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Final days in Praha

A few days before the festival, we attended our first ever press conference, sponsored by Baumatic, a kitchen appliance manufacturer which recently released a line of red tango ovens. That’s right, the name of the line of ovens is “Tango!” We danced amongst the ovens and refrigerators, and the next day there was a long article with a photograph of us in one of the local Czech papers all about the Tango Alchemie festival! That night Pavel arranged a special treat for us on the Jazz Boat, literally a river boat which takes passengers on a leisurely route under the beautiful bridges of Prague, while they listen to local jazz groups play. As tourist attractions go, it was really quite lovely, and the views of Prague are beautiful and romantic from the water. We even danced one tango to the band’s rendition of “Moondance.”

The tango festival itself was one of the most charming and personal I have ever attended either as a dancer or as an instructor. The theme of alchemie matches perfectly the three aspects of tango experience: 1. Black for dissolving our boundaries and breaking down the layers of static that interfere with communication; 2. White for the purification of leading and following energies, two forces that all of us possess inside, and which are made manifest in the tango; 3. Red for union and connection, the ultimate experience which transforms technique into the magic of tango creation. The venues were also incredible, particularly the gala event Saturday night in one of Prague’s historic palaces, and the final milonga Sunday night in an outdoor pavilion on a hillside, alongside a vineyard and overlooking the city below.

On our last day in Prague, after the festival was over, I got lost twice, confirming the Czechs’ urban myth of the streets mysteriously changing positions. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit the pub whose basement is connected a system of tunnels which lead to Prague Castle; however, we did have a wonderful dinner with Jenne and Pavel, who (along with Radka) deserve huge congratulations for hosting such a beautiful weekend. They even had the brilliant idea of creating tango spirit awards for students, with prizes of discounts on next year’s festival! My favorite awards were the “Tango Angel” award and the “Tangoholic” award!

At dinner they told us an amazing story that has nothing to do with tango, but which is nevertheless worth repeating! Back in 2000, there was a great television strike in the Czech Republic – in protest of legislation allowing government censorship on national networks, the reporters shut down television in the entire country for two weeks, at Christmas time no less! 200,000 people took to the streets to demand the return of television. The strike succeeded, and the legislation was not passed. However, two strange phenomena were discovered within a year. First, the divorce rate increased dramatically, and second, the birthrate soared approximately 9 months following the strike! Fascinating.

I’ll close this entry with one of my favorite local customs, perhaps influenced by the Germans since we also saw it in Berlin. In the evenings, the owners of outdoor restaurants provide blankets for chilly customers finishing their dinner or coffee. As someone who often gets cold but likes to sit outside, this is a dream come true! Ah, Europe. We will miss it, but we’ll return next year, and besides, a new adventure awaits us in DC!

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Creative and magical adventures

On our third day in Prague, we walked out of the apartment and saw an ordinary wooden chair had been bolted securely to the side of a building, one story up. Now, the chair itself would already be an interesting choice, but there was also a very ordinary, older man sitting in the chair. He was playing some sort of game, rolling dice in a cup and writing with a pencil. He paid no attention to passers by staring up at him. The man in the chair remained a mystery until the following evening, when we navigated Prague’s surprisingly straightforward public transportation system to attend a modern dance performance, part of the June festival Tanec Praha (Dance Prague) which coincides nicely with our stay here.

The show was fantastic, a Romanian choreographer’s work that used powerful gestures and real-life movements in a very surreal way to reveal disturbing human conflicts. Among many beautiful moments was a man perched on a woman’s back with his legs dangling down on either side. She walked slowly across the stage dipping down every few steps to touch one of his toes to the ground. At another moment, two dancers carried a third around the stage as though he were flying. His arms were outstretched and one of them grasped the hand of a fourth dancer who ran with him on his brief assisted flight.

But getting back to the man in the chair. On the way out of the theatre we picked up a brochure of the Prazske Quadriennale (www.pq.cz), a 10-day festival of experimental theatre, scenography, and costumes from around the world. The man in the chair, we discovered, was one of twelve senior citizens placed around the city in similar fashion. Suspended above the city in their chairs, the participants of this theatrical exhibition carried on their daily activities for all to witness. In only four days we are deeply impressed with the vibrant artistic life of this city.

Saturday we ventured out to the kampa, a long park along the river, where we passed many beautiful decorative statues, gardens, and buildings. Prague as a city is richly decorated at every turn, but because so much of the decorative details contain spiritual symbols from pagan, christian, and mystical traditions, the overall feeling in the city is magical rather than historical.

