The Dancing Queen

In the introduction to her screenplay for the film Orlando, the multi-talented Sally Potter writes: “I grew up as part of an aesthetic movement that was all about taking stories apart and looking at the lies that conventional storytelling might tell.” Orlando tells a lot of lies. Based upon Virginia Woolf’s novella of the same name, it follows the life of a nobleman from his youth at the time of Queen Elizabeth to her youth in nineteen-nineties Britain. That’s right: Orlando lives 400 years without ageing, changing sex at the age of two hundred.

But Potter also writes in that introduction that: “Orlando became a personal catchword for work that dared to be epic, non-realistic and completely believable in its own terms.” And Orlando is completely believable in its own terms. Even the arrival of Angel Somerville (Jimmy not Julia) at the end makes a certain sort of sense. Moreover, despite the film’s obviously fantastical elements, the wisdom it speaks far outweighs the lies.

This wisdom is encapsulated in the lyrics to Jimmy’s closing song, Coming:

I am coming! I am coming!
I am coming through!
Coming across the divide to you.
In this moment of unity
I’m feeling only an ecstasy
To be here, to be now
At last I am free-
Yes - at last, at last
To be free of the past
And of a future that beckons me.

I am coming! I am coming!
Here I am!
Neither a woman nor a man -
We are joined, we are one
With a human face
We are joined, we are one
With a human face
I am on earth
And I am in outer space
I’m being born and I am dying.

Potter’s latest film, The Tango Lesson, is epic, realistic, and completely believable in its own terms. It tells the tale of a film director named Sally Potter who becomes disenchanted with her lastest screenplay, Rage; abandons it; takes up tango lessons with a choreographer and dancer named Pablo Veron; and decides to make a film about him. The choreographer and dancer is played by a choreographer and dancer named Pablo Veron. Sally Potter is played by Potter, who did give up on a screenplay called Rage to make the film. The film is shot in black and white. Slashes of Rage are splashed around, soaked in Orlandoesque colour. Some commentators have assumed that it is a documentary. But the film is more than that. Just as Orlando is more than just an entertaining fantasy. Potter comments:

“Virginia Woolf wrote a fiction based on a love story she had in real life with Vita Sackville West, and based on research into Vita Sackville West’s family history, and it was in a way not just about Vita Sackville West but about England. It was Virginia Woolf, if you like, making a documentary about England. Through a fictitious story about an immortal character who lives for 400 years. The fact is that fiction, which literally means something that is not true, is one of the most accurate ways that any culture has produced to tell the truth about itself. There’s an essential paradox in the form which goes back to the roots of storytelling and myth.

“So [The Tango Lesson], it’s all truth and it’s all lies. I discovered whilst I was making it that I had in a way to invent a subgenre, to juggle with those elements. It is fiction. And it’s real. But real life doesn’t happen exactly like that. I always refer to her [the Sally Potter character] as she. It was a version of myself. It was like lending my image, my identity, as almost like a kind of double bluff cover thing. At times I felt like a spy, spying on my own life in order to use the material in order to tell a tale. Ultimately, there were two yardsticks. Does this obey the laws of fiction [and] in which ways do I wish to break those laws? [And] does it ring true? Do I recognise a gut honesty in it that will help people to realise their own secret lives too?”

Like Orlando, The Tango Lesson explores myths of fact and fiction.

Photo: Abbie Trayle-Smith

Potter first made her mark as a dancer and choreographer. But she considers herself first and foremost to be a director:

“I started as a director. When I was fourteen. And then, how to become a film director at fourteen is not self-evident. And it was a long and winding road which necessitated stepping sideways: this way, that way, the other way. But with hindsight I now realise that all the decisions that I made along the line whether that was to be dancer for a while, a singer for a while, a performance artist, whatever, it’s all facets in fact of film-making, and the skill of directing, for which there is no real training. You have to know a little bit about a lot of things.

“At school I had already directed shows, but as a fourteen-year-old it was with an 8mm camera. And then, the London Filmmakers co-op was just about starting up, and I used to go and watch hours of films. Independent, underground films, anything. And we would go and rummage in the dustbins in Soho for out of date film stock and use that. We’re not talking low-budget filmmaking, we’re talking no-budget filmmaking. Instead of going to filmschool, I learnt on the job with scraps of this and that and then trod the boards, as a dancer.

“I think that often the big life steps that one takes are taken unconciously. I think it’s very rare for somebody to know from the very beginning, I’m going to be that, and stick with that. You have a dream, but you face so many discouragements along the way. But I think often our unconsious is steering us in ways that are much more intelligent than we think.

“For example, when I started my dance training when I was twenty-one, and I had already been trying to be a film-director for six years by then, my friends said to me “What the fuck are you doing going into dance?” It’s just seen as that really girly thing to do compared to this really thrilling ambition to be a film director. But instinctively something in my gut knew that if I did it, something was going to happen. I probably couldn’t have measured it out and said: “If I do a dance training, I will learn how to work.”

“Because that is what I really learnt. Dancers go in every morning at nine and do a class whether they’ve got a hang-over, whether they’ve got no sleep, whether they’re in the mood or not. Inspiration is irrelevant. It’s all about discipline. Now that is the single biggest lesson that any filmmaker needs to learn. Discipline. Organisation. You never rely on inspiration. So I learnt that through dancing.”

In the introduction to the screenplay to Orlando, Potter writes: “Orlando was a celebration of impermanence. Through the vehicle of Orlando’s apparent immortality we experience the mutability of all things and relationships.” Talking of dance, she remarks: “You’re in the moment, it’s ephemeral, it’s gone, gone in a puff of dust. And that’s the magic of it.” One thinks of Somerville’s song. “To be here, to be now/ At last I am free-/ Yes - at last, at last/ To be free of the past/ And of a future that beckons me.” Potter continues, “The glorious thing about [dance] is also the tragedy about it. You do it and it’s gone.” By capturing dance on film, Potter is combining the ephemeral with the (relatively) eternal. The Tango Lesson not only shares its predecessor’s concerns with fact and fiction. It also shares its concern with time.

Potter is forty-seven. She started dancing at the age of twenty-one, which in dance circles is “ancient. ANCIENT. Wrinkly.” She started learning the tango at the age of forty-three, yet she dances superbly in many of the film’s magical dance scenes. Inextricable from the concern with time is a concern with age:

“Nothing is ever too old or too young for anything. Everything about age is a crap myth. Every age is the perfect age, and every dream is realisable. O.K., if you decide you’re going to be an Olympic triathlete at the age of sixty, certain things are stacked against you. But they’ve dicovered that ninety-year-olds, who’ve never been in a gym before in their lives, after six weeks of careful training can have the muscle tone of a thirty-year-old. In other words, most of the stereotypes we have about age are absolute rubbish.”

Absolute rubbish, perhaps, but an absolute rubbish that makes the lives of the many who believe them absolutely miserable. Another myth of our times is that men mature, whilst women just grow old. An attractive man is an old man. An attractive woman is not yet a woman. Potter’s films stand such stereotypes upon their heads. Orlando becomes a woman when he is entering her dotage. Potter is every bit a woman as Veron is a man. Equally, Potter is every bit a man as Veron is a woman. The film ends with another song, with lyrics again penned by Potter. Lyrics again expressing the joys of unity within disparity:

One is one
And one are two,
You are me,
I am you.

The Tango Lesson, then, is a very different film from Orlando. But it is also very similar. Within a very different structure and form, it again explores myths of fact and fiction, myths of time and space and gender. More importantly, perhaps, it is again a very charming film. Differently charming. Similarily charming. Go and be one with it.

Clive Johnson

Film Index

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