REFLECTIONS ON THE KL TANGO FESTIVAL
Building a community – Part Two
By Petra Gimbad
This is an interview with Marguerite Brodie, the founder of the Kuala Lumpur Tango Festival, and her co-organiser, Gan Shuxian.
The 11th Kuala Lumpur Tango Festival is just around the corner. How do you feel?
M: I am holding my breath as this is the first time I am doing this without Andreas. It is nerve-wracking – I have always depended on my trustworthy old guard German!
For the benefit of our readers who have not met him: who is Andreas?
M: Andreas Lehrke was my teaching partner for two years, from about 2007 till 2009. We met and danced together when he was visiting Malaysia in 2006, and he returned later in 2006 to run tango workshops together.
I was devastated when he had to leave in 2009. For so many reasons – we taught together, he was fun, adventurous and positive, he always gives his best, he is not materialistic – he would bake the most wonderful cakes out of his own pocket for people who attended the tea time milongas. He was involved in everything, save for this year, because he fell too ill to travel here in to organise the festival.
Andreas has the gift of choreography and a great imagination, which I don’t – in the sense that he is inclusive and can somehow how put music and simple steps together, to make the dancers look good. This is one thing that we will miss at the festival in 2018: his choreography is inclusive of both the most experienced dancer and the newest beginner. The learning curve that comes with mastering the choreography itself makes the experience worthwhile.
This year, rather than the usual group performance choreographed by Andreas: the festival’s opening night will feature some of our local instructors who are performing voluntarily on a very short notice. Those who are performing rallied round to support the opening night upon hearing that Andreas had fallen sick – a real example of community support!
What gave you the courage to start the KL Tango Festival?
M: At the beginning (before we moved venues) what gave me the courage was that I had found the perfect venue in the Annexe at the Central Market in town. There were long halls with wooden floors where workshops could be held consecutively, in the style that I had experienced when I danced at the Portland Tango Festival. This was until someone told me that the idea was stupid!
Also, at the time (11 years ago) the only other big regional tango event was Ogie Mendoza’s Tango Xposed, which was followed shortly after by his Tango Blitz. He would take these events across 5 to 6 different cities in the region to make dancing tango more affordable.
11 years is a long time. What have you experienced since the beginning of the festival?
M: The Internet has changed things. People are able to learn a lot of things online, and watch videos of different couples dancing. They then make their decisions on where they would like to attend workshops as they pay money and come to see specific dancers.
Now, there are many other tango festivals around the region to provide many choices to dancers who love to dance the tango. For places such as China, Korea and Japan, for instance, dancers exist in a competitive and professional culture. People do tango for a living, and there is a commitment to excel and make tango profitable. Tango is much more viable and sustainable in such places, and this enables such communities to be able to afford flying in maestras and maestros from Argentina.
Most of the struggles are the same. Financially, it is the cost of flying maestras and maestros in, the cost of festival venues, workshop venues, teaching fees, performing fees, the cost of per diems and the extra little costs.
It is all worth it, for it has given me so much joy. You cannot plan for magic, it just happens. You know when magic is happening at a festival because you just feel it in your body. It cannot be described and can only be experienced.
Shuxian, this is the first time you are organising a tango festival. How is this experience different from attending festivals as a participant?
S: It is a lot of work, and it has made me appreciate everyone who has turned up to support in whatever way they can. We know that there are newer festivals with big names AND live orchestras, which we had hoped to afford at the beginning. Because of last year’s success, we had initially hoped to bring bigger and better venues, a live band for our dancers to enjoy dancing to, and to nurture a local Malaysian singer to sing tango. However, all of these plans did not work out, as early bird registrations brought in less than half of the festival’s running costs.
This got me thinking about what makes tango, tango. For me, my answer is: community. There is no magic in a single bandoneon if dancers do not gather to dance. This opened my eyes to the importance of community in tango, and how everyone in that community can be responsible to contribute to the Malaysian tango scene.
M: A festival is not a festival if you have an array of stars teaching and dancing, and being treated like demigods. You can do that with visiting instructors. For a community festival, you need everyone – the festival has had a long relationship with Bruno Tombari and Rocio Lequio for this reason, who could be relied on to interact with participants. As an organiser, I appreciate that they are easygoing and contribute towards the fun that festivals enjoy.
The reason why we are organising the festival this year (2018) is because of the magic that happened last year in 2017. We had Eleanora Kalganova and Michael Nadtochi, who are also superb dancers and teachers. They were were able to combine their technical skills with making participants feel warm and welcome with Bruno and Rocio. Not every maestra and maestro is humble enough to immerse themselves with the crowd, and we had four of them together at the same festival last year.
