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“Arrabal” sits at the intersection of dance and history. Set in the fallout of the junta regime in 1970s Argentina, it tells the story of a young girl, Arrabal, trying to understand her father’s death as one of Los Desaparecidos, the title given to the estimated 30,000 people who disappeared at the hands of the government.
And it’s told entirely in tango.
The show — running at the American Repertory Theater through June 18 — strips away the dialogue and relies on dance to tell the story of Arrabal, and of Argentina. It also strips away the politics of military dictatorship to reveal the raw emotion of the people who lived through that dark time. In pairing the two, the show’s conceivers hope they have created something immersive, moving and connective.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Sergio Trujillo, Tony Award nominee and director and co-choreographer of “Arrabal,” on creating a performance that communicates such explosive material without using words to explain the (at times) complicated context. “Tango is a dark dance.”
“It’s the juxtaposition — passion, love and death collide,” says Gustavo Santaolalla, Academy Award winner and composer/co-creator of the show.
The production’s use of tango centers on the milonga, or tango dance club, in which everyone comes together to dance with one another in a communal setting. It is prefaced with a brief lesson, so everyone knows the steps. Trujillo and Santaolalla’s vision of “Arrabal” encompasses and is set in a milonga for both performers and audience members.
“It is not a classic experience, being immersed in this universe,” says Santaolalla. “We want to get the audience to feel what is a milonga.” Audience members are also invited to take part in a dance lesson 45 minutes before the show begins, and to join the performers in dance at the end.
For the audience, some of this may be a history lesson. The Argentinian military junta, led by Jorge Rafael Videla, ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Over the span of seven years, the government systematically “disappeared” individuals they considered terrorists — a label that included peaceful, intellectual dissenters. Estimates run up to 30,000 young adults, including pregnant women, who were tortured and killed, most buried in unmarked mass graves.
For those involved with “Arrabal,” this is personal — the entire cast of the show is from Argentina, where the memory of Los Desaparecidos is still extremely sensitive and present.
“It is very much alive in Argentina,” says Santaolalla. “It touched everyone. I wanted to tell a story intimately connected to who we are and what happened.”
“It is important to tell stories important to my culture, and what these places have gone through,” says Trujillo
Santaolalla himself was a victim of the military junta, though he is one of the lucky ones who survived. Having started his music career in his home country, he was jailed numerous times. starting at the age of 16, for having — as he put it — long hair and being in a band.
“Concerts ended in raids,” he explains of the time. “I was a known musician. When they put me in jail, they sang my songs.”
“A lot of people had a much worse outcome than me,” he continues. “They were tortured, killed. Friends disappeared.”
After leaving Argentina, it was Santaolalla’s music that eventually spurred the creation of “Arrabal.” Driven by the desire to create something representative of his culture, he developed a contemporary Argentinian sound with his band, Bajafondo, which currently plays the live music for "Arrabal." Over 10 years, he continued to expand his idea to create something that involved dance, working alongside Trujillo and Broadway veteran John Weidman, the show’s book writer, to build the movement and the story.
Santaolalla is certain that the performance will resonate, despite the lack of dialogue, because the emotions stirred by the performance are universal.
“I can assure you people know what is going on,” he says. “It is something that will touch you.”
Trujillo and Santaolalla also hope that the connection will enable them to share Argentina’s story in a way that is not only compelling and entertaining, but also essential in the context of the larger world.
“The ability for a culture to overcome difficulty and to live, love and have joy — its perseverance and tenacity is inspiring,” says Trujillo. “Now, with what’s happening in Syria and other places, we should learn [from this], have respect and have a hand to help.”