Like the Tango Itself, "Arrabal" Raises You High and Drops You Low

Arrabal (Michaela Spina) and Juan/Dance Captain (Juan Culpini) in  Arrabal  at the American Repertory Theatre. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva.

Arrabal (Michaela Spina) and Juan/Dance Captain (Juan Culpini) in Arrabal at the American Repertory Theatre. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva.

Billed as a tango-infused dance theater piece, Arrabal is making its U.S. debut at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, running now through June 18, 2017.  

The theater space is converted to be semi-immersive, transporting the audience to a Buenos Aires nightclub in the 1990s, where the double-lettered seats of the Loeb Theater are replaced by an intimate set-up of tables and chairs, complete with in-house wine service. There are two levels on the stage. The fast, furious, 90-minute show is propelled forward by the virtuosic (if sometimes bordering on painfully loud) talent of the five piece band, Orquesta Bajofonderos.

Beginning in 1976, during General Jorge Rafael Videla’s violent junta in Argentina, Arrabal jumps forward in time (up to the 1990s) and back again, telling the story of Rodolfo and his daughter, Arrabal. Leaving his infant daughter at home with his mother, the young widower Rodolfo (Julio Zurita, also one of the co-choreographers) joins the protest movement against Videla’s coup. In a scene that is immensely violent, yet hauntingly beautiful in its technical precision, Rodolfo is beaten and arrested in front of his friend El Puma, the tango club owner. With an uncertain fate, Rodolfo becomes one of the roughly 30,000 desaparecidos, or “disappeared,” who vanished during Videla’s reign. Eighteen years later, El Puma (Carlos Rivarola), still haunted by the loss of his friend, reaches out to Arrabal, inviting her to Buenos Aires to tell her about her father.

Arrabal (Michaela Spina) in  Arrabal  at the American Repertory Theatre. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

Arrabal (Michaela Spina) in Arrabal at the American Repertory Theatre. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

We first meet Arrabal (played by the willowy Micaela Spina) as she is hanging laundry and daydreaming about what her father was like. (This is all assumption, or how I interpreted the performance, since it is entirely told through dance.) Her grandmother is getting ready to go out with the other women in search of their relatives who have disappeared. Up until this point, the music and the dancing was fast and frantic, and now slowed down as the women looked for their loved ones, including a dream sequence in which los desaparecidos return to their families. The power of the women searching, and waiting, and imploring the audience to help them without using words, is palpably heartbreaking.

El Puma sends El Duende (played by the almost freakishly flexible Mario Rizzo) to the country to retrieve Arrabal. El Duende (which can be translated from the Spanish as “spirit”) almost enchants Arrabal with his hypnotic movement, and she agrees to go to Buenos Aires. The trope of the innocent country girl coming to the big, decadent city feels a bit trite; however, the music and the energy of the performers mostly makes up for a sometimes less than dramaturgically consistent narrative. Arrabal is overwhelmed when moving through the city, which includes movement indicating being on a sidewalk, riding on a train, and experiencing other urban elements. Spina’s movements as Arrabal are balletic and airy, which creates a compelling juxtaposition against the tight, visceral movements of the tango dancers.

While at the performance, I was wholly absorbed in the action of the piece, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I began to question the necessity of some of the scenes or parts of the story. For example, there is a sensual scene at the club in which all of the performers undress to their undergarments in orgiastic pleasure, which at first frightens Arrabal, until she is seduced into it. Now, I am not complaining that I got to sit two rows from the stage, where a troupe of beautiful, talented, scantily-clad dancers danced erotically. It was exquisite. My question is, what does this add to the story? It makes me question El Puma’s intention in inviting Arrabal to the city, as she goes through scenes of being harassed by men on the street, and by jealous women in the club.

Overall, I wanted more of the history of Videla, los desaparecidos, and the Argentina that emerged from this violence, threaded throughout the piece. The urgency of the tango and the music lends itself to a story of this intensity, and it does itself a disservice by not delving further into it. The artistry on the stage – from the evocative set design by Riccardo Hernandez, to Vincent Colbert’s atmospheric lighting design and Peter Nigrini’s perfect use of projections that give us a hint of the historical context, to the mesmerizing choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Julio Zurita and the energy, passion, and precision of the ensemble – makes it impossible to not fall in love with it in the moment. And maybe that’s the point: to be fully present in a space and moment, not analyzing what happens next.