Bravo Jang & Tango!

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n audience that appreciated the good fortune of finding internationally acclaimed and world-class performers right in their own backyards attended Sunday afternoon’s presentation of Iggy Jang’s Tango Extravaganza 2018 at the Kahilu Theatre.  Along with award-winning dancers (and prolifically producing dance instructors) Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo, this performance is heaped with talent from worldwide and in-demand performers who gave us the pleasure of gracing the stage and delighting our senses.

Iggy Jang is Hawaii Symphony’s concertmaster and a classical music performer who soulfully and deeply embodies tango.  A child of South Korean parents, Jang was raised in France.  How he ended up in Hawaii surely involves exciting tales of travels, hope, and despair along with a large dose of talent. Likewise, for his partners on stage: bandoneonista Javier Sanchez, pianist and director Alfredo Minetti, guitarist Ian O’Sullivan, bassist Hayden Joyce, and aforementioned dancers Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlot, all have traveled and trained a great portion of their lives, have beyond impressive bios, and express their talents in venues worldwide. These artists are leaders in their generation, upholding the “nuanced and artistic forms of expression” of tango; the “language that reflects the diverse influences of the many cultures that helped define it.”  (Merlo & Ghi).

Dancers Guillermo Merlot and Fernanda Ghi

In tango dance partnering, the male is in charge of taking the lead.  He displays authority and power while the woman waits until she feels him push her.  Does this sound sexist?  Dance, like all art, is also political.  A whole bunch of immigrants, most pursuing employment, refuge, and dreams made up the foundation of the tango movement which began centuries ago.  So, this retired professional dancer who once (only once) performed the tango, and who spent some years as an ex-pat was prepared to embark upon a review that could reference the current headlines involving immigrants and power struggles.

Just two of the 9 (including dancers) outstanding performers were U.S. born:  bassist Hayden Joyce of New Jersey, and our own (North Shore of O’ahu) guitarist Ian O’Sullivan.  And when they entered the stage, the youthful group could have passed for local high school graduates.  Iggy Jang introduced everyone like a proud father/maestro. And suddenly — with the warm vibe from the stage, the known struggles of artists and immigrants alike, and the sensuality of the musical tones — I swooned in my seat.  With an instant musical thrust, they exemplified the desired intensity and pulse of authentic tango.  All musicians were reading scores which may have made for accuracy of the compositions, but it resulted in a slightly stiff stage presence, something the average listener would not expect of this genre.  It is hard to unglue one’s gaze from Mr. Jang who practically dances with his violin.  Jang’s workout is likely no less aerobic than that of the dancers who appear in the next piece.  Merlot and Ghi are, to modify a French term, bien dans leurs peu, or good in their skin. Ghi, to use a bodybuilding term, is ripped. Those back muscles, those powerful legs – wow!  Yet she alights like a feather albeit a whip-fast feather. And there’s not a peep out of those high heels landing unless it is with a choreographed stomp of the foot. Merlot is just barely taller than Ghi (of course she is always in heels) but they go together like sex and wine.  Merlot is smooth, confident and dashing in his performance. He is present in the moment, as if he and his beloved are dancing together in their boudoir sans audience. Merlot’s red sash and a trench coat as props were audience favorites perhaps accurately reflecting the current male/female tug of war going on in the headlines.  Minetti mentioned the bipolarity of being Italian. Clearly, there is a type of bipolarity in tango dance also.

Tango dance has been described as vertical sex, but little eye contact is made during the dance.  The subtext of the dance is that the man is showing what he wishes he could do to his potential future partner.  Ghi and Guillermo’s passion for the dance is evident. So physically compatible with each other — if a bit shy in the edgy, sexual, nostril flaring and libido exuding department that so many of us voyeurs of this art form expect to see — the exquisite dance duo’s visible trust and respect of each other is beguiling.

Though connectedness is an ongoing theme in tango, musicians to instruments and dancers to dancers, there was almost no ‘reaching out’ during performances.  Iggy Jang, and the handsome bandoneonista Javier Sanchez glanced at the dancers only when their instruments were at rest.  Sanchez seemed to relax enough in the second act to be actually enjoying the dancers.  Joyce really came to life during his featured role, but I kept thinking that this performance would be enhanced if the musicians had interacted more with the dancers. But collaborations with musicians and dancers can be complicated and require more hours than this extravaganza was likely able to commit to.  The program bios mention, however, that Minetti and dancers Ghi and Merlo have previously partnered and formed a group called This is Tango Now.  They also produced a show, Identidad, and a tango/flemenco adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen… hint, hint, Kahilu Theater!

Jang, a captivating performer, and celebrity worthy, is to be commended for his magnanimity in sharing the stagewith the kinesthetic component of this art performance. The resulting ensemble has a sensual overtonethat is both elegant and coy.  But, as Jang recently noted, “there’s a layer of despair”.  It’s all bracing and stimulating.  And it’s gratifying to watch a performance that is not gratuitously G-rated nor politically correct.  As was humorously told by the seriously talented director/pianist Minetti (AKA; The Cook), the path of the bandoneon went from church to brothels where the genre, as we would most recognize it today, was developed.  How many folks are studying tango music these days? Jang himself, along with Kahilu theater, which manages educational programs, may have the answer. On a recent interview with Hawaii Public Radio, Jang said he is not sure if his “intellectual knowledge matters”. Yet as an educator, he is perennially generous with his time and knowledge in sharing with his partners and/or the next generation.  Hopefully, this will pay off in attracting younger audience members as well. The predominantly gray-haired audience was appreciative and eager to stand and demand an encore.  Speaking of older audience members, a shout is in order to someone seated near me, too busy watching a football game on his gadget to embrace the passion of these young performers. Artists such as these enhance and add meaning to our lives.

Mahalo and Ho‘omau!


You can find more about Iggy Jang on the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra’s website: http://hawaiisymphonyorchestra.org/ignacejangbio/

Leslie Larch studied dance with the San Francisco Ballet, danced the can-can at the Moulin Rouge, and now teaches Pilates on the Hamakua Coast.

Photos: Steve Roby

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