TQW Magazin
Jules Gleeson on SCHOOL by Krõõt Juurak / PARASOL

Training to Tango Without Leaders or Labour


Training to Tango Without Leaders or Labour

What kind of worker is a dancer? TQW’s dance group PARASOL provides an opportunity for earlier career dancers to receive six months of pay and mentorship. The first performance of the 2023 participants Lens Kühleitner, Nadine Mathis, Julia Müllner, Oneka von Schrader, and Yuwol June C, SCHOOL, premiered Friday, April 14th.

This year’s first choreographer was Krõõt Juurak, a Vienna-based performer and stand-up comedian whose multiple careers have addressed themes from domesticity to (de)professionalism, to human-and-animal interactions. Juurak opens SCHOOL by providing a rare dose of context: the performances followed a three-month working period with master classes in the challenging form of Argentine tango.

True to the show’s title, the event begins with the performers seated at messy desks, next to a large whiteboard displaying the order for the evening (along with rough timings). Rather than following thoroughgoing directions, SCHOOL follows a time-limited set of sessions, interspersing tango dances with the performers offering jokes, with the audience pelted with confectionery if able to guess the punchline. As a professional comedian, I easily guessed what is covered in green fur with four legs, handing the Twix to my wife. Towards the end of the show, a brief nap offered another chance for audience participation (at least for those able to doze in their seats).

Following years of critical and queer engagement in tango, its ambivalences have come to wider attention. This year, Patricia Gherovici (best known for her pioneering revisionist work on transsexuality and Lacan) published in e-flux art magazine a personal reflection on her relationship to the dance form. As a reference point for performers, Gherovici relates the origins of tango as shrouded in mystery, leaving it unclear whether this adoption by an unmistakably queer troupe serves as appropriation, or rather a return to an earlier moment. Similarly, its purpose is bifurcated: able to serve well enough as a “high form” when exported to Europe, the original popularity of tango was closely linked to its service as a means of seduction.

In this light, both in their approach to the dance and its framing, the PARASOL performers opened a challenge to conventional spaces and forms. Gherovici’s essay explores an earlier moment in tango’s history when dancers would overwhelmingly be men (perhaps “readying” themselves for dances with ladies…or perhaps not). Contrastingly, with men almost wholly absent from the stage, the performers swapped partners and positions throughout the act’s dances. There is little sense of the dances taking place in “preparation” for later completion with a more heterosexual form, instead, their rotations appear as complete acts (cushioned with much baggier sections, improvised skits reminiscent of hip-hop mix-tape interludes). During their preparations, the PARASOL participants told me they’d eschewed the terms “leader” and “follower” (typically expected to be male and female roles, respectively), for “proposer” and “interpreter”.

Improvisation reigns throughout the show, with variations opened across rehearsals and the two official shows. Asked to write letters on any topic, several of the performers address the project’s tango teachers, Martin Maldonado and Maurizio Ghella. During the introduction round each of the performers devises an improvised name for themselves (during the premiere Juurak flips their name to Tõõrk). The invention and discarding of names parody the painstaking crafting of personae required of any budding professional, as we attempt to establish ourselves as a distinctively accomplished entity in our own right, an easily digested unit suitable for bookings. Following their renamings, the performers fill in (perhaps?) fictitious details of their day and mood. One complains of their battles with a co-habitant, closing by asking the audience for leads on a new flatshare.

As this section drags, the show’s artistic assistant and timekeeper, Luca Büchler, enters from the audience. Tonight he calls himself CKlaus, causing Juurak to wittily interrupt his concerns over timekeeping with questions concerning K or C. During rehearsals, timing reminders had boomed out between the sections, but tonight this foregrounding silences him for the rest of the show. The episode points towards the show straining against even the flexible, skeletal form that holds it together – “I suppose I don’t want to keep you here all night” modestly remarks tonight’s Tõõrk, to an audience that appeared considerably entirely indulgent.

The performance’s reliance on improvisation plays up the formal approach to institutional subversion: the audience is given both the tangos they were promised, and an assemblage of baggage (one of the few props filling the sparsely set stage is a coat rack teeming with garments, matching the water bottles and other sundry items layering the performers’ desks). Alternating between clutter and emptiness, at once the display is suggestive, and “too much”. The purposefully rambling interludes also result in a sharp contrast between the dances (which vary in speeds and styles spontaneously, rather than with much pre-planning). Left with a second “interpreter” for the motions of the dancing pairs, with their roles adopted and abandoned without a directive narrative.

SCHOOL was an overt parody that followed a longer-running attempt to undermine (or reimagine) conventions of hierarchical training. During a dialogue with me held two days before the premiere, both Juurak and the PARASOLS emphasised the refusal of further order beyond it. This resulted in a period of acclimatisation, with dancers – more accustomed to the hustle and grind of temporary employment – effectively faced with the opposite of a strike: work interrupted before it was supposed to begin, with long-stretched phases where rest was the sole task insisted upon. Far from a three-month holiday, 2023’s first PARASOL show pursued a prolonged refusal of the kind of work that Marxist Feminists usually dub “social reproduction” coming to serve as a central purpose.

During conversation I proposed that Gherovici’s essay may now have been established as a fresh queer canonical text through serving as the basis for this performance. But this was quickly shrugged off: some reacted in the group chat, but there was no reading group or seminar, who knows whether a “heart” indicates someone actually read it?

Juurak reminisced that during their own time attending dance school, one teacher told them a professional dancer was one who could “pirouette even on a bad day”. This conception of a “professional” frames them as able to deliver the regularity and dispassionate completion of demanded tasks irrespective of inner states. Contrastingly, in SCHOOL space is offered for performers to display both their (formidable) training, and to openly vent – or at least pretend to. In one of the few explicit slips of the latent queer character of the show, one performer mentions she was told her joke by her girlfriend.

Will this opening of a fallow period open a new space for repetition of (fully paid) moments of rest and respite throughout the industry? Or will the performers recall it as a unique moment of novelty?

No single project can correct the grind of labour required by those attempting to “make their name” in ferociously competitive fields. But against all odds SCHOOL shows us that moments of beauty do not always require the strictures of hierarchy or unsustainable sacrifices.


Jules Gleeson is a Londoner at large in Vienna since 2016. Her essays, reviews and one notoriously redacted interview have been published and translated worldwide. Jules has performed stand-up comedy sets with troupes including Activist Comedy Against Bullshit, and the Politically Correct Comedy Club. She co-edited the anthology Transgender Marxism (2021) and is currently writing a book about intersex liberation and the 1990s.