Tango Schumann is produced by Tango Art, a performance art company founded by Anthony Howell in 2002.

"In October 2008, Anthony Howell and Lindi Kopke staged Tango Schumann at Milton Keynes Gallery.  Presented in the empty gallery spaces during the exhibition changeover, Howell’s performance was accompanied with a short programme of two films; The World Turned Upside Down and Homage to the Horses that helped contextualize and address some of the prominent concerns of his practice.  

Howell was invited to animate through dance the relatively austere and defined space of the gallery – the purposeful and elaborate gesture of tango working in contrast to the somewhat rational pragmatics of the gallery space.  Typically, Howell compounded and further explored the presentation of seemingly opposing cultures through his provocative choice of musical accompaniment – that of the classical music of John Field (1782-1837).       

In the research, presentation and delivery of the project Howell was inspirational in his generosity and openness in allowing a breadth of audiences to engage with his work: this was demonstrated by his eagerness to present accompanying tango workshops after the performance.  The project was specifically successful in engaging a broad and varied audience – many of whom had never previously visited the gallery.  Additionally both the gallery performance and workshops were oversubscribed with significant waiting lists for both.  Howell’s work is successful not only in the technical delivery and profound emotional impact and intensity of the work, but in the significant widespread appeal that his practice brings."

                                                                                    Michael Stanley, Director, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford

Dancing to Schumann

"Don’t look forward to a finished and complete entity. The idea must always be kept in a
state of flux.

An error may be only an unintentional rightness.

Do not get too fussy about how every part of the thing sounds. Go ahead. All processes are at first awkward and clumsy and “funny”.

Polishing is not at all the important thing; instead strive for a rough go-ahead energy.

Do not be afraid of being wrong; just be afraid of being uninteresting."

T. Carl Whitmer The Art of Improvisation

The above is extracted from a manual for organists. And in dance, we talk about choreographed work, and we talk about improvised work. But because there is the music we are not truly free to improvise. The dancer, if he dances to music, is always engaged in an interpretation. In the dance of the embrace, however, there are two interpreters: a leader and a follower. The formal qualities of lead and follow might constitute the language we are interpreting into. But then we can be talking about a choreographed interpretation as opposed to an improvised interpretation. In translating the musical language of Schumann into the language of lead and follow, it seems fitting to be interested in improvised interpretation, since the technique of lead and follow in the dance of the embrace is ideally suited to doing this. You could also say that the follower interprets the lead.

What is the leader doing when he improvises an interpretation of Schumann? He is hearing Schumann. He is listening. He is moving and moving his partner. His moving must be a form of listening. It must also be a form of knowing. He knows the music. So, not only does he listen, he knows in advance what the music is going to do. He is listening and listening ahead. So he’s actually engaged in a multiplicity of activities. He’s both listening and listening ahead, and he’s moving and moving his partner. But if he wants this to be a genuinely improvised interpretation, it’s important that he doesn’t fall into the execution of set pieces. The execution of set pieces places the dancer at a remove from the music.

About the music itself, Roland Barthes has this to say:

"This faculty – this decision – to elaborate an ever new speech out of brief fragments, each of which is both intense and mobile, uncertainly located, is what, in romantic music, we call the Fantasy, Schubertian or Schumannian: Fantasieren: at once to imagine and improvise: in short, to hallucinate, i.e. to produce the novelistic without constructing a novel... "      
                                                                                                             Roland Barthes:  The Romantic Song

The relation of the score to the playing is that of signifier to signified. But the leader of the dance is not reading the score. He’s listening to the language that the playing constitutes: a language of signifiers without any concrete signified facts, a language that refers to itself, without concise external meaning; and this musical language has significance (or what Barthes refers to as signifiance), in a radiant, resonating way; but now, these played notes become the signifiers and the movements of the dancers, the movements of the man and his partner, become that which is signified, become what the music means; but again, these steps constitute another language of signifiers without concise external meaning. In a radiant, resonating way, their dance signifiance is an interpretation of the signifiance of Schumann’s sonata – as the sound generated by the instrument is the meaning of its playing.

The dancer who leads may come to the conclusion that he only has to think the moves. He thinks the lead, and he gets the follower’s interpretation of his thought. So his movement echoes the process already set up by the chain of interpretations – because you could say that his movement constitutes the signifier to which his partner’s movements are the signified. So there’s this chain of signifiers transforming into signifieds that in turn turn into signifiers that generate fresh signifieds. And the end result of this interpretation of interpretations is the action of the follower. So the action of the follower could be seen as the ultimate meaning of the piece.

His follower is interpreting the movements of his body. He is inviting her interpretation. Here there is a crucial difference between a player and an instrument and a dancer and his partner. Dancers and their partners differ far more than do players and their instruments. They are not player and instrument: they are two bodies. The leader must be as much concerned with the specific nature of his follower’s body, and with her specific qualities of movement, as he is with the particularities of the piece of music that he’s interpreting. The same is true for her. But in addition, one should bear in mind Mariana’s request that her leader should dance with her “as if she were deaf” – as if the only way she could sense the music was through the movement of his body. While the leader’s role is difficult by dint of its complexity, the follower’s is difficult by dint of its simplicity. She must interpret his movements. She cannot afford to be distracted by judgement, by assessing whether his interpretation is accurate or inaccurate, or by assessing whether his lead is as accurate as that of some other dancer.

For both partners, there is a need to wipe the board clean. He cleans the board in order to give himself over completely to the music. She cleans the board in order to give herself over completely to his movement. Movement, of course, involves stillness and pauses, just as music involves rests and silence, though it is not a prerequisite that his interpretation must always marry these together. She interprets these pauses and stillnesses of his, just as she interprets his movements, and the fact of the matter is, she can hear the music. He dances with her as if she were deaf, but ultimately she is not dancing with him as if she were deaf. He sweeps her this way and that as the music sweeps through her, and there is space in between his steps, and in his intervals, for the music to move her as much as he moves her.

Herein, there’s a risk, an opportunity for doubt to creep in. It’s a sort of feedback problem. Something comes back from her that in turn influences his interpretation. If he listens too hard to her interpretation he may lose the thread of his own. So the specific qualities of her movement are more than a mere concern of his. He needs to be prepared to be influenced by these qualities. Her interpretation must be allowed to seep into his. But her interpretation is the sole aspect of complexity within the essential simplicity of her role, and if she places too much emphasis upon it, she may lose the purity of her follow. Going back to the old cliché – a single heart moving on four legs – the dancers are two separate entities, but, as a couple, they seek to show a unified interpretation, and it’s her responsibility to exercise extreme delicacy in any response that is not directly the outcome of his lead. Her follow cannot constitute a critique. In a sense, she is listening but not listening ahead, as he is doing. Essentially, she’s being in the music at the very moment of its making.

Anthony Howell, October 2007



Both photos on this page were taken at The Milton Keynes gallery in 2008 by Chris Webb

Precedents:  Constantine Rueger dances to Chopin, and Pablo Kliksberg can be seen dancing with Frauke Nees to J.S. Bach  on  Youtube

Melodia del Corazon is a marvelous homage to Robert Schumann by Argentine orquesta-leader Edgardo Donato.