As he has done before with other dance forms alien to his background (flamenco, kathak or Shaolin rites, for instance), the prolific choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has plunged into Tango with an avid curiosity and sensitive perception. His new work M¡longa, a Sadler’s Wells production that premièred in Mézières, Switzerland, earlier this year, reflects his learning journey. With the guiding assistance of Tango specialist Nélida Rodríguez and a mixture of deep respect and a fresh look, he has created a cleverly devised theatrical way of dancing that maintains the essence of tango while updating its vocabulary.

M¡longa possesses a sharp melancholic atmosphere that envelops the production. The changing set avoids the trite cliché of the brothel, and evokes instead a present-day dancing floor. A band of five musicians play a score that combines old Tango classics with new compositions, adding a touch of immediacy and vivacity. The city of Buenos Aires is frequently called up through images and film footage. These images of the capital of Tango, introduced at various different moments of the show, complement the visual background with a potent welcoming presence.

Amid these aural and visual elements, Cherkaoui’s choreography is a rich exploration of new ways to present Tango. A minor story line is delineated through the contrast between two contemporary dancers and five Tango couples. The former, newcomers in the land of Tango (like Cherkaoui), undertake a process of learning that does not lead to the total assimilation of the dance but rather to the respectful adaptation of its essence to their own vocabulary. The structure of the work relies on dynamic changes of formation: from duets to trios, to ensembles. Each number highlights a different quality of the Tango: an infinite embrace is evoked in the contortionist duo of the contemporary dancers; a virile energetic confidence arises in the male trio; a frisky playfulness informs the comic duo. The list of features is endless: passionate abandonment, flirtatious game, trustful embrace, subtle caress, technical virtuosity, and so on. In all cases, the variations are brilliantly performed by magnificent dancers.

M¡longa ends with a final pose that reproduces the unusual social-dancing position of the initial number. Instead of the traditional embrace that brings the dancing partners together and face to face, Cherkaoui’s choreography places them back to back. Like two strangers forced to find a common ground, they start to dance modified yet recognizable Tango steps. These tentative starting-moments herald a new vision of known patterns. When they are evoked by the final pose at the end of the show, the back-to-back position presents a new nuance. It no longer stands for two worlds apart but for a new entity formed by two indissoluble unities. A different yet solid Tango embrace has been created. Cherkaoui’s exploratory journey has proved productive and innovative.