Gauchos were the cowboys of the Pampas—the grasslands of the cone of South America that stretch from Patagonia to the Andes Mountains, and as far north as Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. Argentine company Che Malambo celebrates the culture of the gauchos in a dance and music spectacle of raw power and imaginative brio. According to the show’s creator and choreographer, Gilles Brinas, the original gauchos were even rougher and tougher than their counterparts in North America’s Wild West.
“The gaucho was a free man—and a loner,” he says, reached on tour with Che Malambo in New York City, and speaking in French. “He was nomadic and went wherever he wanted, working when it suited him. When he got hungry he just killed a cow. He liked to keep things simple, and wore two ponchos, one over his upper body, and one over his lower body. He lived, worked, and even slept in the saddle. When a gaucho needed money he sold some hides at one of the small bars at the crossroads in the Pampas. It’s then that the gaucho danced—after drinking, of course.”
There were dance duels between gauchos. The two men would face off, one performing a sequence of movements and steps as a challenge, which the other replied to immediately, copying or changing or extending it. Such “conversations” between artists are often seen in the stage shows of contemporary rock or jazz acts, but with the gauchos the exchanges were more intense and personal in character. The rhythm they danced to was the malambo, with roots in African and Indigenous cultures, striking the floor with their boots like flamenco dancers, and twisting and turning their legs with seemingly impossible flexibility at lightning speed.
Che Malambo incorporates and refines these complex moves, but the most spectacular effect in its high-octane show comes from the use of percussive boleadoras. “Boleadoras were a weapon used for hunting, but also for battle by Indigenous people,” says Brinas. “Three leather thongs about two metres long, joined at one end and with pouches attached to the free ends, each enclosing a stone the size of a fist. When cast at the legs of an animal or an enemy it wrapped tightly around them. They’re really heavy to lift and whirl above your head, and you’ve got to be very careful—especially when you begin practising.” The 14 dancers of Che Malambo pound the stage with the boleadoras they wield, sounding like a bombardment in perfect time by giant hailstones.
Che Malambo's footwork is basically traditional, adapted by Brinas for contemporary performance. “I’ve developed the rhythm and the virtuosity of the technique, and now in Buenos Aires lots of people dance like us. Some purists don’t approve, but the young people love it. The first part of our show presents the more traditional aspects of the dance, in form and spirit, while in the second part, which we call the Fiesta, we bring a smile to it. Che Malambo isn’t a fixed ballet, it’s a living ballet, an organism, a beating heart—because the malambo rhythm is above all a heartbeat, and I think that’s why we’re so well-received, because we go straight to the heart of things—and not via the head. It’s pure dance, and that’s what’s always interested me.”
Che Malambo performs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Wednesday (April 11).