Gilles Brinas believes in intuitive magic. According to the Paris-born and -based choreographer and ensemble director, that’s what led him to create the Argentine dance company Che Malambo. He’d seen a performance of malambo dance in a Paris cabaret years before and it made a strong impression, but nothing more came of it—at first.
“It lay there in a corner of my memory until one morning I woke up—just like that—and said to my wife, ‘I’m going to leave for Argentina in search of malambo,’ ” says Brinas, reached in New Orleans just before the 14 dancers of Che Malambo begin their North American tour. “That’s it. There was no calculation, it was magic. When ideas impose themselves like that, you have to follow their lead.”
The dance he researched is for men only and traditionally performed by gauchos, who are usually equated with cowboys. But the original gauchos of South America were more than that. Mainly nomadic, they ranged freely over the pampas, the vast grassland plains that stretch from Patagonia to the Andes, and as far north as Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.
“The true gaucho period, when they were totally independent, was brief—perhaps 70 years,” Brinas explains, speaking in French. “It was a very raw and rough life. They lived on horseback and herded cattle, which also ran free on the pampas. Gauchos slept on their horses. They even ate on their horses. They’d kill a cow to cut out the tongue and eat it, and leave the rest for the birds—that way they didn’t have to bother with slaughtering or skinning. Or they’d make a big fire, kill a cow, slit open its belly, remove the entrails and replace them with red-hot coals, cover the gash with skin by placing stones on the edges, then come back 48 hours later to feast. The less that gauchos had to do, the better. They wore ponchos—a square cloth with a central hole to put the head through, one on top and one below. It gets cold in Argentina, and the horse served as radiator, too.”
At first, malambo was a rhythm, but the name was eventually transferred to the dance it inspired, which developed from little challenges a pair of gauchos would make to each other. “One would perform a particular rhythmic pattern, and his opposite respond with the pattern added to or altered. It’s a rhythmic discussion, shall we say. Malambo likely had African and indigenous origins, but nothing is sure. It’s changed—and keeps changing. Techniques have evolved and elements were absorbed from other dances, such as contemporary classical and jazz.”
Brinas started Che Malambo in Argentina in 2005, and within a couple of years his company was performing nightly at the Casino de Paris. “It’s called Che Malambo because che is like ‘buddy’, ‘pal’, or ‘mate’ in Argentina, and can also mean ‘my’. Anyway, Argentines use che every three words! That’s why [Ernesto] Che Guevara got his name. He used it so much the Cubans nicknamed him ‘Che’. I called the company Che Malambo to reference a famous tango called ‘Che Bandoneón’—so it’s both ‘My Malambo’ and ‘Buddy Malambo’. Che is always used affectionately.”
The ensemble’s powerful show includes some guitar music and songs to give the performers a pause. The high-energy dance and percussion sequences are spectacular, especially in their use of boleadoras to pound out fast rhythms on the stage. “Boleadoras are a weapon developed by indigenous peoples of the region—originally, large stones closely fitted into leather pouches, like a sling, on the end of three leads that measure around two metres each,” Brinas explains. “When thrown, they wrap very quickly around an enemy’s or an animal’s legs to bring them down. Now boleadoras are made out of plastic and commercial nylon, but they’re still dangerous, and the performers have to be very skilled—and very careful.”
Che Malambo plays the Vogue Theatre on Friday (May 20).