Luis Bravo's "Forever Tango" has been setting records almost everywhere it has been. The show originated at UCLA in 1990, where its five-week run was extended to nine. It returned to L.A. in 1994, at the Wiltern Theatre, before opening in San Francisco where it played for 92 weeks. It has toured in Argentina, London and Italy.
It opened in New York in 1997 and is still playing there. Nominated for a 1998 Tony Award for choreography, the show has had to move to a larger theater to accommodate audience demand.
The personnel has changed over the years, but the format--tracing the history of tango, from its origins in 19th century Argentine brothels to its later transformations, through about 20 duets danced to live music--remains the same. "Forever Tango" comes to the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Tuesday through next Sunday, then moves to UCLA's Royce Hall June 30 to July 12.
"I've been asked if the show has a story line," Bravo said in a recent phone interview. "I say, 'A tango is a story that you tell in three minutes.' So I have many stories in the show."
Bravo, who staged and directs the show--the dancers provide the choreography--believes its appeal results from its simplicity.
"It deals only with three elements--music, lighting and dance," he said. "Of course, it's very theatrical. Two human beings dance their story on stage before an orchestra. . . . It speaks about emotions and from that, everything else.
"I've always said music is the most perfect art because it's abstract. A reviewer from the Washington Post said he would risk making a definition of the show: 'It is an illustrated concert.' I think that's the most perfect description."
Bravo, 42, was born in An~atuya Santiago de Estero, Argentina, a town he described as "a very poor area where most of the artists are. We were forced to create everything because there was nothing there."
When he was 8, he moved to Buenos Aires, where he later studied music and philosophy. He attended both a music conservatory and the University of Buenos Aires, and played in the orchestra at the famed Teatro Colon before moving to Los Angeles in 1981 to study with Ronald Leonard, principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"I lived here for 10 years," he said. "Then I did freelancing in New York. Then I began playing concerts in Argentina. When I went back to Argentina, I didn't find the country that I had left. So I came back to the United States. I wanted to step up my career.
"All my life, I had been involved with theater and music. I grew up in the opera atmosphere. I also play classical guitar. So I decided to put all these experiences together and build my own show."
Not surprisingly, music has always been the primary building block.
"I made the show the way you compose a symphony," Bravo explains. "I start from the music rather that starting with the image. I just put images and the sensations that come from the music with the dancers."
The through-history structure, and many of the dances, Bravo says, will be familiar to Los Angeles audiences, but the seven couples in the current touring production, three of whom have been involved since the outset, make for variations on the "Forever Tango" theme.
"The artists on stage give the piece definition and interpretation," Bravo says. " 'Tosca' is different if Placido [Domingo] is singing it or if Carlo Bergonzi is. In that sense, this is a piece that depends on who is performing."
Finding dancers is no problem for Bravo. He just goes back to Argentina and auditions. Up to 300 hopefuls, he says, show up for the chance to dance in the production. "Tango is very popular in Argentina today. Tango is a culture. Being an Argentine means that you are exposed to this culture and art form. It's in your blood, like flamenco."
But that culture can easily be misunderstood. When the tango hit Europe in the '20s, for instance, it was considered a sophisticated but lascivious dance.
"It has a certain sexuality, like any art form," Bravo said. "But it has to do with the tragedy of Argentine life. Argentina suffered changes in its politics and in its history every 30 years, in a cycle. That makes an Argentine a very unstable person emotionally.
"The tango has received many influences from other forms, like jazz and flamenco. Everything has contributed to it as an art form. That's why it's so rich.
"But all these influences have created a conflict in Argentina's identity. Argentina's psychology and behavior and all this mixture makes an Argentine a very, very conflicted person."
Those conflicts have been reflected in the dance and the lyrics, which have changed over time.
"In the '20s, the lyrics reflected the world of the brothels," Bravo said. "In the '40s, Argentina was isolated because it didn't fight in World War II. We were forced to create our own art and poetry, and that was the most golden age of our art in every aspect. In the '60s, there were protest songs."
And then there was composer Astor Piazzolla, who transformed what was essentially a dance form into art music.
"Nothing was the same after him," Bravo said. "He added new elements to the music, like jazz, and deepened it.
"Now the tango reflects the complexity of all the different elements in the society. The tango is still evolving. That's why I called the show 'Forever Tango.' "
Luis Bravo's "Forever Tango," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesday to Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; next Sunday, 7:30 p.m. $21-$52.50. (714) 556-2787.
Also at Royce Hall, UCLA, beginning June 30. Tuesdays to Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends July 12. $25-$50. (310) 825-2101.