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Guillermina Quiroga's tango of body and soul

The Argentine seeks to take the passionate dance to an ethereal realm.

February 01, 2009|Susan Josephs

In a way, Guillermina Quiroga has Ronald Reagan to thank for transforming her into an internationally acclaimed tango dancer. If she hadn't been in front of a television as a young woman in Argentina watching the 1985 U.S. presidential inauguration, she would have missed "the couple performing tango for the president. When I saw these people dancing, I got crazy," she says. "I wanted to do this dance so badly, but I didn't have the courage then."

Since taking her first tango class in 1988, however, Quiroga has dedicated most of her waking hours to mastering the intricate and elegant South American dance form so often associated with slinky dresses, come-hither glances and dark alleys where men and women succumb to their inner demons. Her career has included performing onstage in commercial hits such as the long-running "Forever Tango," appearing in several films and choreographing for the 1998 Olympic ice dancing gold medalists, Evgeny Platov and Oksana Grishuk.

Luis Bravo, the creator of "Forever Tango," says, "She is the best dancer around. I've worked with so many talented dancers over the years, but Guillermina is the one I most admire. She has everything . . . honesty, technique and sensitivity, and she will never go onstage unless she's 100%."

Yet although she is famous in tango circles for fusing traditional steps with hyper-flexible leg extensions and athletic lifts, this onetime ballerina maintains that her style is ultimately not about her ability to execute high kicks and fancy variations of the gancho (leg hook) and barrida (foot sweep).

"I may dance with my body, but what I give to people is my soul," she says. "When I dance, my spirit goes outside, and that's what people see."

In recent years, Quiroga has also tried to imbue her choreography with a spiritual dimension, in a sense taking tango out of the dark alley and into a more ethereal realm. Currently touring the country with the latest version of her own full-length show, which will be presented by UCLA Live this week at Royce Hall, she believes her dances offer "something different."

"My show is not really a tango show," she says by phone from New York City, where the tour kicked off. "It's more that I use the language of tango to tell a story. And I don't just tell a story for the story but for the messages behind it."

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Breaking rules

Called "Tango, Historias Breves," Quiroga's production unfolds as the kinetic equivalent of a collection of nonlinear short stories, loosely bound together by the theme of love and interpreted by four dancing couples who include Quiroga and her partner, Cesar Coelho. There's a prologue involving Adam and Eve and references from the Kabbalah, a series of dances about love inspired by the poetry of the 17th century Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a depiction of a working-class Argentine wedding, and a darker love story based on the 2007 indie film "Valentina's Tango," in which Quiroga played the lead role.

Quiroga has been developing the material for this presentation since 2002, when she purposely set out to break what she felt were becoming formulaic rules about tango shows. The commercial success of productions such as "Tango Argentino" and "Forever Tango" led to "everyone adopting the same model," she says. "They're always about the history of tango and begin with the 19th century and have to show two men dancing together first. I wanted to do something different."

Thoroughly convinced that "you don't need the history of tango to reveal its essence," Quiroga sought inspiration from a variety of sources, including the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles. In fact, she originally called the show "Los Tangos de la Cabala" (Tangos of the Kabbalah), but she changed the name in part because "people kept asking whether I was Jewish or religious," recalls Quiroga, who was raised Catholic. "The things I wanted in my show were related to the kinds of esoteric concepts you learn about in the Kabbalah. But then I was always explaining to people that I'm not religious. I believe in God, the universe and love. That's it."

On the phone, Quiroga is gracious, unassuming and mostly unguarded, though she declines to reveal her age. When asked about a not-so-glowing review in the New York Times, she says merely, "I respect everyone's opinion, but I never let what anyone thinks affect my work."

Rogelio Lobato, the director of "Valentina's Tango," recalls how during the shooting of his film, he would watch Quiroga dance with other people "and you couldn't put your finger on why she was doing it better than everyone else. She just was. And she also makes it look so easy. Not to mention she's also the opposite of some tango diva who's a nightmare to work with. She's definitely no pushover, but she's also very humble."

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