‘It’s a difficult job, this following lark!’ observes Alexis Terry. We are in the bowels of Queen Mary University’s Mile End campus, and Alexis is attempting to hook her leg around fellow actor Miguel Oyarzun and lean into him in a seductive manner.
Kele Baker, Argentine tango choreographer for the past three series of Strictly Come Dancing and now for a new production of No Way Out at the Southwark Playhouse, watches critically, her left foot casually tracing the figure on the floor as she considers how best to help.
Although the actors are having some difficulties, they’re picking up the choreography remarkably quickly for non-dancers, ‘and they bring the ability to colour the movement based on character and emotion,’ notes Kele. ‘Sometimes, dancers are more focused on perfecting the technique.’
Sartre’s claustrophobic masterpiece has been given an Argentine makeover by director Luke Kernaghan, who wants the tango to express the passion, fear, desire and jealousy of three strangers trapped in a room together. Apart from a little ballet and yoga, none of the three actors have formal dance training, but Kele is pulling no punches with her eight routines, which will be interspersed throughout the production.
‘If I lean back, I feel like I’m going to fall over,’ worries Alexis, as she and Miguel wrestle for balance during a series of lunges. ‘Then don’t lean back,’ replies Kele briskly. Although the pair struggle with the fundamentals of the dance—balance, hold, timing, weight shifting—as soon as Luke gives them a note about their characters’ emotion, they infuse the steps with feeling. The transformation from nervous fumbling to purposeful movement is electrifying. Kele and Luke add dramatic details, such as a look between them that alters a walk from stately to erotically charged.
‘Text is like music—it’s the inspiration for movement,’ says Kele, and the choreography is, in fact, combined with speech some of the time. Miguel multitasks impressively, leading complicated figures while murmuring sinister lines, amusingly adding the occasional reprimand to his partner: ‘In a minute, we’ll be naked as worms… Don’t put your feet together!’
Strictly has brought ballroom into the mainstream, and it’s now more prevalent in theatre, film, television and even radio—‘I taught Sandi Toksvig to do tango on a live LBC broadcast. There was no stopping her,’ recalls Kele. ‘Ballroom dancing can be inaccessible to a non-dancing audience—glittery but distant,’ she adds. ‘By using the language of partner dancing to convey the universal truths and the human condition in the play, that language can hopefully become entertaining and enlightening.’
The language in No Way Out will also be pretty steamy, with the routines built around sexual power games. However, Kele is careful to ‘keep it clean-ish’. When Miguel lifts Alexis onto the table, she wraps one leg around him and holds the other straight, creating a beautiful line; when she wraps both legs around him, it’s ‘too much’, as Kele and Luke both recognise immediately.
Kele is also sensitive to the fact that these are non-dancers, and that time is short (eight routines choreographed and rehearsed in a matter of weeks), so she subtly simplifies some figures, or finds positions that will be comfortable, such as a ‘safe’ drop for Alexis to go into while Miguel soliloquises over the top of her arched body.
Alexis notes that learning a new skill together was a great bonding experience for the cast, ‘especially as none of us were very good to start with’. There is still some technical confusion (Alexis: ‘I think I’m doing a giro, and I should be doing a boleo.’ Kele: ‘No, a gancho.’), but genuine excitement from all involved, with Luke frequently exclaiming ‘Ooh, I like that’ to signal approval at Kele’s evolving work.
The greatest dance challenge falls to the third cast member, Elisa de Grey, who has to both follow Miguel and lead Alexis—locked in a power struggle with the former and attempting to seduce the latter. The two girls become entangled during a turn in one of their routines, and Kele points out some ‘safety features for arms and noses—her shoulder, your nose’.
Elisa worries about being too bullish leading Alexis—‘I feel like I’m going to knock her over’—but Kele insists on a strong body lead, which results in an intense connection between the pair. Miguel lounges on a chair, rolling a cigarette while watching the two girls in action—unintentionally the steamiest tango moment of the day, and proof that the dancing is certainly getting them all into character.
No Way Out is at the Southwark Playhouse in London from August 18 to September 12.
If you’re interested in learning to dance tango, Kele Baker and Ralf Schiller teach lessons and classes at Kensington Dance Studio.
There are also tango classes and socials at Stardust Ballroom, including a milonga and tea dances.