Argentine nuevo tango composer Astor Piazzolla’s only tango operita María de Buenos Aires was premiered in Buenos Aires in 1968. Piazzolla’s own questionable politics aside, it is hard not to read Maria de Buenos Aires and its abject characters against the backdrop of Argentina’s 1960s, much of which was ravaged by the terror of junta-led military authoritarianism and subsequent years of the Dirty War (Guerra sucia): Decades of state-sanctioned white terror that cracked down on political dissidents, of which some 300,000 have been killed, abducted, tortured, and simply “missing” to this date. Recast in a broader sociohistorical context, the opera can be meta-read—that is, read beyond the textual and formalistic substance of the work itself—differently against tango’s usual tropes: erotic, sensual, and exotic.
Given this, watching the recent production of María de Buenos Aires performed in Kwai Tsing Theatre by the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC) between 13 and 15 May 2022 inevitably invoked a parallel relationship between Argentina’s violent history and Hong Kong’s current political climate that shaped audience members’ relationship to watching performance as well as bodies that gather on stage. Using the performance as a political commentary was perhaps not at all what the dance company and Helen Lai, the director and choreographer, had intended. Nevertheless, meta-reading María de Buenos Aires as an audience member living through a sociopolitically charged moment allows for questions about what kind of an impact a performance could make beyond its original form and intention. Notwithstanding several critical reviews on some of the weaknesses of the production, CCDC’s María de Buenos Aires was still an invitation to consider how a dance performance can invoke questions about a specific sociopolitical juncture of time and space at which a work is made and received.
María de Buenos Aires was directed and choreographed by Helen Lai and co-produced by the CCDC and Weiwuying (National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts). It was first presented by the Taiwanese cast on Weiwuying’s online platform in September 2021 due to the anti-epidemic measures. Much of the original piece composed by Piazzolla and written by poet-librettist Horacio Ferrer remained intact in the CCDC’s Hong Kong production, sung and recited in Spanish by Carol Lin (mezzosoprano), David Quah (tenor), Fernando Rezk (Duende), as well as the CCDC dancers who acted as the ensemble/chorus. The plot follows María, the titular character “born under a curse,” who migrated and became a sex worker in the streets of Buenos Aires. The underbelly of Buenos Aires is likened to a (Christian) hell, where María is murdered by conspiring thieves and brothel owners. She eventually returns as a shadow that haunts the city and its people’s memories. She is later resurrected as the virgin Mary-like figure, giving birth to a new life—an allusion to Jesus or María herself.
Many aspects of María de Buenos Aires make it appear as a Christian allegory framed in South American magical realism and its complex semiotic devices. That has not deterred several contemporary productions from exercising literary freedom in an attempt to make a more sociopolitical, if not imagined, connection between Argentina’s Dirty War era and the abject conditions of María and her social surroundings. In this interpretation, María figures as “the disappeared,” symbolising many civilians who went missing in the militarised state terror. Stage director John Abulafia’s UK version (2004) was one such instance, as well as the 2012 American production by the Long Beach Opera.
Helen Lai and Weiwuying specifically focused more on articulating “tango flavours” and were inspired by “the bold imagination in South American magicalism.” Nevertheless, the seeming sensuality and eroticism of tango are in fact, according to political theorist and dance scholar Marta Savigliano, “manufactured.” Savigliano points out that tango as a novel “exotic genre” was purposefully “tailored to fit into the [European] colonizer’s desire to consume passion”, the quality of which was in opposition to “rationality, control, decorum, propriety” that the colonized dancing bodies, it was assumed, lacked. Given this colonial politics, understanding and critiquing contemporary tango should now move beyond the genre’s recycled tropes of sensuality and mystery, and instead lean toward a different set of expectations for more radical sociality and collectivism of dancing bodies.
While often subdued by more dominant vocal performances by Lin and Quah, as well as powerful solo and duet scenes featuring Qiao Yang, several dance ensemble scenes gestured to that possibility. In Scene 6 “Fuga y Misterio”, dancers navigated the dark stage closely followed by square-shape spotlights while trying to place black chairs, on top of which several male–female duets performed dance variations. Here, the tango number punctuated by the sharp sounds of the hi-hats intensified the suspenseful mood and tense dynamics among the duets, making the collective dance moves precarious until the dancers, one by one, left the stage in darkness. While this was meant to highlight the introduction of María (Carol Lin) back onto the stage, the absence of the dancers felt intense, to the extent that the dancers, as much as María, became a ghostly presence throughout the performance. The Sunday procession of the spaghetti kneaders (female dancers) and the construction workers (male dancers) in the conclusive Scene 17 “Tangus Dei” featured defiant marching steps while raising their clasped hands together as praying gestures. They eventually dispersed towards random directions, disoriented and trembling in fear, but slowly found their places in the background to become the final witnesses to María’s rebirth.
The enduring presence of the collective bodies and their act of witnessing the ordeal and resurrection of María (who is often interpreted as a metaphor for Buenos Aires itself) speak strongly to the contemporary condition in which we, the audience members, remember our city and its volatile life. Despite the city’s seeming death, its poetics lives on and is remembered by humble but unruly misfits like ghosts, bricklayers, spaghetti kneaders, criminals, and drunk marionettes. These characters played by the dancers were perhaps the incarnation of ourselves witnessing the city’s own death and rebirth in the shadows. In the end, the performance took up an unintended task of connecting our present to tango as we tried to grapple with its energy beyond what we are told to consume as its sensuality and eroticism.
 See for example, the recent review by Natasha Rogai, “Dark, sexual tango underworld is missing in Hong Kong performance of Maria de Buenos Aires,” South China Morning Post, 17 May 2022.
 Daisy Chu, Helen Lai, and Melissa Leung, “Interview with Helen Lai,” María de Buenos Aires House Programme, 2022, pp.10-11.
 Marta Savigliano, Tango and The Political Economy of Passion (New York, Oxon: Routledge, 2018 ), pp.81-82.