Tango Is a Dramatic Vocabulary

MAY 5, 2023

Tango artist Valeria Solomonoff is the Co-Choreographer for Evita. An innovator with roots in traditional tango, Solomonoff is the founder of Tango Mujer (the first all-female tango ensemble) and Valetango (an acclaimed contemporary company). Here, she reflects on the process of partnering tango with musical theater.

Co-Choreographer Valeria Solomonoff leads Martin Almiron in a tango step as Jonatan Lujan passes behind them.

I’d like to start by talking about your journey to this work. How did you first get involved in tango?

I grew up in Rosario, Argentina, and from a young age, I studied modern dance, improvisation, ballet, tai chi—all sorts of things. In high school, motivated by the underground nightlife that I discovered, I started tango. That was in the eighties, when the teaching of tango was less formalized. My teacher had danced for years, and after class, the old dancers, the milongueros who didn’t have anywhere else to go because milongas were still closed from the times of dictatorship, would come to dance with the students. Halfway through my university degree, I decided to move to New York City, and it was actually there that my tango education continued, with really good teachers from Argentina. That’s the funny thing about globalization!

What attracted you to tango specifically, compared to other forms?

There are two main currents running through tango that have given me food for thought and fuel for experimentation for almost thirty years. The first is the idea that tango is not simply collaboration, or synchronicity—it’s interdependence. I’m fascinated by what we can learn (in dance and beyond) by the idea of physical interdependence. Second, tango has been a way to physicalize my beliefs and my experiments with femininity and masculinity. Since long before I knew anything about gender studies, tango has been a way to explore my personal relationship with these concepts. What are they? What are their politics? How do those politics manifest in the body?

How did your involvement with Evita begin?

Through extreme luck. I came to this production because Sammi, the director, was trying to ground this musical in the most authentic Argentine performance possible. And she’s a serious researcher: she’s been to Argentina four times, which I really respect. I think she originally saw my work online—I wasn’t in the musical theater circle!

Did you have any connection to the musical before you started working with Sammi?

No. This is another one of those funny elements of globalization: as an Argentine, I wouldn’t have known where to start with a musical about Eva Perón. It’s too big. If I was in Argentina, working with a group of creatives, what would we agree on? There are so many possible Evitas, and it can be difficult for Argentines to work on a piece that talks about us from a British perspective. It may not have been a project that I would have thought of for myself, but the fact that the opportunity came to me has been so amazing. I’m loving the journey I’m having with the piece.

Caleb Marshall-Villarreal and Adrienne Balducci embraced in a turn as other members of the cast tango behind them.

Is that idea of “many Evitas,” of multiple differing perspectives on the same history, influencing your choreography for the show?

One of the ways I’m embracing the piece is by thinking about it as fully contemporary. Peronism is a hot subject in Argentina right now: the topic divides our country today as much as it did before, if not more. And it’s very complex.

What has it been like to bring that complexity, through your tango practice, to a musical?

From a choreography perspective, it started as a creative challenge: tango and musical theater traditionally work on different scales and timelines. The center of tango is the partnership, with pairs of dancers cultivating sustained interdependence by creating work together over many years. I’ve dedicated my life to this idea of deep partnering. In musical theater, on the other hand, there is a choreographer who works with the ensemble—a much larger group, which sometimes only has a few months together before the show opens.

The choreographic team of Evita is proving that it’s possible to align the two styles, and it’s beautiful, but it takes time and a lot of thought. I’m learning a lot about which stylistic elements of tango can give flavor to musical theater choreography and are adaptable to solo and group choreography. I am also discovering which partnering elements look simple but would take years to learn, whereas others make use of the potential of a large ensemble and are faster to teach. So we are creating an exciting fusion of the two styles together.

Which parts of tango have felt particularly suitable to this piece?

Tango is a dramaturgical tool, because it’s a relational dance. Tango is also a rich dramatic vocabulary, which can express joy, pain, power, trickery. In Evita, we can see it stretching in many ways. Some numbers are more about tango aesthetics, while others are about mechanics adapted to a different aesthetic. In others, the dance reflects the eloquence of power dynamics.

You’re co-choreographing the piece with Emily Maltby, whose background is in musical theater. Can you say a little bit about your collaboration?

I’m so lucky to work with Emily—our partnership is at the center of my current artistic growth. Our pairing is very lucky because we’re equally dramaturgically invested. We’re not the type of choreographers who want movement for movement’s sake, so we are constantly questioning, evaluating and checking in with each other in a way that is very inspiring to me. And her musical-theater expertise is amazing. I have no background in musical theater, and I have learned so much from her just by watching her. The way she leads the room, her innate sense of space and musicality and her capacity for tracking of multiple bodies at once is incredible. We are also very lucky to be working with our multitalented associate choreographer, Kelsey Burns, who unites these different skillsets.

You mentioned Sammi’s research—have you been on a similar process of investigation or reflection?

At this moment, I’m engaging with populism. I’m trying to foreground the dignification of the lower classes that happened with Eva, which was so important, while not forgetting that her time also saw the sacrifice of certain ideals. That dynamic feels very contemporary to me.

From the perspective of dance, we are working to portray not only the power of individual people but also the threat of fanaticism. We are focusing on the vibe of the city and the crowds, especially at moments when the people are hoping to receive goods or money. We are also investigating the sexual politics of the piece, which is central to Sammi’s directorial vision. Finally, there’s the element of public mourning: the public grief around Eva’s passing must move you, no matter what you thought of her. There were people that walked across entire states to get to her funeral. You don’t need to have an opinion on Eva to observe the powerful effect she continues to have today.

How prevalent was tango in the historical Eva’s lifetime, and in Buenos Aires at the time of the musical?

Eva lived the years of tango’s golden age—the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Peronism is a nationalistic ideology, so tango in general was promoted, but the question of which tango—and whose tango—is also very important. As always, there were certain people who were not accepted by the regime and who either were imprisoned, like Osvaldo Pugliese, or left the country, like Astor Piazzolla. Others, like Discépolo, embraced Peronism and even helped to create propaganda, but lived long enough to be ostracized in the backlash that followed.

What relationships are you hoping to create with audiences for the show?

I want the audience to be mobilized by Eva’s story, reflect on social movements, and consider simultaneously the power of individuals and the risk of populism and personalism.

I also want people to feel how broad tango’s musical theater potential is. In addition to reflecting intimacy like no other dance, tango is a metaphor for societal relationships. Tango demands a level of mutual attention that goes beyond consent. When you dance, your center is your axis of balance. That’s your safety, that’s the source of your expression, and partnering requires us to negotiate and share that center constantly. To move together, we access each other’s center. This give-and-take is how we communicate.

Sometimes I worry that today we are becoming defensive and shying away from connecting. We aren’t moving towards deeper listening and freer expression. For me, the gift of tango is that the dance creates a concrete, physical situation that requires we pay attention to one another now. Something is at stake beyond the dance itself, which is exciting to me as an artist.

Interview by A.R.T. Editor & Associate Dramaturg Robert Duffley

Valeria Solomonoff, Martín Almirón, and Jonatan Lujan in rehearsal. Maria Baranova.
Caleb Marshall-Villarreal, Adrienne Balducci, and the company of Evita in rehearsal. Maria Baranova.

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