Rarely has the tempestuous tango looked like so much exuberant, out-and-out fun as in Estampas Portenas' "Tango Fire." This is tango with a big smile and boisterous high jinks performed by 10 exquisitely skilled dancers with spirit and charisma to match. All in their 20s and 30s, they are uniformly gorgeous. The women are lithe with deeply arched backs and finely sculpted legs that slice like machetes with stunning precision and flexibility. The men have taut, muscular torsos of commanding confidence, and feet and legs as nimble off the ground as on.
The only complaint is that "Tango Fire" is more bright flame than heat. Under the artistic direction of company founder Carolina Soler, the Argentine show has more flash than soul. I missed the slow burn of tango that dances moodily on the edge of desire or radiates with painfully restrained passion. "Tango Fire" is all out there, all the time - showy, flamboyant, but beautifully done and totally engaging.
Set in two acts, the show is also impeccably polished, with gorgeous costumes and lighting. The first part is a milonga, a club party set in Cafe del Tango, with dancing complemented by a lot of pretend flirting, brief entanglements, competitive dust-ups, and cute mishaps. The second act has a bit more variety, with numbers briefly evoking tango's early days in the red light district of Buenos Aires, when men often practiced the dance with one another. Ensemble numbers feature tight, mostly unison dancing full of fast and faster footwork, blistering spins, ankle-to-ear kicks, and deep lunges.
Duets allow the dancers more room for pyrotechnics - slides across the floor, acrobatic lifts, flips that drop the women perilously close to the ground. Legs that move as if jointed by ball bearings swivel and slice with astonishing speed and precision - it looks like one slip in timing and an intended scissor kick between a partner's leg could instead shear it off at the kneecap. With their tighter embrace and sweeping moves, Cristian Mino and Jorgelina Guzzi come closest to embodying tango's sultry, seductive intensity. The silky-voiced, expressive singer Javier Di Ciriaco also contributes a little romance to the evening, but too many slightly cheesy ballads broke the show's momentum.
Surprisingly, some of the most stirring moments come with not a dancer in sight, when the four sensational musicians of Quatrotango are given center stage. Pianist/director Gabriel Clenar, bandoneon player Hugo Satorre, double bassist Gerardo Scaglione, and violinist Marcelo Rebuffi drive the dance with soulful melodies and tight syncopated rhythms, outplaying orchestras three times their size. They imbue numbers by Piazzolla, Plaza, Gardel, and others with remarkable textural and timbral richness - the piano's thundering chords and brilliant riffs, the violin alternately singing and squawking, the bandoneon quivering like a broken sob, the bass sighing and growling.
The musicians interact as equals, and Scaglione's bass playing is a real revelation. Not content to merely thump the beat, the imaginative virtuoso bows with superb technical facility all up and down the instrument, adding percussive effects with a slap of the strings or rhythmic knocks on the body's resonant wood. The quartet's version of Piazzolla's "Otono Porteno" alone was worth the price of admission.