Joyce Glasser reviews Our Last Tango (September 22, 2017) Cert.12A, 85 min.
When the great Irish poet YB Yeats was a 60-year-old ‘smiling public man’ looking back at his youth, he grappled with the question, ‘how do we know the dancer from the dance?’ This question is at the heart of the unusual documentary, Our Last Tango in which María Nieves Rego, 83, and Juan Carlos Copes, 86, look back on their lives as arguably the world’s most famous tango dancers. The film is a moving portrait of a couple who danced together for nearly fifty years, struggling to separate their passion for the dance from their passion for one another.
On a Saturday night in Buenos Aires in the 1940s, the only affordable entertainment was found the local dance hall to dance the tango. María Nieves would go to watch Juan Carlos Copes, a handsome 17-year-old studying to be an electrician dance with her talented older sister. María quit school in the fourth grade when her immigrant father died, and by the age of 12 she was working as a maid to help her widowed mother. The young girl would practice the tango with a broom hoping to emulate her sister. Then one day Juan Carlos danced with the pretty 14-year-old. María was smitten and Juan Carlos had found a dance partner who completed him. It might take two to tango, but the two have to become one during the dance.
It was not long before they began winning dance competitions wherever they went. Neither of them ever had a single dance lesson. He quit university and she quit her job as maid. In November 1955, influenced by the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, Juan Carlos choreographed and staged a tango review show that caught the attention of a stage producer. Just as rock n’ roll was replacing tango in the barrio dance halls, Juan Carlos and María began to travel to introduce the world to tango fever. Their tour was underfinanced and times were hard, but they were in love.
In 1964 the couple married in Las Vegas at María’s insistence. Two years after they returned to Buenos Aires, he went off alone on a world tour. She fell in love with another man. But Juan Carlos realised he needed María and returned to resume their glorious partnership and unhappy marriage. María discovered that while they were married Juan Carlos had a child with a younger woman. They divorced in 1973. In the film, Juan Carlos, who began drinking, credits his new wife for saving his life
María tells us that at this point it was hatred that fuelled her commitment to tango and made her a better dancer. The two dance partners did not even speak to one another before and after the shows. All the passion was on the dance floor.
After 1997, Juan Carlos began dancing with one of his daughters from his second marriage. He comes across as a cad, candidly tell us about his true feeling for María and unapologetic about the way he treated her. But never felt the same dancing with anyone else. ‘Unless you love the tango, you can’t dance it; It has to be in your heart, he explains. ‘And if it is, you can’t do anything else.’
Perhaps María, who wanted to have children, could have done something else. But as long as Juan Carlos needed her, she was not only the dancer, but the dance which was his life blood. In 1997, however, an ultimatum from his second wife put an end to their partnership. She was devastated: how would she dance?
In the production notes, the 49-year-old Argentinean/Germany filmmaker German Kral states that in addition to telling this show business love story, he wanted to tell the story of tango including Copes’ and Nieves’ contribution place in history. In this he is less successful. With a narrative that is hard to follow and contains few dates or external corroboration there is little context by which to evaluate their impact.
In the early 1980’s, for instance, Copes produced and choreographed Tango Argentino, a review show with 7 middle-aged couples, led by himself, aged 54, and María, 51. Age had not withered them and they took Broadway by storm. The film actually underplays the event and you never really understand the show’s significance from María’s subjective recollections.
This is a shame as an excerpt from a review in the New York Times of December 19, 1985, is a lot more interesting and revealing: ‘…Here was a show, after all, that violated the Broadway dictum that musicals be elaborate, expensive and stocked with supple young bodies. Tango Argentino wasn’t even in English! …Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Brooke Astor, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Helen Gurley Brown, Henry Kissinger and Claus von Bulow all have taken in the show. Regine of Regine’s invited the cast to dinner. George-Paul Rosell, who gives parties for a living, is throwing himself a 41st-birthday tango party tonight at Studio 54.’
What María, with her short curly, bleached red hair and matching cheeks and lips provides is living history. She contradicts herself during the interview and might not be a totally reliable narrator, but she always maintains her dignity and puts on a brave, even smiling face. Aside from the occasional comments from Copes, Kral structures the film as a conversation between María, the revered veteran, and young (and later middle aged) dancers who act out the couple’s life through dance.
This is more by necessity than by design, for, sadly, there is little footage of María and Juan Carlos dancing together in their hay day. Fortunately, Kral has found a young and truly beautiful couple to fill the gaps and they are sublime. If Ayelén Álvarez Miño and Juan Malizia ever come to London I will be in the theatre experiencing what it must have been like to see Copes and Nieves in some Buenos Aires dance hall or under the lights of Broadway.
You can watch the film trailer here: