The couple who saved tango
Between them, Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves rescued a South American art form from an ignominious death - dancing first with love, then with hate – says CHRIS SULLIVAN. A new documentary tells the tortured story of the dance's greatest-ever partnership
In the early years of the last century, tango – without doubt, the most sensual, most passionate, most amatory dance ever conceived – burst from the dancehalls, or milongas, of Buenos Aires' rougher neighbourhoods to become perhaps the biggest international dance craze the world had seen.
But after a spell in the limelight, it went the way of the Gangnam Style and returned from whence it came, not helped by a prolonged period of political repression.
That it was revived once more, to become an established global art form, as at home at Sadler's Wells, as on Strictly Come Dancing and in suburban community centres around the world, is largely down to two people: Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves.
The pair – dancing partners and, for a time, husband and wife – met when they were 14 and 17 and danced together for almost 50 years, touring, first, around southern, then central, then northern America and beyond. By the time they had finished, the position of tango had been secured.
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The story of their remarkable relationship – every bit as combustible and intense as you would expect from tango's ever finest practitioners – and that of the revival of the dance is now told in a new documentary film, released in the UK this week, Our Last Tango.
It is based on interviews, and footage from their past, but also features reconstructions of the pair when younger. The executive producer is the German filmmaker Wim Wenders, and writer and director is German Kral, from Argentina, where the story of the pair is far more well-known than here.
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'One of the reasons I was so attracted to the pair was their strong, passionate and somehow heart-rending love story,' says Kral. 'A couple who loved and hated each other and have never stopped dancing during almost 50 years. Even if they weren't talking to each other they would continue dancing together like gods.'
He adds: 'Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves are without doubt the greatest tango couple of all time. They are also the reason why there is a tango society thriving in every major city in the world. Our Last Tango is their beautiful and tragic love story.'
Copes was born in 1931 in the Mataderos area, or barrio, of Buenos Aires, Nieves, three years later in the Saavedra neighbourhood of the same city, where her mother would raid rubbish bins to find bones to make soup for the family. 'Dancing was the joy of the poor,' she says. 'Dancing was our escape.'
Appropriately, a certain melancholia permeates the film. 'As poet Enrique Santos Discépolo wrote: 'El tango es un pensamiento triste que se baila' which, translated, means, 'Tango is a sad thought danced',' says Kral.
The exact geneses of both tango the dance, and tango the word are lost in a misty cloud of fable. Most agree however that by the mid-1800s, the African slaves and their descendants began to exert influence on local culture. It is supposed that the word 'tango' is African in origin and means 'reserved ground' or 'closed place' – in other words the place where said Africans congregated to dance after Argentina banned slavery during the 19th century.
As for the dance itself, its development was an even more international story. During the 19th century, though 40 times the size of the UK, Argentina was a sparsely-populated land.
Thus, as the century drew towards its end, the country opened its doors to immigrants from Spain, Poland, Russia, Britain and, particularly, Italy. With them they brought their own dances – waltzes and mazurkas – which were mixed with the Cuban Habanera to create a new dance style named the milonga.
It was particularly popular with the compadritos – poor young thugs from the slums who, mostly-native born, were of mixed ancestry, dressed in high-heeled boots, loosely-tied neckerchiefs, slouch hats and usually sported a big old lock knife tucked nonchalantly into their belts.
Their game was visteo (knife-fighting training), cockfighting and pimping, but they loved a dance and frequented African-Argentine venues where they fused milonga with African candombe dance and developed a basic 'tango'.
They then took their moves to the Corrales Viejos – the slaughterhouse quarter of Buenos Aires – and showed them off in its bars, dancehalls and cathouses. This was where the African rhythms met the Argentine milonga music (a fast-paced polka). New steps were added and a new art form, born in the dirt-poor barrio, took its first clumsy steps.
Tough and aggressive, it was known as Tango Canyengue. And it was all extremely macho. Not shy, the men would take their women to dance and wrap themselves around them, completely united in an intimate embrace, which, very shocking for the time, was also a good old portion of swagger. Carlos Vega, researcher and historian of Argentine dances, describes the way one holds a woman in either the waltz or polka as 'linked', whereas he refers to the 'embrace' of tango.
By 1900, the aforementioned immigrants, mostly single men seeking their fortune, numbered over two million. Most were dirt poor, their desperation creating crime, gangsters and whorehouses where tango was king – the working girls entirely well-versed in the form, the pimps expert and the punters eager.
Esteemed writer Jorge Luis Borges claimed that tango had been born in a brothel but this description, however racy, has to be seen in the right context. Simply because there were so many men and not enough women the bordello was a major centre of entertainment – the working girls when not horizontal danced enticingly with the other girls to the strains of the largely working-class, self-taught bands who played tango – the street music that they knew.
Legend has it that the girls would choose their partners according to their acumen on the dancefloor. 'Tango was danced in the brothels, and by people of very questionable reputation,' adds Kral. 'I also read that some musicians back then would carry guns to the gigs and murder was not uncommon – usually involving a woman – while knife fights were considered almost normal.'
And as always, whether it be jazz, rap, blues or tango, such shenanigans – no matter how dangerous – will eventually always attract the curious man of letters (such as Borges) followed by the rich in search of a quick thrill.
Consequently it was these rich, young men who further pollinated and gentrified tango. Many studied in Europe or went on the Grand Tour (Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world) and some had learned the tango in the Buenos Aires' dens of iniquity and were keen to pass it on. These elegant young chaps strutted their stuff through Europe where the locals, especially the Parisians, lapped it up with vigour. Tangomania had arrived.
