Friday, 29 April 2011

No hay tierra como la mia

Some music: Ian Bostridge – Semele HWV58: Where E're You Walk - George Fredrick Handel

Where'er you walk ...

... cool gales shall fan the glade ...

... Trees, where you sit ...

... shall crowd into a shade ...

... Where'er you tread ...

... the blushing flowers shall rise ...

... and all things flourish ...

... where'er you turn your eyes ...

... where'er you turn your eyes ...

I wish I could convey to you the velvet texture of these young oak leaves. Not very good pictures, as I don't practice this enough, but there are so many sorts of bluebells.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Festivalito Montecatini Terme

Antonio and Francesca
[Scroll down for year-two update]
This is an all-weekend event organised by Francesca Bertelli and Antonio Martinez, at Montecatini Terme, Tuscany. This was the first one, but it's intended to be annual. It won't necessarily be on the same date every year, but the first weekend of April was a good choice since it's not the main season there, and there are very beautiful venues and excellent hotel deals available.

The Class: Melina Sedó and Detlef Engel gave some workshops during the weekend, intended to contribute to attracting the right sort of dancers. You normally need a suitable partner you can travel with to book any of their workshops, which in my case I have not got.

Layout and Atmosphere: Montecatini Terme ('Montecatini Springs') is a beautiful 19th-century spa town in Tuscany. It's full of gloriously bonkers buildings (see pictures), designed for people to come and take the thermal waters for their health, either by immersing themselves or by drinking the stuff for its alleged benefits to various organs. In one of these buildings, the magnificent Stabilimento Tettucio, they had the main event. The room, referred to by several guests as the 'Lothlorien Room' but actually named the Salone Portoghesi, was absolutely stunning, with a beautiful tiled floor, but not perfect as regards layout; the giant tree-like pillars got in the way and made it difficult to get dances from your table. It was well lit, everyone cleared the floor for the cortinas, and cabeceo would have been easy but for the trees. It was much easier on the Sunday afternoon when I could sit back from the floor a bit, circulate more easily, and control my line of sight. Other events took place in the surprisingly ugly Porticato del Kursaal and in a fascinating restaurant called Le Maschere in Montecatini Alto, up the hill.

I won't describe the venues in detail as they will probably change next time - several of the hotels and the other spa buildings have suitable rooms. Hopefully they can get permission to keep going later than 2am - I think the milongas at these weekenders need to go till 4, really. The atmosphere generally was happy, the town feels safe and it's the kind of place where whole families go out for a walk and eat icecreams after dark.

All of the venues had tiled floors - smooth, but hard. Probably most future venues will, too, as that's what suitable buildings generally have here. So choose your shoes accordingly.

Hospitality: Good, if a little hit and miss. There was cheap food and drink available at the Saturday and Sunday milongas, and a very reasonable sit-down meal as a welcome. They went to a lot of trouble to make sure people had a good time, including arranging a discount with a new spa building and putting thought into the seating at the Friday dinner and the reserved tables on Saturday (you automatically got a table if you booked in advance). The spa had either forgotten all about the discount or got confused about what it was actually for, or both, but my companion assured me this was par for the course in Montecatini, and we still got to enjoy it and had a lovely bubble session which I'd thoroughly recommend. The loooong and lonely trek to the cavernous loos from the Lothlorien room was a bit disconcerting if you didn't know that the building was secure. But it was all up to standard.

Clearing the floor for the cortina
Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: It was really just social dancing, but on the Saturday night Detlef and Melina gave a brief performance in their usual style. It's not so much a performance, really, more a demonstration of the kind of thing they teach, to emphasise what kind of dancing the weekend is meant to be about. She explained that she chooses the music and doesn't tell him what it's going to be. I knew that already, so didn't think about it, but it struck my companion as a good idea.

What I thought of the DJing: Very good. Andreas Wichter did the Friday night, Al Porteño the Saturday night, and Melina did the Sunday. Antonio Martinez DJ'd for the afternoon mini milonga on Saturday. All played 100% traditional dance music, tandas, cortinas, their choices and reasoning vary but it all made sense and made me want to dance; at any rate it was never the music that limited my dancing.

