- Tango is a complex improvised form that’s danced the world over.
- Jesse Krimes describes his six years in federal prison as a kind of “artist residency.”
- Celebrated opera tenor Stephen Costello has been both blessed and betrayed by his voice.
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate. In the popular imagination, Tango is an exotic seduction, born on the sultry streets of Buenos Aires. In truth it’s a complex improvised form, danced the world over.
Giselle Anne: The passionate elements are very easily read from the outside. I think that what’s happening inside the dance can be much more than that.
Jesse Krimes describes his six years in Federal Prison as a kind of arts residency. Not only did his work keep him sane while on the inside, it’s become the foundation for a successful artistic career on the outside.
Jesse Krimes: They can take your clothes, your car, they can remove you from your family, but they can’t take away your ability to create.
And the celebrated opera tenor, Stephen Costello, has been both blessed and betrayed by his voice.
Stephen Costello: You don’t realize that you hold your emotions here. When you’re stressed you don’t realize that you’re singing through the stress, and you’re trying to overcome it.
That’s all ahead, on Articulate.
Social tango is an improvised art form.
Carolyn Merrit: So, you share a vocabulary of steps with your partner. But what happens when you step into the embrace is unknown from second to second, which is terrifying on the one hand, but incredibly exciting on the other.
And nobody understands this better than Gustavo Naveira, who with his wife and dance partner, Giselle Anne, are among the foremost exponents of the form.
Giselle Anne: As soon as he starts—
Gustavo Naveira: Is the instant.
Anne: I react at the moment.
Naveira: We go together and it’s there.
Naveira: It’s just a click.
Naveira is one of the leaders of the great late 20th century renaissance in Argentinian tango, which continues today.
Meredith Klein: From the mid 80s ’til now, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every single day more people have danced tango.
Yet the common perception of tango has been more than slightly warped by representations in popular culture.
Merrit: So, I think the images that we have of tango are largely informed by television and by movies. I think in the popular imagination that the intimacy and the sensual or the sexual or the passionate elements are very easily read from the outside. I think that what’s happening inside the dance can be much more than that.
Klein: It’s very intimate without being sexual at all. In our lives we dance with hundreds, thousands of different people and it’s really inappropriate to bring that dynamic to all of those encounters. Maybe, occasionally that exists between you and a person, but just as rarely as it exists in the rest of the world.
Naveira: The dance we are doing in general, couple dances, are more about concentration, more about feeling movement… Communication between the partners. It’s a great pleasure to coordinate movement and be successful in that.
Klein: And that experience of coming completely into the moment is what people are seeking in so many different ways. It’s about leading and following, and that there’s no way to come into an embrace with someone and not know what’s gonna happen without paying complete attention to each other and letting go of the external. So, for us, in the moment, it’s very internal, and very subtle and whatever looks showy or impressive from outside is just a byproduct of that connection.
Yet, that connection is governed by strict gender roles.
AJC: Can you make a man dance?
Anne: Not really,
Naveira: Not really.
Anne: The other way around doesn’t work really in the same way.
Naveira: The system is that the man leads and the woman follows the man’s decisions. This said like that sounds terrible, but the system gives the opportunity for both to fully dance with all the needs of expression and give it shape and give it rhythm and give all kinds of nuances.
Merrit: For me, an ideal tango is one that becomes a little bit more of a conversation, even though I’m stepping into the embrace in the role of follower.
Klein: But, if the guy has a kind of skewed sense of the lead and he feels that the dance is created by him molding and shaping the follower’s body and physically moving her through space as opposed to asking that she move, then it’s uncomfortable.
And in social settings, the partner’s roles continue to be defined by gender. It is the man who asks the woman to dance.
Merrit: The invitation to dance is generally initiated and accepted without speaking.
Klein: The request is given by a look. It’s called the cabeceo, and it’s a way of looking at someone significantly across the room and when they meet your eye contact then a slight nod or a gesture toward the dance floor… Very subtle, so theoretically people around if you are accepted and you go out to dance, they see that, but if you’re rejected, no one sees anything.
