María Nieves Rego (80) and Juan Carlos Copes (83) met when they were 14 and 17, and they danced together for nearly fifty years. In all those years they loved and hated each other and went through several painful separations. Now, at the end of their lives, the two dancers are willing to open up about their love, their hatred, and their passion.
Now in her 80s, María Nieves Rego is bright-eyed, and henna-haired. She’s still light on her feet as she walks the streets of modern Buenos Aires. Talking straight to camera, she defiantly says she regrets nothing. Except for Juan Carlos Copes. Which is telling, because Copes has dominated her existence since she met him as a poverty-stricken 14-year-old attending the local dance hall in the ‘40s. Together, they spent almost 50 years dancing the Tango – sometimes as lovers, sometimes as husband and wife, and later, as world famous professional partners who hardly spoke off stage. To regret this is to regret an awful lot.
Produced by Wim Wenders (Pina, Buena Vista Social Club), German Kral’s evocative and formally creative documentary combines interviews with María and Juan Carlos, together with archival footage and stunning, impressionistic dance reenactments of the couple’s key moments. Three sets of dancers play them at different ages, with the youngest pair the sweetest and most fleet of foot. We see the girl in neat, collared blouse and full skirt, so poor she has to wash and dry her single outfit before she leaves the house. The boy is dangerously handsome, with hair slicked back, baggy pants and shiny shoes. Together, they dance like a dream and she seems to fly as he lifts her from the ground in a swooning swirl. The camera moves back to show that she is indeed lifted by a wire. The artifice is acknowledged completely when the present-day María movies in to correct the dancers’ posture, saying, “We would have held each other closer, like this.” Such ongoing breakage of the third wall, together with gorgeously lit and sumptuously costumed dance sequences, is a pleasurable complement to a central narrative that remains frustrating.
The Tango itself is a soap opera of seduction, rejection and betrayal – much like the partnership portrayed.
What happened to estrange this perfectly choreographed couple? Will they ever dance together again? Or even speak to each other? The answers are only ever partial as both parties are cagey, and, in keeping with common wisdom, the only people who really know what goes in a marriage are the people involved. Certainly, sexual jealousy and infidelity were involved. “I wasn’t jealous. No, not at all,” María insists, unconvincingly. “We got married, but it was only a Vegas wedding,” Juan Carlos says, as if this excuses his betrayals. Continual separations and reunions ensued. He had children with another, younger woman. He got married, yet they kept dancing. Then, mysteriously, he ended the professional partnership forever in 1997 after their Japan show. María remains hurt and embittered, telling one of the intrigued young dancers, “No tear shed by a woman for a man is worth it.”
Apparently María and Juan Carlos changed the Tango forever through their choreography, and by bringing it to international attention with stage shows like Broadway’s ‘Tango Argentino’ in the 1980s. Yet there’s little context provided for viewers wishing to know more about the history and context of the sultry dance, and the way these two characters helped in its evolution. Perhaps the film needed to spell it out for us that the Tango itself is a soap opera of seduction, rejection and betrayal – much like the partnership portrayed. It’s two bodies pressed poetically together, while one of them growls under his breath: “Have you been eating rocks again?”