Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Prague Tango Alchemie, Summer Solstice 2013

Praha! To chutná jak hlt vína,
Opakuji si stokráte

Prague’s heady like a gulp of wine,
I keep repeating and repeating

Jaroslav Seifert, “Wreath of Sonnets”

Argentine Tango is an art of mastering your own body and the body of your partner
to be able to compose a unique musical conversation on the dance floor.
MilaGrosa Vigdorova

6 Chapters of Magic:
White Night
Red Night
Celestial Night
No longer Black Night
Grobovka Vineyards
The final Element
Tangueros of the world are a gypsy caravan-like community, or a secret society if you will – people who understand one another and communicate without words, relying solely on the language of bodies and eyes, and who sometimes struggle to remember foreign-sounding names of their dance partners with whom they just shared a tanda, the proverbial 15 minutes of motion, music, and heart-to-heart connection.

Viviremos los dos el cuarto de hora
de la danza nostálgica y maligna

Let’s live together, the two of us, for a quarter of an hour
Of this evil and nostalgic dance
Claudio Frollo, “Danza Maligna”

It is a rite and religion, goes on the verse. And we have no doubt about it. Throughout the year, across the globe, tangueros of all languages and ages gather in large halls of tango festivals and marathons to mingle together and to dance their fill.
Some are locals, some travel hundreds kilometers, and a few, like us, cross continents and oceans

Solstice Magic of Prague

Prague Tango Alchemie festival is a relative newcomer to the Old Continent’s Argentine Tango scene (where some tango meet-ups date back to the very early years of Argentine Tango revival world-wide, like the festival in Sitges, Catalonia, or the tango camp in Nijmengen, the Netherlands, which boast a 20-year history).
The Alchemie has been running since 2007, but it already build a worldwide reputation for magic and splendor.
The milonga balls are styled after Elements and astrological Symbols, the venues are a succession of ever-more-stunning historic palaces, and the performances are something special, a fusion of tango and elemental symbolism.
And … it is the beautiful Prague, where the magic of ages is palpable – and nowadays, supplemented by a Vegas undertone of a Sin City which Never Sleeps (to a degree, Prague is to Germany what Vegas is to California, a strange city a short distance away, where the rules fade and where laissez-faire rules.

Alchemie 2013 started from a few disappointments … some of the gala milongas were scheduled to be in a beautiful but very modern shopping center at the edge of the Old Town; and then, flood damage took the Red Chateau (Trojsky Zamek) off the venue list; so the Red Gala Milonga would have to be in the same Slovansky Dum as well. But then the organizers added open-air street events to the mix - so we get a chance not just to see Prague, but also to show the city what we dance. And since there will be tango until 7 in the morning almost every night, we won't even have to switch to the European time zone; the plan is to sleep by the day, dance by the night.

White Night of the Moon

White Gala photo by Kristin Bjarnadottir

Clam Gallas Palace, an early XVIII c baroque edifice in Old Town which once saw grand balls with Mozart himself, and was more recently used to house city archives, is all splendor of white and gold. No wonder that it’s traditionally used by Tango Alchemie for the White Milonga. An enfilade of ornate halls leads to the main ballroom – but the white-clad tangeros are dancing in every room, big and small! And one of the first dancers to greet is Balbeska, a long-time virtual acquaintance who first introduced me to Poemas del río Wang, and whose poetic Prague travelogue of 2012 prompted us to go to Alchemie-2013. So nice to meet you in realspace at last!

At midnight, in the fountain courtyard of the Palace, the tangueros greet the change of Zodiac signs with a magic dance of lights of La Brujeria of St. Petersburg, Russia, which culminates when the candles pass from the hands of the dancers into the hands of their bewitched spectators who then join in and pass on the light – and when the music is finally over, all of us return upstairs for more tango and chat with new friends.

Red Night of the Sun

In 2013, the rest of the Gala Balls of the Alchemie got shifted to “daytime hours” – they were over by 9 in the evening, unfashionably early for the dyed-in-the-wool tangueros like us. So we usually showed up just for the last hour or two. But it was only the beginning of the night when you could keep on dancing until after sunrise. Before the Gala Milonga, there was, at last, a chance to dance on the streets of Prague, and to live bandoneon music of Maximiliano (the city’s resident street bandoneonist) at that! We met “at the Horse at Venceslaus Square” – the one which is standing upright near the National Museum, not the other horse which is suspended upside down with Saint Venceslaus perched over its belly, inside a famous pub just down the square.

The Red Night program included a walking-and-dancing tour of the Old Town which got quietly canceled and replaced by a rooftop reception and milonga at the Terrasa at Namesti Respubliki. In a typical chaotic Prague fashion, nobody quite knew the whole story, but still, soon we made our way to this beautiful perch overlooking the whole city, got drinks and gave up on getting food in this scenic but totally overwhelmed establishment, danced a few tandas and went home for a little rest before returning to Slovansky Dum to dance some more, till dawn.

Celestial Night of the Stars

The street dance of the day was supposed to happen at Mustek, “Little Bridge” which once stood over the moat separating Old and New Towns, but at the last moment it was shifted over to Uhelny Trh, a more intimate square just a block away (laissez-fair is how things work in Prague – and with unexpected baskets of strawberries from the organizers this time!) There, Maximiliano’s bandoneon captivated attention of a passerby who happened to be an accordion and garmon collector from Russia, who until this moment didn’t have a clue that such a sister instrument exists. So in a break between dances, I ended up giving a detailed history lecture in Russian, how the German instrument-designer, Herr Band, named bandoneon after himself, how he marketed it for church services as an inexpensive organ replacement, and how, instead of churches, the bandoneon found its calling in the dockside pubs and bordellos of Buenos Aires, where its sound has become synonymous with the sound of tango.