Merrit: Ultimately the woman is responsible for closing the deal. So, the dance doesn’t happen unless the woman meets his gaze and holds it. Then on the other hand the man has to look at her in the first place, so both of them are responsible for that happening.
And though many traditions of tango survive today, the form has continued to evolve. The dance lay almost dormant for more than two decades during a period of great social and political upheaval in Argentina. After democracy returned in 1983, there was a resurgence in interest in cultural heritage. The tango revival, begun at the University of Buenos Aires, was led by Gustavo Naveira.
Klein: So this group of young students started sleuthing everywhere in Buenos Aires to try to find people who were still dancing and learn all they could from them. They really looked in every corner of the city and they found the groups of mostly older people who were still getting together and dancing.
But this endeavor was hampered by a dearth of academic tools for explaining the dance.
Klein: To a really great extent, wonderful dancers didn’t really know what they did, and it made it really hard to learn. So, for example, your friend might ask you “How do you do that gancho, that hooking movement of the leg that’s so cool.” And you might be like “Oh, yeah, here, watch.” And you might show it to him, and he’s kind of there scratching his head. And he’s like “Well, did you start with your left foot or your right?” Then you ask your friend again and he goes and does the same gancho but this time he gets into it in a completely different way. And he doesn’t even realize because it’s so innate in him to get to this gancho but he hasn’t studied how he does it, or systematized it in any way. So what Gustavo Naveira did in the mid to late 90s was run a series of practicas, and they analyzed the dance. So, as they investigated, they developed a language that allows you to really understand what they were doing, and be able to teach it much, much better, but also it made them realize that they were only realizing say, five to ten percent of the possibilities of this language. And so they started to use the terminology to permute the movements so that instead of that one gancho that you asked your friend about, all of a sudden there were 36 ways to do a gancho.
During this period of reinvention, tango music was also going through a period of discovery. Some of which caught on.
Merrit: Electronic tango compositions were being produced and released by Argentine bands, primarily.
Merrit: I think a lot of younger dancers and, younger and international listeners of tango music, of electronic music accepted it as tango. Tango traditionalists in Argentina, no, mm mm, it’s not tango.
Naveira: A tango dancer could dance any music.
AJC: You don’t need to have that—
Naveira: You don’t need to have exactly the traditional tango. You could do it to any music. But, I do believe we still don’t have better music for that dance. It’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect.
Merrit: I think that there is something essentially emotional about the music of tango. And I think that many people perceive that when they hear it. The sound of the bandoneon is famously melancholy. People say that the instrument weeps.
Today, the godfather of 21st century tango, Gustavo Naveira, believes the form belongs to everybody.
Naveira: People from all over the world can perceive the feelings of that music, and they have their own feelings. The dance can bring you through a process that it’s absolutely magic for everybody. I don’t feel that I am the magician. I feel that it’s something that happens. Maybe it could be explained by science, I don’t know. But it happens, it’s there. I’m part of it. So I don’t take a role and say “I’m the magician, you’re the public, and you’re the listener,” or “you are the…” No. We go, we dance, and we live in a kind of magic world for three minutes.
Jesse Krimes says the time he spent in Federal Prison for drug offenses generated both desire and fear, enlightenment and profound disquiet.
Jesse Krimes: That time was one of the worst times of my life, but also one of the best.
The best of times because it was six years during which making art kept him sane.
Krimes: I call it a very long, bad residency.
Krimes, yes, that’s his real name, was just a year out of art school when he found himself forced to take stock of his own identity from behind bars.
Krimes: They can take your clothes, your car, they can remove you from your family, but they can’t take away your ability to create. That was one thing that I really understood as who I am as an individual, and one thing that no matter what situation I was placed in that I had this thing that would always kind of maintain my sanity and also give me a method of resistance to the idea of being a criminal.
