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theatre review

Arrabal’s choreography is sharply edged and sensual, and the music is scorching hot.Cylla von Tiedemann

There's mostly good news about the dance theatre show Arrabal having its world premiere at the Panasonic Theatre. The choreography is sharply edged and sensual, and the music is scorching hot. Think decadent tango.

On the down side, the book is weak. Very little happens in terms of plot. But in the final analysis, it's less important than the impression left by the look of this show, from the towering projections to the sexy costumes adorning the company from Argentina.

The story goes like this: The virginal heroine Arrabal (Micaela Spina) is being raised by her grandmother (Marianella). Her father Rodolfo (Julio Zurita) is one of the desaparecidos, a dissident who was arrested by the ruling military junta and made to disappear when Arrabal was an infant.

El Duende (Mario Rizzo) is the trickster who magically orchestrates Arrabal's meeting with her father's friend El Puma (Carlos Rivarola). This is where tango comes in. Puma and his wife, Berta (Veronica Alvarenga), run a dilapidated milonga, or tango bar, where her father once worked, and which is the set for the show. (Some audiences members get to sit at tables on the stage.)

For almost the entire show, Puma can't get up the courage to tell Arrabal what actually happened to her father. This hesitation does get irritating over time. On the other hand, it allows Arrabal to have adventures – good ones like meeting the handsome Juan (Juan Cupini), and bad ones, like being seduced by Juan's ex-girlfriend Nicole (Soledad Buss).

Book writer John Weidman has also included scenes that are subplots to Arrabal's direct storyline. Some are harrowing, like Rodolfo's arrest and torture, and some poignant, like his mother joining other women of lost children to parade around the Plaza de Mayo wearing pictures of the desaparecidos.

In each case the choreography by director Sergio Trujillo and Zurita is imaginative and eye-catching. Rodolfo's arrest is terrifying in its realism, while the dream dance with the mothers and their ghostly sons is beautiful and touching.

In other words, despite the weakness and inconsistencies of the scenario, the choreography never disappoints. While there are actual tango numbers that take place in the milonga, many of the dances retain hints of tango, powerfully fused with ballet and contemporary dance. The strict tango vocabulary has been opened up to become a storytelling tool.

The driving, passionate music is taken from the songbook of award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla, originally written for his famous musical ensemble Bajofondo. The latter is known around the world for its pioneering nuevo tango sound that incorporates rock, jazz, classical and all sorts of musical genres. The band for Arrabal, called Orquesta Bajofonderos, is made up of five hand-picked musicians who can replicate the sound of Bajofondo, and these guys are sensational.

The cast is very well-chosen. Spina's waif-like, gamin Arrabal is a delicate flower who looks completely out of place in the milonga. She is a lovely ballerina, but can pull off a tango when she has to. In contrast, Buss's Nicole has the icy hardness of a knife. She's dangerous and she knows it.

Zurita is clearly a polymath who can choreograph, dance and act. His Rodolfo is absolutely charismatic. Rizzo's Duende moves like a contortionist. It's as if his body has no bones, which is perfect for a man of magic. Cupini's Juan is handsome and graceful, but his character is the most underdeveloped. It's hard to play nice.

Toronto-raised Trujillo has certainly come back home in style. He has turned out to be an extremely talented director/choreographer, and Arrabal is definitely a jewel in his crown.

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