In a way, Guillermina Quiroga has Ronald Reagan to thank for transforming her into an internationally acclaimed tango dancer. If she hadn't been in front of a television as a young woman in Argentina watching the 1985 U.S. presidential inauguration, she would have missed "the couple performing tango for the president. When I saw these people dancing, I got crazy," she says. "I wanted to do this dance so badly, but I didn't have the courage then."
Since taking her first tango class in 1988, however, Quiroga has dedicated most of her waking hours to mastering the intricate and elegant South American dance form so often associated with slinky dresses, come-hither glances and dark alleys where men and women succumb to their inner demons. Her career has included performing onstage in commercial hits such as the long-running "Forever Tango," appearing in several films and choreographing for the 1998 Olympic ice dancing gold medalists, Evgeny Platov and Oksana Grishuk.
Luis Bravo, the creator of "Forever Tango," says, "She is the best dancer around. I've worked with so many talented dancers over the years, but Guillermina is the one I most admire. She has everything . . . honesty, technique and sensitivity, and she will never go onstage unless she's 100%."
Yet although she is famous in tango circles for fusing traditional steps with hyper-flexible leg extensions and athletic lifts, this onetime ballerina maintains that her style is ultimately not about her ability to execute high kicks and fancy variations of the gancho (leg hook) and barrida (foot sweep).
"I may dance with my body, but what I give to people is my soul," she says. "When I dance, my spirit goes outside, and that's what people see."
In recent years, Quiroga has also tried to imbue her choreography with a spiritual dimension, in a sense taking tango out of the dark alley and into a more ethereal realm. Currently touring the country with the latest version of her own full-length show, which will be presented by UCLA Live this week at Royce Hall, she believes her dances offer "something different."
"My show is not really a tango show," she says by phone from New York City, where the tour kicked off. "It's more that I use the language of tango to tell a story. And I don't just tell a story for the story but for the messages behind it."
Called "Tango, Historias Breves," Quiroga's production unfolds as the kinetic equivalent of a collection of nonlinear short stories, loosely bound together by the theme of love and interpreted by four dancing couples who include Quiroga and her partner, Cesar Coelho. There's a prologue involving Adam and Eve and references from the Kabbalah, a series of dances about love inspired by the poetry of the 17th century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a depiction of a working-class Argentine wedding, and a darker love story based on the 2007 indie film "Valentina's Tango," in which Quiroga played the lead role.
Quiroga has been developing the material for this presentation since 2002, when she purposely set out to break what she felt were becoming formulaic rules about tango shows. The commercial success of productions such as "Tango Argentino" and "Forever Tango" led to "everyone adopting the same model," she says. "They're always about the history of tango and begin with the 19th century and have to show two men dancing together first. I wanted to do something different."
Thoroughly convinced that "you don't need the history of tango to reveal its essence," Quiroga sought inspiration from a variety of sources, including the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles. In fact, she originally called the show "Los Tangos de la Cabala" (Tangos of the Kabbalah), but she changed the name in part because "people kept asking whether I was Jewish or religious," recalls Quiroga, who was raised Catholic. "The things I wanted in my show were related to the kinds of esoteric concepts you learn about in the Kabbalah. But then I was always explaining to people that I'm not religious. I believe in God, the universe and love. That's it."
On the phone, Quiroga is gracious, unassuming and mostly unguarded, though she declines to reveal her age. When asked about a not-so-glowing review in the New York Times, she says merely, "I respect everyone's opinion, but I never let what anyone thinks affect my work."
Rogelio Lobato, the director of "Valentina's Tango," recalls how during the shooting of his film, he would watch Quiroga dance with other people "and you couldn't put your finger on why she was doing it better than everyone else. She just was. And she also makes it look so easy. Not to mention she's also the opposite of some tango diva who's a nightmare to work with. She's definitely no pushover, but she's also very humble."
Raised in La Plata, Argentina, Quiroga grew up dancing in front of the TV from the time she could walk. Her mother eventually sent her to ballet classes, and from the age of 16 to 21 she pursued a professional career and performed with the Teatro Argentino de la Plata. But after suffering from a chronic Achilles' tendon injury, she was forced to take a break from ballet. She remembers vividly the day during that hiatus when she finally signed up for a tango class.
"I was terrible, the worst one in the class. I couldn't even do the basic steps," she says.
All the same, she decided to try one more class, and "that's when something opened up inside of me. I was still terrible, but I knew this was my life."
Years of attending milongas (dance parties) and untold hours of classes and practice followed. "I learned everything from the milongueros. They were not professional teachers but very old men who knew authentic tango," Quiroga says. "They never really spoke to me. They just gave me from the body the essence of the dance."
Today, her ability to physically communicate with her dance partners is one of her standout qualities, says Coelho, who has danced with her since 2001. "We are very connected without saying a word, and we completely understand each other," he says.
As she immersed herself in the study of tango, Quiroga "erased" ballet from her life for several years. Over time, though, she began incorporating her classical training into the numbers she performed for the stage. "Tango is really the opposite of ballet in technique, discipline and philosophy," she says. "But if you really know tango, then you can add ballet to it."
Indeed, Quiroga's balletic skills largely account for the "wow" factor of her aesthetic. YouTube videos of various performances she has done with Coelho, for example, tend to include one of her signature moves, an arabesque turn she executes while one foot rests on her much taller partner's shoulder.
"Not every dancer can span the spectrum like she can," says Bravo. "It's what puts her on a completely different level."
To stay in shape, Quiroga, who lives in Buenos Aires but travels frequently to New York and other cities, maintains a rigorous training and fitness schedule that includes gym visits, yoga and boxing classes and, of course, tango lessons. "I'm very conscious now of taking the best care I can of myself so I can do all of my choreography," she says.
In other words, Quiroga has no intention of quitting dancing anytime soon and hews to the belief that there's always more to learn. "To be a great tango dancer, you need to practice and rehearse, but you also need this other thing from inside of you that I can't describe in words," she says. "Otherwise, something will always be missing in your dancing. To be amazing, you have to put it all together."