AJC: Looking at the work that you did before you went in, and the work that you’re doing now, it’s not as different as it might have been.
Krimes: I think I was dealing with a lot of the same kind of aesthetic concerns and a lot of the similar issues that I was working through in my work previous to going to prison… Is much the same as the work that I’m continuing to do now.
AJC: So therefore is it annoying to you that you continue, as I’ve just done, to be defined by the fact that you are the dude who spent six years inside?
Krimes: I think it is kind of limiting in a sense, but I kind of knew that making artwork in the prison system was… Not a typical art process. So I had an idea that making these massive, monumental bodies of work within this environment was something that would potentially be interesting to viewers, and value.
But for however valuable his art ended up being, nobody was handing out easels and oil paints in Federal Prison. So, Krimes improvised with what was available. He used hair gel, newspaper, bed sheets, plastic spoons and colored pencils to create what would become a 39 panel landscape named in part for his prison ID number. It would eventually be smuggled out piece by piece. Another project, Purgatory, was comprised of 300 carved prison issued soaps, concealed inside decks of playing cards. As it happens, working with non-traditional media had always been his preference.
Krimes: A lot of my work happens through an intuitive way of… Almost by chance, of coming across materials.
And sometimes finding a starting point can be as simple as accidentally dropping your grape into a vat of primer.
Krimes: I pulled it out and, just the transformation of this grape, this kind of full, lush grape, this everyday thing that we encounter was really beautiful in this kind of white-coated state. So, I put it in tweezers and I wanted to see how it kind of changed over time. But then I found that the form of the tweezers holding the grape and the drip that solidified very interesting. I began to recognize that form in other elements that I came across in my daily life. So, I found this massive hornet’s nest dangling from a tree and it was like this whole kind of ecosystem that mimicked the same formal qualities of the grape. So, I put it in tweezers and developed this other extension that kind of holds the tweezers to dangle the hornet’s nest from this artificial structure. The project just kind of grew like that through all these different elements.
Since his release in 2013, Jesse Krimes has continued to grow professionally and personally. Though he lost most of his twenties to incarceration, he says he gained an understanding of the deeply nuanced nature of human relationships, that goes beyond today’s world of clicks, likes, and shares.
Krimes: This is the Federal system, so this is a community of individuals from every corner of the world. So in a way even though I didn’t leave this very small compound, I traveled the world and interacted with all of these vast different cultures and things that people bring in to this environment. I mean, so many people now form relationships and these groups of people who are like-minded, so you never get opinions from people who are outside of your comfort—
AJC: You live in the echo chamber.
Krimes: Yeah, so it’s a network, it’s not really a community. You control your network, but a community you can’t really control.
And whether it’s a network or a community, the art world has embraced Jesse Krimes. In 2016 he made his solo debut in New York City, Marking Time in America: The Prison Works explored his past. The future promises to be even more interesting for Jesse Krimes.
Stephen Costello hails from a solidly working class Philadelphia family. His love of singing began in the chorus at George Washington High School, and flourished at the University of the Arts. He was admitted to Philadelphia’s world-renowned opera finishing school, the Academy of Vocal Arts with little previous opera experience, because Bill Schuman, who would become one of his mentors, heard something in his voice. Costello is now firmly established in opera’s big leagues, both in the US and abroad. But when he comes home, there’s not too much interest in his latest artistic conquests, and he says he likes it like that.
Stephen Costello: I did a World Broadcast in London, and I come back and I walk in the door and I asked my parents “Did you see it?” “Nah, nah, we missed it, but um, could you put the trash out while you’re home.” You know, “The dog has to go out, so just take it for a walk.” And it’s something like that that just really keeps you humble. I think they understand that I’m good at what I do, but I like being normal when I’m at home and that’s really what you are, everyone’s the same. It doesn’t matter what you do or how much success you have when you go home you’re part of the family.