After a late lunch, we made our way to one of Prague’s sports arenas where the Karmapa of Diamond Path Buddhism was invited to speak. A rare opportunity anywhere, it seemed even more apropo to join this spiritual event in mystical Prague. Pavel believes that after centuries of religious and dogmatic conflict, the Czechs are more drawn to a pragmatic sort of spirituality like Buddhism. I asked whether the Czechs felt patriotic and the answer was mixed. It seems they identify more with a particular city than with the Czech Republic itself, or perhaps that they don’t care very much, but prefer to envision themselves more personally than politically, more internally than externally.

That same night was Museum Night, when all museums in the city are open and free between 7pm and 1am. It was impossible to see everything, so we first chose to see an exhibit of ancient stone sculptures which had been removed from their original places around the city in an effort to preserve them from age and vandalism. Then we crossed the river to Prague Castle, worth the trip on its own, and explored the many small museums inside the buildings. Finally, we peeked into a large art gallery (also a classical concert hall, we were told) to see a special exhibition of the German artist Neo Rauch, said to be one of the most significant living artists today. His massive paintings appeared to have been created using several very different techniques, and I found them very compelling, both comically surreal and deeply disturbing. That night I had very strange dreams which I attribute to cultural over-stimulous!

But there was more to come, because on Sunday we rushed out after breakfast to see another Quadriennale event, “Dance with Bulldozer,” a clever and romantic choreography between a man and, yes, a small yellow bulldozer, set to opera music and including elements of aerial dance, contact improv, and modern movement. It was surprisingly captivating. We walked home in unsual weather, bright sunshine and tiny rain droplets.

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Prague

Our arrival in Prague seemed epic for several reasons. First because it is the final city on our tour although it was the first to be booked, and second because in nearly every previous city we have visited, people have responded always the same way when they hear the word Prague: a small gasp, followed by a long exhale, and a phrase like, “Oh, Prague is beautiful/really special/incredible/a great place for couples/the perfect end for your tour.” Neither Isaac nor I had visited Prague before, but as the months passed it became a fantastical image like Atlantis or some other lost mythical city. We landed at sunset on the jetway and waltzed through customs as peaceful as you please. Jenne greeted us just outside the international gate, her long hair and flowing cotton skirt reminiscent of a spiritual guardian welcoming us across the threshold. Looking out the window of the taxi on our way into the city, Isaac spotted a rainbow, clearly marking the cosmic significance of our journey here. Inside her building, at the base of the staircase, a dragon curled amongst the interlacing vines of the wrought iron railing. It was the first of many dragons that we would find lurking around Prague.

Over dinner, Jenne told us a little bit about the city, including the fact that the name itself means “threshold,” as in, the border between worlds, between east and west, perhaps between dreaming and waking. The popular legend tells of the clairvoyant daughter of the first king of Bohemia, who inherited his domain and foretold the birth of the city. We are here to teach at the Tango Alchemie Festival, held on the summer soltice and organized around the symbolic colors of black (dissolution), white (purification), and red (union), which just happen to be tango colors as well. Needless to say, we love the place immediately and, except for the complicated language, feel strangely at home. Czech grammar has seven tenses, three genders, and two states of being for objects. Names are conjugated depending on context. So for the moment, anyway, I’ve given up on anything beyond “thank you.”

Jenne and Pavel are wonderful, amazing people, and their stories of how Prague has changed over the past 10 years, post-Velvet Revolution, are fascinating. The accessibility of foreign foods seems to have been one of the most exciting developments, as traditional Czech meals are not the healthiest (meat and dumplings, cabbage, potatoes). Nowadays there is everything from vegan cafes to Algerian take-out. Also, in most other European cities, it is easier to see how certain areas were destroyed and rebuilt. Old Prague, on the contrary, remains largely intact. This might seem to be a superficial observation, but I have a feeling the atmosphere is thus preserved in a special way along with the buildings, despite the commercial onslaught of tourism.