Ceiling painting
Getting in: The pass for all the milongas was €35, the most expensive individual price was €15 and the Saturday afternoon milonga was free. The sit-down three-course meal at the welcome milonga was €20 including wine - it wasn't very good, in my opinion, but it was very reasonably priced and fun and convivial. Because the season hadn't started yet, (when the town fills up with people taking the waters) we got an outrageously good deal on the hotel we stayed in; under £150 in total for a nice twin room and breakfast for four nights.

Getting there and getting home: I travelled with a friend. We flew to Pisa and hired a car - my friend used to live nearby, and was used to driving in this area. If I'd been alone, I could also have taken a train from Pisa airport to Montecatini Terme, and finished a very short walk from my hotel and the main venue - station, hotel and venue were practically on the same street. It all felt very safe at 2am. The only place I would have had problems getting to on my own was the restaurant in Montecatini Alto where the Friday welcome milonga was. I could probably have got a taxi or arranged a lift with someone.

Detlef catches some rays
The website: Tango Tuscany. Francesca lived in New York for a long time and does events there too.

How it went: Very well for a first attempt, I thought. We had different results from each other on each day in terms of how much we danced, but neither of us had any bad dances at all. I recognised fewer people than I expected, and I wasn't entirely in the right frame of mind, for some reason; I think I needed the milongas to be longer. But I did have many lovely dances with people I knew, people who were completely new to me, and people I remembered vaguely from other events. My best milonga was the Sunday brunch, my companion's the Saturday night. I think most of the people there were Italians from the surrounding area, which is great, and they were lovely, but a good number from all the usual places in Europe, too. And some friends of Francesca's from New York!

There were a few individuals in the milongas who were charging around or otherwise creating stress, but this wouldn't stop me going back as I think it will develop its own crowd over time and get a stronger personality. People will know what it's all about and will be less tempted to speed, show off, pose, teach on the floor, or do other things that don't make sense at this kind of festival.  [Edit: also, next year they'll probably avoid the scheduling conflict with the thing in Sicily that a lot of the target audience probably went to instead. I'd forgotten about this till Melina mentioned it.]

More Stabilimento Tettucio
In any case, I think this would be a pretty good choice for your first festivalito of this kind, based at least on my friend's experience; she was completely new to this kind of event, made new connections and had a wonderful time.

We were ridiculously lucky with the weather, and spent a chunk of our time on the beach about 40 minutes drive away. We also availed ourselves of a special deal at a newly-opened spa building, soaking ourselves in a delicious salty hot-spring bubble bath and getting a deep tissue massage from a fast jet of water. It was delicious and we slept like logs for about four hours afterwards. I don't know what it did to my dancing.

[Edit: After drafting (late, sorry) and before publication, I see Melina has written this one up as well - she gives more detail about the DJs, and more background.]

[Year two update, 2012: we went back, and the absence of direct scheduling conflict took the average standard of dance up very noticeably. Lots of lovely Italians in the milonga, and lots of lovely bubbles in the spa. I could have done without the Saturday night performance in this case, but it was brief. The DJing was generally outstanding, if not all to my personal taste. Lampis Zalavras (a genius IMO),  Mirco Baldoni (good, a bit different, enjoyed it), Al Porteño again (rhythm-heavy, not so much my thing) and Céline Deveze (beautiful, and a Canaro tanda en version francaise!). The Saturday night Lothlorien Room is gorgeous but impractical; the Sunday milonga took place in the extremely beautiful café with the ceiling paintings. Lovely, highly recommended; but, as usual in the mediterranean, the floors are hard. Choose your shoes with that in mind. Contact Francesca to get on the mailing list.]

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Dome

This is an updated version of my previous review - I don't go there very often.

There are classes and a milonga every Wednesday organised by Zero Hour. The milonga normally goes till midnight, it's occasionally open later.

The Class:
There are usually beginners' and intermediate classes running - check the monthly programme on the website for times and teachers. The regular teachers are René and Hiba, but they also have guests.