The Celestial Milonga – colored mostly starry silver and gold rather than celestine blue – ended with an exuberant chacarera dance, a spirited folk dance which has become “almost” a part of the pantheon of the dance forms accepted at tango events (the classic trio of tango proper, swirly vals, and light-hearted nimble milongadance). Then the insatiable crowd filed to Jam Cafe just down the street, indeed jamming the tables and the little dance floor really tight.

Madeleine & Jorga in Jam Cafe, J.T. Jorg's photo
Compared to a slightly hyper-formal ambiance of the Gala, the sweaty crowd and patched-up floor at the Jam created just the right vibe for me. I best remember a sweet tanda which ended with Volnushka telling me, "You are crazy" ... here I must explain that the tango etiquette virtually prohibits a polite after-dance "thank you"; the "thanks" is a codeword for ultimate disapproval, for get-lost. So we tangueros must express our gratitude by any other words but never "gracias" - sometimes it happens to be ambiguous words - and so for the next 24 hours I was left wondering if I was crazy in a good or a bad way :)
The last tanda was over, but el gente (as the milonga-going public may be called) still lingered in the loft of the cafe, and then the DJ played a non-tango track, and the already-crazy scene turned truly deranged (and now I knew by heart whose glance I must try catching in a silent dance invitation rite of cabeceo next time!)

The party continued in Slovansky Dum, and it was already light when we finally left and walked the deserted lanes of Old Town to Tyn and Charles Bridge - stopping for some gyro at the only eatery open at this early hour, a Turkish stand operated by a Yerevan Armenian, eager to be complemented - in Russian - on the beauty of his hometown. But Prague, it's like a gulp of wine, its beauty would leave Paris in the dust! Have you ever walked Charles Bridge alone - without any crowds? Have you seen the slanted rays of rising Sun play under its XIV c. arches? But we now needed to get home for a bit of sleep!

at Hybernia Theater
The Black Milonga, of the Element Earth, used to be a part of Alchemie's tradition, but color black is already so overused in tango costumes, the organizers replaced it with a Pure Pleasure Gala, whatever colors you prefer. But first of all it was time for a street dance, this time at Hybernia Theater. Maximiliano the bandoneonist was nowhere in sight, and we danced a bit to Volnushka's keychain mp3 player, until an angel (as Alchemie volunteers are known) brought the word that the location changed again ... a sculptural installation was being unveiled at Charles Square, and the Alchemie organizers joined in for the event.

By the time we got to Charles Square, the scheduled dancing was almost over, but since everybody was late, Maximiliano played for another half an hour. Still it didn't feel like the right time to retire into the stolid atmosphere of Slovansky Dum, and we hatched a plan to walk towards the river and Charles Bridge, dancing along the way. Volnushka had the music, and I worked as a navigator (since our route traversed the very New Town neighborhood where we stayed, and which has already become familiar to me). We danced under a lone tree Na Struze, then walked into the courtyard of the National Theater where we found a Czech rock group finishing a gig - but they agreed to play some more after a brief beer break, and then we danced. Then to Vltava embankment and Children's Island Bridge, where we danced to a crooner of a riverside cafe (In the Pines, made known to the whole world by the Nirvana, yes).
at Charles Square
And on to Charles Bridge where we momentarily created a pedestrian traffic jam when we joined a blues band and doubled the crowd of spectators. That was sweet and very Earth-elemental, as in, having real ground underfoot. But it was, finally, time to retreat indoors, to Slovansky Dum and Jam Cafe again. It was a parting night of many last hugs, yet it didn't really feel like a final night for us because we still stayed in Prague for two more nights of dancing - and so did a few other festival-goers.
The Guerrilla tangueros at Charles Bridge


Rain clouds were gathering strength but I still managed to tour the Jewish Quarter before it started pouring.

Grobovka Pavillion, nested
in the vineyards of
Vinohrady overlooking

And we were heading all the way to Vinohrady (Vineyards neighborhood) for a long walk across the estate park of Grobovka to a beautiful Art Nouveau pavilion perched on a slope in the real vineyards. The rain was unrelenting, and we had to leave our street shoes at the doorstep so as not to bring moisture to the dance floor. The place felt truly surreal, suspended between the Earth and the low clouds beyond the veil of rain. And as we danced, our interconnected shadows danced on the ornate wooden ceiling of the pavilion, as in the Pasternak's verse coming alive.
На озарённый потолок
Ложились тени -
Сплетенья рук, сплетенья ног,
Судьбы сплетенья

Distorted shadows fell
Upon the lighted ceiling:
Shadows of crossed arms,of crossed legs-
Of crossed destiny.

On our last night in Prague, the rain stopped at last, and we walked across the river to Smichov to a basement tango pub called El Element - since we already danced four nights consecrated to the Four Elements of Alchemie, this surely must have been the Fifth. The Alchemie crowds mostly dissipated by now; but the dances were very good, and so were the conversations. La Cumparsita, the signature closing tune of a tango night, came almost too soon, and we kept walking along the deserted streets and talking until it was truly time for the last embraces. We're gonna dance in Budapest tomorrow!

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