A night of torrid tango

December 4, 1987: Always sensitive to the shock of the new, I make my way to Graceland—bare concrete floor, bare steel pillars, “Vancouver’s sleekest nightspot”—for Vancouver New Music’s Tango Cabaret: “a night of torrid tango nouveau.”

US pianist Yvar Mikhashoff, bushy-haired and bespectacled, has asked 100 composers to create tangos and he plays us some of them: one by novelist Anthony Burgess, very English and subtle in its decorations, another by the astrologer who played John the Baptist in The Ten Commandments. There’s a little nothing of a tango by John Cage, one by a composer who never wrote anything but this one piece, and one by a composer who didn’t actually know what a tango was.

Two men in apache outfits do a duet of forlorn smouldering to a cafe tango. A pair of ballroom dance specialists from New Westminster, resplendent in competition costumes and spectacularly out of place, whirl through a freestyle display. A naked, generously proportioned black male with no head-hair, his back painted like Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, is kicked across the floor by a severe-looking tall blonde person with small, high breasts visible through a transparent blouse. This is Oliv, identified as a surrealist cabaret performer, and Oliv in turn is dragged around the floor by the naked man, his unchoreographable parts a-dangle. The tango for this is Romanian.

Michael Harding, in silver high-heel pumps, fishnet stockings, a pretty black dress, cascading earrings and a vast tulle extravagance on his head, reads us nuggets of information about the history of the tango. The floor is eventually thrown open to the gathered crowd, which enthusiastically demonstrates its exultant incompetence at this tricky form.

“Well,” says the lady from the Dance Centre as I walk her through the Richards Street rent-boys to her car, “this is Vancouver.”

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