Layout and Atmosphere: The main part of the room has been completely refurbished and looks good. The bar is on the left and behind you as you come in, with the bar area divided from the main part by pillars, chairs and tables with tablecloths. There are mixed chairs, tables, and sofas, along the other long side of the dance floor, and the short end on the left where the DJ has a sort of hatch or window. They've got rid of the platform that used to be there, and the dancefloor is now a much better size and shape. The new floor itself is also of much better quality, wooden and very smooth; it might have been newly polished, as I and one of my partners found it very slippery in a couple of spots near the corners. The lighting is very low, too low in my opinion to get a dance from across the room unless you both have good eyesight, are both light-skinned, and know each other fairly well. If you want to cross the room, it's no use waiting for the cortina - they don't play any - so you have to pick your way around or stay in the same place, but that's do-able as long as it's not crowded.

Hospitality: Good. My single G&T with ice and lemon was £3.40. There was a jug of water on the bar with plastic cups so you could serve yourself whenever you wanted it.  The bar staff were pleasant. The loos are supplied and working, and even have good lighting and large mirrors on the outsides of the doors in the ladies' at the far corner (not the one off the stairs before you go in, which is fine, but cramped). However, the floor in there was extremely dirty on this particular night. The tables near the bar are close together, but it's not too cramped as you can approach them from the bar side as well. There is a rail for hanging your things up just on the left by the entrance, and there are pretty much enough chairs for most people to sit down so there's also scope for hanging your things on the back of one and putting your bag under a table.

Anyone or anything interesting: They sell NeoTango shoes at the desk.

What I thought of the DJing: The DJs play mainly but not exclusively traditional music, it was in tandas, but no cortinas. I have to leave by 23:30 as it's a weekday, and I wouldn't be surprised if they got a bit more non-traditional by midnight. It is not always the same DJ, check the website to find out who it is on your night.

Getting in: £6. I think you can get a loyalty discount - ask the person at the desk, if you plan to be a regular.

Getting there and getting home: From Tufnell Park tube, cross at the crossing and walk down the left hand wall of the corner pub; you will see the lit sign for the Dome. Just walk up the stairs. If you stay till midnight you may not be able to Tube it all the way, but there are buses from the intersection outside: the website shows the location correctly.

The website: Simple, does the job. Look at 'milonga' and 'monthly programme'. The milonga is usually referred to as "The Dome" but the website uses its intended name so is at

How it went: Quite well. I had nice dances with people I know and people I don't see very often. I'd guess most of the people who go there are probably regulars, which is nice in many ways but may also mean it can take a while to get dances if nobody knows you, most of all if you are relatively choosy. The flow on the floor felt ok and I didn't have a lot of bumps. I'm unlikely to become a regular because it's in an awkward location for me and the no-cortinas policy and darkness do my head in. Plus it's probably hitting its stride around the time I have to leave. But it's an attractive space, it's very reasonably priced, and the music is good if you don't mind the format. If you like your milongas non-traditional this is definitely the one for you, and you're likely to find suitable partners here.

Friday, 22 April 2011


It's waaaay too nice out there to sit in front of a computer.

On my list:
Update on the Dome because the refurbishment has made it much nicer
Review of the Light Temple (another one I don't go to often enough to keep up)
A 'euromilonguero' (my word for it) festival in Tuscany, it was a first attempt but pretty damn gorgeous, I was lucky in my companion and the weather - a picture or two and I must not forget some thoughts on how to get the best out of this type of festival
A mascara that is almost impervious to being in contact with somebody's sweaty face for an entire tanda
A piece of music that's tragically flawed in an interesting way

But now I'm going to get some more freckles. xH

Monday, 18 April 2011

Shakespeare on Bullshit

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

William Shakespeare: Henry IV, part I

He was good. Today, it was The Invisible Bond Vigilantes (a band, perhaps?) Application to any other specific topics may be an exercise for the interested reader.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

iTunes Smart Playlists for music education

Here's a quick computer-use tutorial for some of my mates. If you already know how to use iTunes Smart Playlists and why you might want to, and you already have an opinion about Di Sarli with Rufino versus Di Sarli with Duran, you can probably skip this post.

