By: Lynn Colburn Shapiro
If looks could kill, Che Malambo would easily massacre its audience out of sheer machismo intensity. Looking like a biker gang, thirteen men burst out of nowhere beating dangerously serious drums while nailing counterpoint rhythms into the floor with boots that double as acoustic weaponry. Testosterone rages full force in this Argentine import's head-on assault of sound and movement. Not a gang after all, but a highly-refined dance troupe in sleeveless black vests with plenty of hardware, they wield their drumsticks in a sonic port de bras that weaves together ballet and battle strategy.
They deftly camouflage subtly turned-out legs, an attitude turn en dehors, or a sissone in a hybrid of street dance, contemporary tap, and the malamba's traditional folk idiom of the gauchos of the Argentine Pampas, whose origins date back to the 17th-century. While movement focuses heavily on leg and foot action and the incredibly complex rhythms they generate, one of the most interesting aspects of director Gilles Brinas and ballet master Fabian Maza's choreography is the use of highly-stylized arm movements in the execution of sound, the less utilitarian the better. Spatial design of arm and leg gestures accentuates the artistry behind their integration of sound and movement. The cadence and acceleration or elongation of a gesture coordinates with the kind of attack of drumstick to drumhead, toe, heel, or side of boot to floor, producing distinctly different sound qualities, different rhythms, and different visual patterns. In turn, their actions affect audience perception of the auditory elements, creating a uniquely exciting sensory impact. Most spectacular are the swinging nanduceras, a lasso-like percussive instrument that consists of a rope with stones sewn into it, producing both visual and auditory effects.
They function much like castanets in the overall sound and movement design, with elaborate arm movements required to make the rope "dance" and click against the floor on cue. Inspired lighting by Heyoka captures the illusion of neon pens scribbling circles, figure eights, and elipses in thin air. The magically-timed lassos' wild spinning adds syncopated accents to the counter rhythms going on in the feet and accompanying drums of several dancers at once. This is yet another dimension of visual and auditory merger. A stunning exhibition of virtuoso technical skill, the lasso sequences serve as face-offs between dancers as well, where the malambo version of dueling banjos adds brief dramatic context to the dancers' relationships. Rapid spirals and swivel action of the hips dominate movement and drive the characteristic turn-in/turn-out of the knees and toe-heel stomp of feet in malambo's patterned sequences. Familiar shuffles, scuffles, ball-changes and para-diddles mix conventional tap moves with the more abrasive malambo attack. There is an urgency about everything Che Malambo does. Throughout, the dancers' exaggerated upper back arch, forward thrusting sternum and toreador stance remind us they are, above all, men endowed with power which they seem to derive from their sometimes violent and always impassioned contact with the earth. This they affirm periodically in double-stops that punctuate rhythmic phrases with a final stomp followed by momentary silence, as if to say, "So there!" While Che Malambo's physical energy and sound-making are engaging in themselves, the company is at its best when group spatial design and more varied theatrical dance elements expand its scope beyond the repetitive, albeit impressive, traditional percussive dance forms.