And what buildings! I have quickly become a fanatic of Alfonse Mucha, credited by many with defining the style of Art Nouveau. Prague is full of architectural details, stained glass panels, and paintings by this artist, and by others in the same style. In the Mucha Museum we were able to see a nearly complete collection of his lithograph posters, which are incredibly beautiful. The lines of art nouveau curve and twist like plants, and the aforementioned dragons, as well as lions, angels, and other creatures dwell in architectural crevices around the city. Amidst all the decorative flowers and sculptures, a darker legend tells of the Golem, a creature conjured up by a medieval rabbi to protect the Jewish people…

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Tango Camp

Wow! It’s Montag in Dusseldorf and we are recovering from an intense TangoCamp experience. We were fortunate to take several classes with Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne over the long weekend and to see them perform four astonishing tangos on Saturday night. For all of you advanced dancers, they will be in the US in July, and I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity if you can. They travel very rarely nowadays, especially stateside. Gustavo is considered the father of tango nuevo for his ability to articulate and apply tango structure. His dissection of the gravevine turn provides a map for tango improvisation, and this comes through very clearly in his teaching.

But even more interesting than Gustavo’s classes, was the juxtaposition of his work with that of the younger couples who were clearly influenced by him, yet at the same time have a very distinct way of conceptualizing tango movement. We spent several hours over the course of the weekend discussing this new style and unfortunately we still don’t completely understand it. One characteristic is the addition of up/down and out/in directions to the matrix of tango. Another is the modification of tango posture into a more natural, anatomically efficient way of moving the body. We’ll be working with this last item specifically during the Tango Makeover Weekend in August. In any case, further investigation is necessary, and we’ll hopefully show you some of what we’ve learned when we return to DC.

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Dusseldorf

We arrived in Dusseldorf for another dose of domestic therapy. A week early for the famed Tango Camp of Europe, Jost welcomed us into his home and we shared several home cooked meals together. The Tango Camp itself is a traveling circus of five top Argentine tango couples traveling together to four cities in four weeks. In this year’s lineup we are excited to see the infamous Gustavo/Giselle Anne, the new and exciting partnership of Ezequiel/Eugenia, and the phenomenal Pablo/Dana, who are not yet known in Europe but who we were completely amazed by in Berlin a month ago. For this event I will serve as one of the DJs, but with some luck we’ll be able to take some classes as well and be students again for a little while…

But before the festivities begin, we have the chance to relax in Dusseldorf a bit, and one of the most interesting (and strange) things we saw was a performance of climbers, contact dancers, and arial dancers dangling on ropes from a massive and monstrous old coal mining structure. Apparently there are over 200 of these remaining all along the Rhine river. I must admit that the building itself, lit up at night like some mechanical alien, was far more compelling than the performance itself. Its towers, pipes, and open metal staircases glowed in luminous green, yellow and orange as if from some futuristic power source.

A few days later we went to visit another one of these structures during the day. Much larger, this one had been converted to a public park, and we wandered around for a couple of hours. The beast-like metal shells, grids, pipes, and matrixes seemed like some massive animal rusted into a statuesque monument of its former self.

On Saturday, we went to see a hip hop performance at the Tanzhous, a beautiful complex for all kinds of dance imaginable, where I performed with TangoMujer two years earlier. The show was excellent, and one of the most intriguing things about it was the difference in style amongst the six dancers. Knowing very little about hip hop dance, this was a real education and added a lot of personality to the choreography. One dancer could pop every joint in her body separately. Another one moved much less but could perform amazing feats such as spinning on his head or on one hand for several minutes. Another could move through hundreds of different poses at lightening speed, and others somehow incorporated flowing movements and flamenco-like postures into hip hop, which are elements I did not expect.

Ironically, having a long-ish break between workshops has made me feel more homesick, perhaps simply because I have more time lately to consider where I am and what I am doing (or not doing!). In an effort to lighten my mood, Isaac suggested we locate an English screening of Pirates of the Caribbean 3, and in retrospect it was exactly what I needed. Fun, entertaining, and a complete escape from reality!

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Amsterdam

Then, on to the Netherlands capital of Amsterdam, which has long been a favorite city of mine. The system of concentric canals lined with tall narrow row houses is the very definition of charming. Add to this a matrix of tiny bridges and the soft clink of bicycles going by, and suddenly it makes sense why everyone who lives here is in such a good mood all the time. And as if to add to the cozy feeling of Amsterdam, we kept noticing cats everywhere. Not your usual wandering stray city cat, but happy, sleepy cats kept as pets in cafes, bars, even some stores. As a cat lover, I was happy to see these silent, calm little guardian angels everywhere, perhaps simply as companions, perhaps to chase away the mice. We can only guess.