The task: A friend was annoyed, some weeks ago, when somebody played a mixed tanda of Di Sarli with Rufino and Di Sarli with Durán. I hadn't noticed, but it makes him feel jarred, as though he had to stop, change all his settings, and screw his head back on again. I asked why, and he explained that it's not so much about the singer sounding different, although they do, it's that they worked with Di Sarli's orchestra at different times and there's a big difference of style. So although he likes both, he doesn't like getting up for a tanda of one and then finding himself dancing with the other half way through.

To find out whether I agreed with him or not, I had to listen to a string of Di Sarli/Rufino and a string of Di Sarli/Duran and think about the difference. A good time to do the listening is on my commute, but I don't want to be fiddling with my ipod all the way, peering at the tiny screen, so I want a playlist of each, as long as I have available.

The solution: This is obviously a job for the computer. Finding all the tracks I own with a specific combination of orchestra and singer is the kind of thing they can do quicker than us. iTunes is in many ways annoying, but the easy-to-miss 'smart playlist' feature does this job quite well.

Go up to the top menu and go File --> New Smart Playlist, or on Windows you can do Ctrl+Alt+N. Now this appears, and I put a singer's name in it:

I'm telling iTunes to find me everything with the words "Roberto Rufino" anywhere in the Artist box. The playlist should be of unlimited length - I want to hear everything - and "Live updating" means I want it to update automatically whenever I add more of this artist's music to the collection. (All I have to do is read the album track lists carefully - sometimes they identify the singer for each track somewhere at the bottom in small print - and make sure I put the names in the boxes. "Album Artist" is for whatever it says on the cover - in "Artist" I just identify the artists for that track).

If a singer appears in my collection with more than one orchestra, I could, if I wanted, add another rule by clicking the + sign to the right. So in the smart playlist below, I'm saying I only want Podestá with Di Sarli, and not, for example, Podestá with Pedro Laurenz.

The + is also very handy if you've used more than one spelling of a name, say you've sometimes written "R. Rufino" because that's what it said on the CD insert. I tend to write exactly what it says, and not assume that two non-identical forms of a name are the same person without good evidence like seeing both forms on the same CD, in which case I write the full version throughout. That way I don't lose information, and I don't risk accidentally generating false information through my own ignorance. There's no real need to standardise, as it's so easy to use multiple forms in a smart playlist and have the computer search for all of them.

You can name the playlists and arrange them in folders.

I have playlists for milongas and valses (I use the 'grouping' field) and for various combinations of values in "Artist", which gives me playlists by orchestra and by singer.

So, what was the answer?

There really is a big difference of style, which was obvious once I separated them out and listened to them in bulk on the way to work. The ones with Rufino are warmer, darker and more flowing. They seem sort of earthier to me. Di Sarli / Durán I can only describe as stately and glamorous, but with less forward drive. And with heavily-signalled, squishy endings. They make me think a bit of a Hollywood set for an early-colour musical. Durán's voice is more towards a trumpet sound than a clarinet, and the arrangements are quite different. I know that all sounds like wine talk, or like people saying Pugliese is purple, so if you want to figure it out you'll probably have to listen and come up with a description yourself.

My friend's dance is very expressive of those kinds of variations, especially the differences in drive and flow and swooshiness, and although he would probably be equally happy dancing to either Rufino or Durán, I can see why the change in dynamics would really wind him up in the middle of a tanda.

If I add "Year" to the columns displayed then I find that the ones with Durán are later, so this seems to be a change in Di Sarli's style over time. The ones with Podestá sound sort of in-between in style, so is this also true of the years, I wonder? Mostly, it seems so.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Single Transferable Vote?

I gather the Single Transferable Vote system is used in Ireland, Australia, Malta, and for local elections in Scotland. Now I don't think I have any readers in Malta but I know I have some in Ireland and Scotland and maybe in Australia. Is that true? Is it all right, how do you get on with it?


I went to Germany at really short notice, for two weeks, for a technical course. It had its moments. Then I went to Tuscany for a tango party, with a friend. We danced quite a bit and went to the beach. It was super pretty. But two weeks and then a long weekend was a long time to leave my little untidy flat all alone, I worry about it, and I feel like I haven't seen people for months on end.