereas the authentic Argentinian tango is much more fluid, with body embrace and martial arts-like legs going like wild-fire.

FILM SCOUTS: The intent remains the same, I take it. It's always a mating dance.

SALLY POTTER: Hummmm... Maybe... It's mating, but it's also meditation. It's like tantric sexuality when it goes beyond sex into some area where two spirits meet each other or where the spirit meets itself. It can at times be as cerebral as a game of chess - move and countermove - and at times as athletic as football. A lot of football players are also tango dancers in Argentina. And at times, of course, it's sensual and close and erotic. But it's not only any one of those things.

FILM SCOUTS: If, as you said, tango was a language that keeps evolving, what would slang be in tangospeak?

SALLY POTTER: Well, there's a move called the 'gancho' which is where you hook your leg around the bent leg of your partner - Voom, voom, in-out, in-out.

FILM SCOUTS: The woman does, or the man does?

SALLY POTTER: The man, mostly. Originally, only men did that particular kind of steps that women now can do. In the beginning, tango was a dance that men danced together. Early on, in the 1920s, '30 and even '40s, men learned to dance tango by learning to follow while dancing with another man. Only when they'd really learned to follow well did they learn to lead... another man. And only when they've learned to lead another man would they ask a woman to dance.

So the older men in Argentina are fantastic leaders because they know how to follow. They are completely aware and sensitive to the woman they're dancing with, and they have real respect for that role. There's nothing pejorative about being a follower in Argentina. It's only when you come into the West that we have this association with passivity.

To go back to your question... The 'gancho' was a move first done by men. Women gradually started to do it, although at the beginning it was considered a bit vulgar. As women started to play with it and develop it, it evolved. Initially, the man cocked his leg forward, or the woman did, and he'd hook his leg around. Now you can do a gancho any odd way: back to front, directly front to the man's leg, or you can hook it to his crotch, or place it here, or here, around his waist, anywhere where a leg can be hooked onto another. The combinations are infinite! So that could be considered as 'slang'.

FILM SCOUTS: How did you get hooked up on tango?

SALLY POTTER: I went to a concert of Astor Piazzola in London, I was blown away by the music and started listening to tangos day and night. Went to see 'Tango Argentino', was blown away by the dances, especially by the age range of the dancers. I then took my first lesson with an Argentinian tango dancer living in London. I was totally knocked out by the experience, and began to realize how meditative it was, how close to tai-chi, how intricate it was from the inside &emdash; the interior life of the dance, which is not really visible from the outside unless you know how to look for it.

I followed this passion as an aside. I was still making films, still writing scripts, continued to do the things that I normally do. It's just that little by little the passion took over; it became center stage. I had no intention whatsoever to make a film about tango. To be quite honest, for a couple of decades, I had been nurturing this fantasy of one day making a musical. Trying to reinvent the musical as a form for now. Not the nostalgic form that looks backwards, but something the story lines of which would have resonance for now. In which you use a different vocabulary of dance and music than in the '40s.

Alright, but what?

Gradually some of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place.

FILM SCOUTS: Once the idea of doing a film about tango takes center stage, the question is, How? Do I invent a story around it? Do I just film it? Obviously you opted for the former. Why?

SALLY POTTER: Because you can't get involved with it on the inside if you're just looking at it as a show. To make a film that works as a film, you have to have characters who develop, who have conflicts, where there is tension, where you can identify. A through-line, but also other layers of meaning. Other than the dance itself. I wanted to find a story and a structure in which the dance could be there and be seen in all its glory, but not like a documentary of a spectacle.

Little by little, I realized that the story was under my nose: it was the story that I was living - more or less. Of course, I'd need to change it, transform it, work it, tweak it, squeeze it, distill it, do whatever I needed to do to make it work as a fiction vehicle. But the raw immediate feeling, with the kind of conflict that could only happen in the 1990s, was the kind of story we needed.

FILM SCOUTS: The next step is: why did you decide to play the part yourself? You could have hired an actress who would in a way have represented you, but also perhaps bring something you might not have expected.

SALLY POTTER: I considered it. In fact, I screen-tested myself and asked my advisers to be ruthlessly cruel with me about what we were getting into if I did decide to do it. I had no prior ambitions about being in a film of mine. On the contrary: I am camera-shy, love being a director, no ambition to be an actor. Although I've always performed, on stage, either as a dancer or a musician. I love performing. But I've never wanted to play a part.

Okay, so why?

First of all, it was the nature of the story I was telling: Is it real, is it not real? Put an actress in there, we know it's not real. So that whole level of it gets thrown away. I knew that I needed to work with real Argentinian tango dancers to make the dance itself speak with its true vitality. If you get actors to learn a dance that is not close to them, it just doesn't hold up on the screen. The camera is cruel, it's vicious. People that look good on the dance floor don't necessarily... The dance itself doesn't look good enough. It has to be much more extreme, bigger and better for the camera to make it even normal and average on the screen. That's my experience.

If I was going to use non-actors, I had to find a way of developing their screen presence. So I decided to work in effect with people playing a version of themselves. I would write for them, they were welcome to make up words and actions in any way they chose, I'd direct and contain them in a normal way, but they wouldn't have to make a huge jump, intuitively, into being someone else. That would avoid the problem of overacting and all the other problems that come up with non-actors.

Now doing that in the presence of a well-known actress might make it more difficult for them. Besides, even if I did decide to use an actress, who? She'd have to be a) English, which would make much more of a contrast with Latin-American culture. b) Approximately my age, to make it believable that she was a director with some authority and experience behind her, therefore someone whom Argentinian men would follow. c) She would have already danced tango at a professional enough level so that she could be credibly on stage with a tango star. Credibly.

There wasn't any such actress. I had already been to Buenos Aires four or five times, I knew all the tango dancers, I'd made relationships with all the tango people that are in Europe, there was nobody who had that particular combination at that moment.

FILM SCOUTS: You could have got an actress who perhaps was not a tango expert but had some knowledge of dance.

SALLY POTTER: She still would have had to do at least what I did, which is two years of intensive tango, with many visits to Buenos Aires... Who could do that? Besides, I couldn't wait two years. I had to make the film now. All these arrows seemed to be pointing in the same direction. So with trepidation and even reluctance, I decided, Okay, I will roll up my sleeves and I'll take this risk and see what happens.

FILM SCOUTS: Must one re-choreograph tango for the camera?



SALLY POTTER: Well... It's probably very much a matter of what the trajectory of it is in space. Usually tango itself just plays in circles. And tango on the stage is all fronted to one direction. I didn't want to shoot dance in that way - which most people do, by the way. I wanted the camera to dance, I wanted it to do everything it can do in a normal film: dive, duck, go behind, go in front, up, down, around, move intimately as part of the thing, not just a point of view on it. That meant carefully plotting in space, then choreographing each dance so it was expressing something to do with the characters at that moment, which is slightly different than filming the dance for pure dance's sake. But the steps were all real tango steps. The actual choreography of the steps is pure dance.

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