Later, when Rudolph Valentino, dressed as a gaucho, delivered a sultry tango in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1921) it attracted millions more adherents.
This rather eccentric dance, created in bars and bordellos by the poor, was now on every film screen in the word. Tangos – afternoon dances – were hugely popular all over the world, especially in Paris, where every neighbourhood boasted a tango. It was the biggest international dance trend to date.
'In the twenties and thirties, tango then started to be played and danced in Europe, mainly in the high society of Paris,' says Kral. 'From Paris, it came back to Buenos Aires, this time as a socially acceptable dance and not the music of the bordello. The thirties and forties were the golden times of tango with the best orchestras playing and thousands and thousands of young people dancing it.'
Thus, Copes and Nieves, born in the early thirties, hit the zeitgeist head-on, living with tango from birth. They met at a milonga, danced all night and found they had something special.
'We worked beautifully together,' says Copes on screen. 'We created a new style that came from both of us. I was slow and she was quick so we merged elements and it became a popular style The Copes Style.'
All was going well for the pair and tango. Hundreds of orchestras, led by the likes of Anibal Troli and Lucio Demare, thrived as encouraged by president Juan Peron and Evita his wife.
But when the president was deposed in a coup in 1955 the new regime discouraged anything nationalist – including tango – and encouraged the importation of music from abroad such as rock'n'roll, cumbia, country and pop.
Large gatherings – including dances – were banned in an attempt to apprehend political agitation. Many thought this the death knell for tango, especially as many of its most able practitioners had been jailed for being pro-Peron.
'We were thrown out of Atlanta (a dancehall) where we'd danced for years,' says Nieves in the film. 'But Juan [Carlos Copes] was obsessed with tango. He knew it could be big in places other than Argentina. He wanted it to be accepted like jazz and that was his dream.'
'Juan Carlos Copes decided he would not accept the death of tango,' attests Krul. 'Being a lover of Gene Kelly's films, he proposed himself to do the same that his master had done, but with tango. He then started to rehearse tango choreographies, together with Maria Nieves and other tango dancers in the basement of a factory.'
Later in 1955 the pair teamed up with Astor Piazzolla – who fused elements of jazz and classical in his compositions – and they toured Central America, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico and Cuba. Often performing break-neck tango, replete with spins and dips on a metre-square high table ('I was always so scared,' says Nieves) they went on to massive success in Puerto Rico followed by shows in New York, Chicago and Washington and appeared on numerous occasions on the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS between 1962 and 1964.
Some time after, the pair married in Las Vegas but the relationship was doomed. Copes told his wife the marriage was not valid outside of Vegas and went on tour with a new show without her.
'I couldn't stand her any more,' says Copes in the documentary. 'She thought I belonged to her but she belonged to me.'
Nieves met another man but a few years later when Copes asked her back to dance with him she agreed. 'I had to choose and I chose tango,' she admits.
'When she came back I shaped her anew and made her study and change her look,' says Copes. 'She was never more beautiful.'
In the mid-seventies Copes met another woman and, unbeknown to Nieves, had a child with her. When she eventually found out it destroyed her but she still continued to dance with him on stage.
'I was hurt but that helped me,' she says. 'I wanted to mop the floor with him on stage. I danced with hate on stage.'
Footage of them dancing at the time certainly illustrates this. Neither look each other in the eye and both are aggressive. In reality, they met only on stage and spoke to each other when absolutely necessary but, like the lyric of a tango classic, fate would provide that necessity on a daily basis.
1983 saw the collapse of the Argentine military junta. That same year Tango Argentino, choreographed by Copes and starring the pair, premiered in Paris. It subsequently conquered Broadway to rave reviews, such as this in Newsweek in November 1985: 'The people in Tango Argentino mean business, and the business is passion. The true tango turns out to be a mini dance-drama, formal and abandoned, austere and sensual, intricate and elemental, explosive and implosive.'
As the reintroduction of democracy in Argentina enabled the re-emergence of social dancehalls or milongas, prompting a 'tango renaissance' there, Tango Argentino toured the world with huge success, making Copes and Nieves global stars. 'We cursed each other when we danced but no one noticed,' says Nieves. 'We smiled and gritted our teeth and continued for the love of tango although we'd separated. We dedicated our lives to tango and the show must go on.
'It doesn't matter what happened, it is what you do. Eventually we worked it out and when he started a family I forgot everything and artistically it was wonderful and we danced for many more years. The artistic separation came many years later, which hurt me more than anything.'
As Nieves makes clear she gave up her life, happiness and a family for tango. 'The fact that a lot of people dance tango today all over the world, has a lot to do with what they did,' says Kral. 'There were times when they even had difficulties finding money to buy food, but continued dancing and touring and never stopped bringing the tango to the world. Tango is extremely present in Buenos Aires today. You can hear it everywhere and people of different generations like it while Juan and María are regarded as the greatest tango couple of all time. We danced together for 50 years and never imagined it would end,' laments Nieves. 'I would like him to be my friend but that cannot be.'
Our Last Tango is in UK cinemas now; visit www.ourlasttangofilm.co.uk
Chris Sullivan wrote for The Face and Loaded and was GQ style editor, London correspondent for Italian and L'Uomo Vogue and has contributed to all the British broadsheets
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