Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tango Intervention Hits the Williamsburg Bridge-September 21, 2007

When the Williamsburg Bridge opened in 1903, thousands of immigrants living in deplorable conditions packed into tenements on the Lower-East Side walked across the bridge to a new life in Williamsburg. They migrated to Williamsburg for economic reasons, changing the cultural landscape of both Williamsburg and the Lower-East Side. Sunday afternoon, thirty tango dancers made that same migration across the bridge, tangoing the 2.1 miles in a performance art instillation organized by Robert Lawrence, a professor of art at the University of South Florida.
Lawrence chose Tango because of its historical significance as a dance of immigrants. It originated as a combination of many different influences brought by immigrants from Europe in Buenos Aires combined with ancient African dance forms. Robert Lawrence explained, "Tango is a dance of immigrants, great migrations, colonization, globalization and hybridization of cultures. Tango is born and shaped by the forces of migration and re-migration. It was conceived in the rich soup of creole mixes that followed colonialism, and since then it has been groomed by the cultural hybridity of historical and contemporary globalization. There is a way of looking at this social dance where you can see clearly that every step, every gesture, every note is informed by these historical, political and economic forces beyond the control of individuals. Simultaneously it is also an intimate conversation between two individuals, and a path created between the past and the future."
Tango has migrated all over the world from its birthplace in Buenos Aires, Argentina starting in the early years of the 20th century when dancers and orchestras from Buenos Aires traveled to Europe. The first European tango craze took place in Paris, soon followed by London, Berlin, and other capitals. Towards the end of 1913 it hit New York.
Robert Lawrence has conducted several "tango interventions" in several American cities including Seattle, Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Chicago, Illinois. The idea originally came from one of his students, Preston Poe, who is now a professor of art at Salisbury University. Poe organized a jug-band intervention while conducting research, and that spawned the idea to use tango in an intervention format.
Lawrence employs the internet as a tool extensively in his work both as a means of recruiting people and a way to educate people, "Over the last ten years all my work has had a physical component at an outdoor site or gallery, and an internet component which both acts as documentation of what's in the gallery or on the land and informs the public as to what's going on. If someone sees this project, they see 24 people dancing where they're not supposed to be dancing. If they look on the website thats posted on the dancers backs, they read up on the historical background and the significance of what's going on."
The tango intervention pushed the envelope of what to expect while walking or biking across the Williamsburg Bridge, as well as the endurance of the dancers involved. The bridge itself is 2.1 miles long and the dancers tangoed almost the entire way. Lawrence explained, however, that much of tangoing closely resembles walking, "Tango is a lot like walking, but in tango a walk is much more than a walk. The cliche in tango is that it takes 15 minutes to learn a figure (a turn or a spin), but it takes 15 years to learn how to walk."
The tango intervention had many aims and goals. Lawrence hoped to interrupt business as usual, recreate stereotypes and then undermine them, and be apolitical in performance and political in evaluation. Lawrence also wanted to, "demonstrate how immeasurably rich life is. There's meaning hidden in places where we would not expect it. I'm interested in giving a historical context to contemporary geography, to what people think the Williamsburg bridge is. I want to show people the meaning of the the bridge is deeper then what we think it is."
Most of all, the tango intervention was a testament to the strength of the New York tango community. Almost all of the dancers were simply people who got an email from their weekly tango list and came to dance their favorite dance. Pat McShane came on Sunday after receiving an email about the event. "Tango's my main hobby right now. I got into it through dancing Flamenco when my partner suggested I try tango. I dance with a group called Tango Porteno that takes a boom box and a group of dancers and hits places every Sunday night. I'm having a great time today, we should do it again."
Lawrence plans on doing exactly that--organizing future tango interventions. With the turnout as great as it was for the first planned event, one can only imagine how many people might show up next time after all the participants spread the word about this intervention. Everyone involved had a great time, and the fun continued after the intervention was over when Lawrence bought us all a drink at the Lodge, a pub on the corner of Havemeyer and Grand. For anyone interested in participating in future interventions or information about Robert Lawrence's work, go to tangointervention.org or h-e-r-e.com.

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