On our first walk around the city we were halted at the edge of one of the larger bridges by ringing bells and lowering of red and white striped bars like the ones at railway crossings. These, however, signaled the opening of the bridge for boats to pass through the canal. We were amazed to witness this pause in the flow of city life. As if holding a long breath, everything was totally quiet for about 30 seconds as the bridge opened on its powerful metal hinge and the boats passed through. Drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, and small dogs watched in silence. A few pigeons sat quietly on the underside of the bridge and blinked back at us. As the massive piece of road settled back into place and the bars lifted, everyone took off all at once, as if back into a sprint, and the sounds of the city resumed as before. The second time we watched this happen, we noticed three white graffiti figures drawn on the center of the bridge. They’re not so noticeable when the bridge is down and cars are driving over it, but as it makes its massive, slow ascent, we noticed that one of the figures appeared to be hanging from the top ledge of the bridge, and the other two sliding down it!!!

That night, Koos and Slavica took us to a fantastic Spanish tapas restaurant where we ate the best grilled squid since Cyprus, and then on to one of the strangest milongas I’ve ever seen. I rode on the back of Koos’ bike to get there, and he shouted back that we were going “to the end of the city.” There we found a community of artists “squatting” an old industrial building. They had converted a portion of it to housing and erected in the center a large white dome. We walked along a long red carpet to the entrance, and inside noticed several lengths of green, purple, and yellow silk were hung from the topmost bars, along with a trapeze. Originally intended to host a small circus show on the weekends, this bizarre construction becomes the “Tangosphera” on Thursday nights.

Saturday night we headed over to the Jordaan, an old neighborhood with lots of cozy Dutch cafe restaurants the size of an average living room, and nearly always with spare wooden tables and lots of candles. We ate a delicious if simple oven-baked goat cheese with thyme-flavored honey, and then “kip sate (chicken skewers with thick sweet and spicy peanut sauce),” which despite its Indonesian origins may as well be the national dish of Holland. It seems to be ubiquitous in Dutch cafes.

Finally, no visit to Amsterdam would be complete without a long leisurely walk through the Vondelpark, magical land of hidden pathways and calming pools of water. Surrounded by tall trees and clusters of tulips and lilies, we felt very lucky to get a sunny, 80-degree afternoon for our walk, which marked perhaps the second or third day in about three months that I left the house without my red leather jacket.

Happily, we’ve both started to feel much more synchronized in the classroom over the past month or so, and we felt very happy with the Amsterdam workshops. We shared a really nice dinner afterward with a couple from Eindhoven who took the train up for the weekend, and still later, after the milonga, we celebrated at home with Rene and Gabrielle and some new friends. After a couple of glasses of wine one of these new friends revealed a CD on which he had recorded just 24 hours before his own tango composition. After half a dozen disclaimers and apologies, he agreed to play it for us! As the trip is nearing its end, I am starting to crave some domestic balance, my own forks and spoons, blankets and pillows, etc., and these personal encounters help to compensate. 🙂

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The Netherlands

We were welcomed to the Netherlands by Marion and Leo, an adorable Dutch couple who help run the Eindhoven Tango Festival. Leo makes glass sculptures and jewelry, and at the end of the weekend he gave me the beautiful gift of black glass earrings to take home with me. They’re totally cool. We taught 10 successful workshops in two days, which were thankfully full of incredibly good-natured students. Video summaries of the workshops are here: http://berkers.nu/wordpress/?p=20 and a few photos of us teaching are included with this post. Thanks to the photographer!!

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On Sunday night we attended a modern dance performance at Eindhoven’s Parktheatre. The building architecture itself is very new and ultra-modern, and the Guangdong Modern Dance Compagny from China was very inspiring. The crisp, complex musicality got us brainstorming about my next show in DC (for you planners, it will be March 29-30, 2008). We were very happy we made it to the show, despite some logistical confusion earlier that day. Isaac said we were meant to be frustrated getting there so that we would appreciate it so much. I continue trying to become more spontaneous and adaptive and sometimes I make some progress…

After this much traveling, I’m becoming more and more sensitive about what I eat, and while in Eindhoven my staple breakfast was a yogurt-strawberry-banana smoothie and a couple of slices of whole wheat bread. After the festival we spent a few wonderfully peaceful days in Utrecht with two ex-patriot friends of mine. Utrecht is the hipster city of the Netherlands, where I bought a super-cool pair of baggy jeans and visited a well-stocked yarn shop to feed my secret knitting addiction.

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