I felt a lot of support in 2017 and this was support that came from the tango community: from the instructors, Andreas, my students, the general Kuala Lumpur community and the wider community from outside of KL who flew in.
It was the community that made it a success. I had originally decided that the 2017 festival would be the 10th festival and last, but the magic of last year inspired me to go on. This year we are introducing Laura D’Anna and Sebastian Acosta, who is the Mundial salon champion of 2014, and I really hope that the community will benefit from whatever it is they have to share. We are not a competitive festival, we are a social community.
How is organising a festival different from attending one?
M: When I am doing my own festival I cannot really relax. Whereas at other festivals I can relax fully at workshops and enjoy the milongas.
You mention that you had plans to retire the festival last year in 2017. Why had you planned to do so?
M: I was attacked and traumatised in 2015, which took a lot out of me. I have been recovering since and the stresses of continuing to organise the festival has taken a further toll.
I am also getting older.
If it is true that this is the last KL Tango Festival, what do you think the community will look like from now on without a festival?
S: I don’t know. I feel a lot for the KLTF as it was my first tango festival. It is really beginners-friendly, and it is a shame if beginners starting out in tango don’t have a festival like this to transition into other festivals.
I guess that without the festival more coordination with different schools and instructors of tango in Kuala Lumpur is needed. More classes, more milongas. We need to coordinate otherwise we just end up with small pockets here and there of people doing their own thing. You see this regionally as well where you have three events happening during the same weekend.
Tango is so rich with so much to learn – music, background. There is so much that the community can do together to make learning a lot easier and cheaper.
Given that tango dancers are able to learn through classes, milongas and workshops: was the KL Tango Festival needed after all?
M: I learnt a lot from the maestras and maestros through organising the festival. From there, I learnt a lot about people; this is why I choose instructors from the heart. It is wonderful when you have an instructor with an absolutely fresh approach to teaching and who is so incredibly down to earth.
I have been to other festivals but I have never found the feel that I have felt at the KL Tango Festival, and not because Andreas and I organised it. It is a community festival – while every festival has its own energy and character, the bigger it is, it tends to be more impersonal.
S: I hope that the magic of Malaysian tango continues on: through classes, milongas and weekend workshops. There is the KLTF attitude, that many of us have taken into other workshops and other festivals. For example, at the KLTF 2017, Weng Fatt (a local instructor) made it a point to try to dance with participants who looked lost. At the Brunei Tango Festival this year, other participants from Penang who had attended the KLTF 2017 did the same. This is consistent with what I experienced when I was a new dancer – when I attended Tamara Bisceglia’s workshop here in Kuala Lumpur, and when I met Marguerite in the Philippines.
Even if all we do is assist another beginner through one exercise at this year’s KLTF, we would have all done our little bit. Kindness to beginners is something that we Malaysians should continue to carry into our milongas and other festivals.
Why the need for festivals and not just workshops for learning?
S: So much work goes into festivals, which sets the tone of one festival apart from other festivals. Festivals develop communities.
Personally, I love festivals for going away for 3 days just to dance. I love the challenge and the mental preparation involved to dance 30 hours that weekend or die standing! This pushes you and you naturally improve – your body, mind, everything changes in a weekend. After a festival, my ankles are always stronger.
M: Festivals also attract outside dancers.
What do we have to look forward to at this year’s KL Tango Festival?
M: We don’t know what to expect, but we hope to have a good time.
When my daughter heard that Andreas was sick and not able to make the festival she told me to cancel the festival. I said no, because even if I could refund everyone’s registration fees, many people had already bought their flight tickets. For my daughter it was hard because she had nursed me through my trauma after an incident that happened 2 years ago. So having to potentially see me fall ill again was more traumatic for her.
I am looking forward to excellent teaching from all of our instructors. Bruno and Rocio have been with us for a long time, and I am looking forward to Laura and Sebastian’s workshops. Sebastian won the Mundial salon in 2014, and given that he has been teaching for the past 4 years this is good, as he (and Laura) have had time to understand, break everything down, organise everything in their heads, and then present their teaching. Teaching is different from practicing for competitions.
S: When it was the three of us organising – Marguerite, Andreas and I – we thought we could do a lot more for this year’s festival. Then, we heard that our rock, Andreas, was sick. We decided to give it our best anyway: our attitude was we are going to give this festival everything we’ve got because this festival deserves our best. Tango deserves our best. We owe it to the people who have signed up and who are expecting to have a good time.
In short, fun, fun fun! Hokkien mee after milongas and I am looking forward to learning under Bruno and Rocio again.
M: We are going to be in an “Are you enjoying yourself?” mood.
Thank you for being with me. I am going to just enjoy tango and the love.