The Dallas Morning News
Obscure malambo finding its stage
Argentine art form has spotlight
When choreographer Gilles Brinas ventured from Paris to Buenos Aires in 2005, intending to pluck a native art form from obscurity, it must’ve seemed like a quixotic pursuit even to him.
Though celebrated by its adherents, the malambo was not particularly popular in Argentina, where the percussive music and dance style had originated in the 17th century among cattle-herding gauchos. And it certainly wasn’t a cultural export like the tango.
A decade later, Brinas’ all-male troupe, Che Malambo, made its U.S. debut at New York’s City Center as part of the Fall for Dance Festival. It’s been on the road ever since. Friday and Saturday will be the group’s second U.S. tour stops, in Dallas for two shows presented by TITAS. It’s the group’s first time in Texas.
“How many islands can possibly be out there that we haven’t discovered yet?” asks Matthew Bledsoe, a dancer turned agent who produces Che Malambo and has helped Brinas get his vision onto stages around the world. “I’m a dance nerd and had never heard of malambo. That in and of itself was exciting to me.”
Che Malambo’s 14 versatile performers sing, dance, drum and wield ground-popping lassos based on the competitive duels devised centuries ago by South American cowboys sitting around the campfire.
“It’s like Argentina’s version of Riverdance, the South American Stomp,” Bledsoe says in a phone interview from New York, where he is vice president of IMG Artists and represents such dance outfits as Pilobolus and the Bolshoi Ballet.
Brinas, a French dancer and choreographer, had first seen the malambo in the 1970s in a vignette at the Lido in Paris. According to Bledsoe, he woke up one day in the early 2000s haunted by the memory and realized he had to find a way to make it famous.
Buying a plane ticket to Buenos Aires in 2005, he planned to spend three months recruiting dancers and learning all he could about the malambo. It wasn’t easy.
“Everyone discourages him,” Bledsoe says. “They tell him that the malambo is an individual dance or a dance between two men. ‘You can’t have them dancing in an ensemble. Fourteen drummers together? That doesn’t work.’ ”
Brinas also was seen as a carpetbagger. “What does he know about our culture?”
He was about to give up and
go home when he saw a motto written in the Catalan language on a Gaudí building in Buenos Aires: “No dream is impossible.”
The next day, Bledsoe says, he found a dance teacher who helped him assemble Che Malambo. Later that year, they debuted in Paris and started doing one-off shows, but it never took off in the big way that Brinas had envisioned.
Enter Bledsoe, 10 years later.
As a youngster, he had trained with the prestigious Stuttgart Ballet in Germany but gave up his dance career early to become an arts administrator. He learned about Che Malambo in early 2015 through a performing-arts presenter friend who referred him to a YouTube video.
“I saw how energetic it was, how engaging,” he says.
Bledsoe was so blown away that he contacted Brinas, who immediately flew to New York to seal the deal. During the 2015-16 season, Che Malambo played 32 dates. This season, the troupe is performing 35 shows, 25 in the U.S.
Though Che Malambo has never performed a full show in Argentina, Bledsoe says there is a malambo movement in the country and around the world. Circuses and tango groups are incorporating elements. Last year, a Che Malambo offshoot appeared on America’s Got Talent.
Brinas has made the malambo stage-worthy by paring it down as much as by expanding it, Bledsoe says. The performers are dressed in black instead of colorful native costumes to put the focus on their skills and intensity rather than the folksy trappings. At the same time, he has added elements such as unison dances that are not part of the original form.
“He has a way of respecting malambo, not by saying he knows it, ‘This is what malambo is,’ but by taking the core of it and the materials and creating something special that showcases all of these folk elements and the history of it but yet packages it in an engaging and relevant way for today’s audience.”