CAMBRIDGE — Tango is not just a dance in director Sergio Trujillo’s “Arrabal.” It’s a life force. This purgative piece of dance theater reinvents the tango and is at once sexy, soul-shattering, and, ultimately, cathartic.
The time: 1976. The place: Argentina, after General Jorge Rafael Videla’s brutal junta. That violent coup is the historical backdrop to the singular story of a young widower named Rodolfo, who joins the protest movement, leaving his infant daughter at home. He ends up at a tango club owned by his compadre El Puma, only to be seized by the general’s henchmen. He becomes one of some 30,000 desaparecidos — or disappeared.
Flash forward 18 years. Rodolfo’s daughter, Arrabal, is haunted by her father’s absence. El Puma summons Arrabal to Buenos Aires. A willowy naif, she stands out among the hardened habitues of the nightclub. She meets a guy, wins his affection over a man-hungry rival, and finds out what happened to her father.
This isn’t your typical Girl Goes to Big City tale. The story is told entirely through dance. Making its US premiere at the American Repertory Theater through June 18, “Arrabal” unfolds through the movements of the dancers, underscored by composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s music, which beats like a heart. The dancing is violent, ferocious, sensuous, loving — and sometimes gentle. The multifaceted music, played by the extraordinary five-piece Orquesta Bajofonderos, is lugubrious and sexy, and sometimes sounds like gunfire.
The 90-minute show is a series of tangos, with sinuous dancers creating scenes on the streets of Buenos Aires and inside the club, as well as conjuring up dreamscapes from the past. Arrabal, played with fresh-scrubbed balletic beauty by Micaela Spina, is an innocent thrown into an unfamiliar world. El Puma (the suave Carlos Rivarola) suffers from PTSD. Flashbacks document his friendship with Rodolfo, and production numbers underscore the sensual release that may or may not relieve the pain of memory. The virtuoso ensemble members dance not because they want to show off: They dance because they must.
The chemistry between Arrabal and her partner (Juan Cupini) is electric. Their tangos have an innocence that contrasts with the savage dancing of the ensemble members, who upend the stereotype of the art form. The dance embodies the emotion of a people scarred by violence. The women, in particular, exhibit a strength that says “Don’t mess with me.” Mario Rizzo’s El Duende, the trickster who brings Arrabal to the city, is a wiry dancer who must be triple-jointed; he can do impossible things with his head and shoulders.
In one scene, the dancers strip down to their skivvies and move accordingly. In another, five creepy guys threaten Arrabal. This is juxtaposed with a scene in which the mothers of the disappeared protest, holding up pictures of their children. Arrabal’s abuela, played with quiet stoicism by Marianella Massarotti, gazes at the audience as if to say, “Here is my son. Have you seen him?” She walks slowly in practical pumps, wearing a white head scarf and a frumpy floral frock. This moment underscores the fact that the dance that preceded it is a dance to release the pain.
Director Trujillo, who co-choreographed the show with Julio Zurita, balances those intimate moments with the sensual dance scenes. John Weidman’s book moves the story forward, using props like a protest T-shirt and red scarf. There is a bit of telegraphing, an obvious but perhaps necessary attempt to make the story clear. The piece, which reportedly was difficult to understand when it debuted in Toronto in 2014, is crystal clear here. (And the creative team has all-star credits: Trujillo choreographed “Jersey Boys”; Weidman wrote the books for “Contact” and “Assassins”; and Santaolalla composed the score for “Brokeback Mountain.” Any idea where the production might go next?)
All the glorious dancing unfolds on Riccardo Hernandez’s cathedral-like set. Vincent Colbert’s lighting flashes spotlights on the audience, like searchlights seeking out the next victim. Peter Nigrini’s projections create a historical context, with photos of the disappeared displayed at appropriate moments.
The fancy footwork is combined with music that mixes traditional tango with rock, jazz, and classical strains. But this isn’t “Tango Argentina.” There is nary a rose nor a stereotype in sight. This is a story of loss and hope. In the end, the story comes full circle, with sirens and a reenactment of Rodolfo’s capture. It is underscored by the life sentencing of Videla and the rallying cry of the people: “Nunca mas.” Never again.
Book by John Weidman. Music by Gustavo Santaolalla / Bajofondo. Directed by Sergio Trujillo. Co-choreographed by Julio Zurita and Sergio Trujillo. Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, through June 18. Tickets: $25-$85, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.orgPatti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.