Tango: The Art History of Love
Robert Farris Thompson
Hardcover/384 pages Pantheon
If you've wondered why the famous Argentine dance of tango has attracted numerous jazz artists from Gerry Mulligan to Wynton Marsalis, this stunningly passionate and informative overview of tango will quickly offer insights. Robert Farris Thompson, a major writer on African art for the past three decades as well as a highly influential Yale professor, has perfected his writing about dance as art to the degree to which the blend of rigorous scholarship and dramatic imaginative reverie is unparallelled in writing about jazz or tango. This is simply the best written book about any music or dance I've read in the past decade, and here's why.
Thompson shares years of intensive research in Argentina and elsewhere in a manner in which you're following the thread of a galvinizing mystery. He makes a claim early on in the book I found questionable, insisting on the African roots of tango in the Latin American nation with the smallest black population. But rather than simply hammering away at his assertion, he leads you, step-by-step, through well-focused interviews with dancers, through art and photographs over the decades depicting tango, into an extraordinarily complex swirl of African-inspired cultural energies, taking into account other cultural streams, but noting the primacy of African movements. The author is not so much building a case for the tango's African roots as leading you gradually, seductively, into the spiritual and erotic forces that have been present throughout the tango's evolution.
In prose as sharply accented rhythmically as the dance he celebrates, Thompson tells tales of tough guys learning to be cool while executing new steps, of dancing couples falling in and out of love on the professional dance circuit, of tango musicians and lyricists who belie the stereotype that tango is the ultimate dance for depressives. Best of all, Thompson illuminates how the tango, throughout numerous musical and choreographic permutations, through a history of improvisatory invention that makes it a close cousin to jazz, has served as a dance form revealing the triumph of love and beauty during a century so marked by hatred and violence. Want to learn about the power of music as a prime generator of spiritual resilience? This is your book.
Only one tiny cavil. There is no discography, no comprehensive listing of tango films listed. You have to read through pages of footnotes in order to assemble these resources yourself, which this book may well propel you into doing. Better yet, it might get you dancing the artful dance of love.