Gaucho traditions with a difference come to the Colonial

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PITTSFIELD — For more than a century, tango has largely shaped Argentina's impact on the international dance scene. Thanks to a troupe visiting the Berkshires this weekend, however, that may be changing.

Che Malambo, an all-male company that will perform at The Colonial Theatre on Sunday afternoon, celebrates Argentine history by staging competitive percussive dances first initiated by gauchos, or South American cowboys, beginning in the 17th century. Horse-inspired rhythmic footwork, drums, boots and boleadoras (similar to North American lassos) all appear during the show. But French choreographer Gilles Brinas' efforts to start a malambo-focused company weren't welcomed when he arrived in Buenos Aires in 2005.

"There was a lot of friction and a lot of resistance," group spokesperson and producer Matthew Bledsoe told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "They saw [it as], 'Who is this Frenchman coming to Argentina to tell us what to do with our culture?' Kind of a carpetbagger situation, [they thought]."

Eventually, Brinas found a group of dancers willing to commit to his vision. He takes an open-minded approach to interpreting the traditional dance.

"He doesn't say, 'I know everything about malambo.' In fact, he relies heavily on the cast themselves for their input as far as their technique and the structure of the malambo," Bledsoe said.

The malambo's central element is its footwork, the speedy zapateo that mimics galloping horses. The 12 Argentine dancers perform these moves barefoot or in boots. While it draws comparisons to tap or tango, malambo is often unfamiliar to audience members.

"In general, people don't know what to expect with this show," Bledsoe said.

Some in attendance Sunday may have seen the group when they were at Jacob's Pillow Dance in July 2016. The New York Times' Siobhan Burke reviewed one of the company's shows at the Becket institution. While Burke wasn't fond of the performance's masculine bravado, she wrote that "that doesn't detract from the fascinating aspects of the form itself: the pawing, galloping footwork and legwork, which often accelerate into a swiveling blur of motion below the waist; the astoundingly elastic ankles that support balancing, improbably, on the outside edges of the feet; the speed with which the dancers, their chests held proud and legs darting out from under them, can swallow up space."

Bledsoe said the performance has changed since then.

"You're definitely going to see a different show," he said. "I can't say it's completely different from start to finish, but Gilles is constantly tweaking and adding things."

Burke's criticism may still apply, though.

"It's very macho," Bledsoe said.

The show's beginning sets that tone. A big group takes the stage initially before departing. Two men emerge, dueling in the gaucho tradition, marking their territory. Once they've earned each other's respect, they become a team, and two other dancers appear. Another duel ensues in the same style. More dancers continue to join.

"It's kind of like a rite of passage almost," Bledsoe said. "Once they've established that everybody's on the same common playing ground, then they perform as a group."

The 75-80-minute show is sometimes broken up into two acts, though Bledsoe said the company's preference is to perform continuously. During the second half of the dance, the performers let loose.

"Internally, they call it 'fiesta' because there's no more of the testing each other," Bledsoe said. "It's fun, still competitive, but competitive with oneself. They're going to show off what they can do. The tone of their faces is even different. It's not that pensive, kind of 'looking through' gaucho look. It's much more relaxed."

Throughout the afternoon, the audience may be awed by the dancers' energy. But the spectators can help fuel what they're watching.

"The dancers themselves, the performers, they feed off of the audience's energy. The more the dancers give to the audience, the more the audience gives back to the dancers," Bledsoe said.

After a modest start, Che Malambo now performs in approximately 35-40 locales per year. Its rotating roster of 18-20 Argentine performers have had to make sacrifices to tour, leaving behind jobs and family back home. But the rewards have been plentiful. The company has even inspired spin-offs, according to Bledsoe.

"I think there's a whole revolution in Argentina right now of young dancers who dream to be in Che Malambo," Bledsoe said. "Most of these guys, all of them pretty much, come from very humble backgrounds, and now they're making good money and traveling around the world and seeing the sights. And [they] have become recognized."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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