Costello: I like honest people. I like people that do what I do for the same reasons, because they like doing it and I love working on stage with people that aren’t thinking so much about themselves and their performance as they are about the whole.
And indeed, Costello’s attitude is not unusual in this latest generation of star opera singers, who are motivated more by music than by a desire for self-aggrandizement.
Costello: I didn’t even like listening to myself speak. I’m very self-conscious about that kind of thing. I just know that I love singing and that I enjoy the work, enjoy making music, so that’s what keeps me going. I don’t focus on the color of my voice, or the sound of my voice, and it’s… At one point, I did. I was focusing on trying to make a beautiful sound, and a color and… My teacher had to explain to it to me, he said “Well you already have a good color, your color is what people like.” He goes, “You need to stop thinking about that and just sing.”
Key to finding his own identity as a singer was accepting that he could not and should not aspire to be his heroes.
Costello: Whoever you listen to, you wanna do that. You wanna try to do what they’re doing, and you want that sound. You’re not gonna have that sound, those people sound like themselves, and you have to sound like yourself. You’re given the sound at birth, or whatever it is, that’s your sound.
AJC: How long did it take you to realize that? Because that’s a difficult thing—
Costello: That my sound is my sound?
AJC: Well, no, that you are who you are.
AJC: That you can’t be anyone else, ’cause it’s something that we all have to, at some point, take on board.
Costello: Oh, you know you still… It doesn’t matter. I do appreciate other people and what they can do and I do it without being jealous. I think jealousy is like something that’ll just destroy—not just a singer, but anybody in general.
AJC: The most useless human emotion.
Costello: Yeah, so I’d rather go out and listen to someone and be like “Wow, why are they special?” Like if someone comes on the scene and they’re like the new it person, it’s like I wanna go and see their performance ’cause I wanna figure out what it is that people are attracted to.
Costello’s steadfast commitment to self-improvement was instilled early on, principally at the Academy of Vocal Arts. Today, he says, he’s still learning every day.
Costello: When people gain a certain amount of success, they stop studying, they stop taking lessons, and then they start to decline. It’s like an athlete. Michael Phelps said it the best when he said, “If I took a week off it took me three weeks to get back to where I was right before I took that week off.” You are an Olympic athlete, in a way, and you have to keep working in order to keep this easy and fresh, and vibrant.
But Costello would learn the hard way that technique only goes so far. After separating from his wife, the equally successful opera soprano, Ailyn Pérez, in 2014 he was forced to back out of a Metropolitan Opera production of La Traviata when his throat went into spasm.
Costello: You don’t realize that you hold your emotions here, and you also hold emotions in here. When you’re stressed you don’t realize that you’re singing through the stress and you’re trying to overcome it, because you don’t realize that you’re stressed all the time. Recently, I’d say, just in the past few months alone I finally was able to just release all the stress and my reflexes under control, and I feel like I have more agility in my throat than I’ve had in years.
AJC: So now when you open your mouth, what you thought was gonna come out always comes out?
Costello: Always comes out, yeah.
AJC: That must be remarkable.
Costello: Everything just makes it easier. Everything is just easier. It’s like, somebody once said to me, “It’s like you found your friend again.” ‘Cause it’s your friend. You nurture your friend, you take care of it, and then you just found it.
AJC: Did you have ambition 10, 12, 15 years ago when this all started and if so, how has the reality been different from the dream?
Costello: Yeah, 15 years ago I wanted to sing in every major theater in the world. I wanted to work with this person, and work with this person, I wanted to do this… Now I’m thinking more like I wanna do more artistic things. I don’t wanna sing in a place just to sing and make money. I wanna sing and have great artistic experiences, ’cause it’s the only way to grow. I wanna sing with people that are better than me. Sing with people that you’re intimidated by when you sing with them, because they’re gonna make you work harder. They’re the types of people I wanna sing with. They’re my ambitions.
Already starring with some of the world’s biggest opera stars, Stephen Costello is well on his way to exceeding his ambitions.