ART’s ‘Arrabal’: An unlikely pairing, but it works

Micaela Spina in “Arrabal.” Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

CAMBRIDGE – It is an unlikely alliance, but somehow it works.

Arrabal” marries the tango, the Argentinian national dance, with the harrowing tale of a low point in the country’s history, and the result is a 90-minute production that both informs and entertains in an unusual way.

Arrabal” contrasts the sexy stylings of skilled tango dancers – all Argentinians, and schooled in a very specific kind of tango – to tell the somber tale of the 30,000 “desaparecidos”– or disappeared — Argentinians who fell victim to the brutal reign of General Jorge Rafael Videla from 1976-1983. It is making its American premiere at the Loeb Drama Center through June 25 under the auspices of the American Repertory Theater.

Arrabal” benefits from the work of choreographer Julio Zurita and director/co-choreographer Serge Trujillo, who designed the high-octane dance numbers in the megahit “Jersey Boys.”

Book writer John Weidman wrote the book for the Tony-winning musical “Contact,” which used dance to tell two stories, one with dialogue and one without. “Arrabal” is performed without dialogue, but is aided by projections and some translation of Spanish phrases; the actions and movements of the dancers tells the rest of the story.

Given the lack of dialogue, the narrative is not always easy to follow but the gist of the story involves  a young widower named Rodolfo (played by choreographer Zurita), who joins the protest movement against Videla in 1976, leaving his infant daughter at home in a shantytown outside of Buenos Aires to be cared for by his mother.

He turns up at a tango club owned by his good friend El Puma (Carlos Rivarola), but is quickly spirited away by Videla’s henchman, who overpower El Puma and move Rodolfo to a detention center, where he becomes one of Videla’s very first victims.

We go forward 18 years to 1994, when his daughter Arrabal (Micaela Spina) is living in a similar shanty town outside of Buenos Aires, and is summonsed to the same tango club, still owned by El Puma. With El Puma’s blessing, Arrabal meets Juan (Juan Cupini). The pair’s relationship must navigate the rocky shoals of the less-than-stellar and very tough collection of dancers and hangers-on in the club and in the neighborhood.

Through backstories and flashbacks, we also learn about the sorrows of Rodolfo’s mother Berta (Valeriea Celurosa), who becomes one of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the group of women who gather to hold photos of their missing loved ones as they demonstrate silently; here it is turned into a dance number in which the mothers dance with the ghosts of their loved ones.

The most distinctive dancers in the cast are Mario Rizzo as El Duende, and Soledad Buss as Nicole, two of the more dark and dangerous characters inhabiting La Puma in 1994.

Arrabal”owes much to the throbbing, relentless energy of the musical group Orquesta Bajofonderos, led by music director Alejandro Kauderer, which brings the music of composer Gustavo Santaolalla to vivid life.

As with its Toronto run, “Arrabal” invites theater-goers to arrive early and go up on stage for tango lessons, and to stay after the show and go back up and show what they’ve learned.

Arrabal” is both a celebration of the joy and skill of the tango dancers, and a testament to the resilience of the country itself, whose people were rocked by violence and despair with so many ruined lives, and who, like Arrabal, found the courage to survive and go on with their lives.

The American Repertory Theater production of “Arrabal.” Directed and co-choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Music composed by Gustavo Santaolalla. Music by Bajofondo. Book by John Weidman. Choreography by Julio Zurita. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Lighting design by Vincent Colbert. Sound design by Peter McBoyle. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Wig and make-up design by Rachel Padula. Music direction by Alejandro Kauderer. Production design by Peter Nigrini. Staged at the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA, through June 18.

Carlos Rivarola and Valeria Celurso in Arrabal. Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography