May. 18th, 2017

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Saying that a show at the ART is a standout is no small thing. Last year's standout was The Great Comet, which is up for a big pile of Tonys this year, now that it's on Broadway. The previous year was Waitress, which likely would have won more Tonys if it weren't for, y'know, Hamilton.

So keep that in mind when I say that this year's standout for me is Arrabal, an innovative, affecting ballet of tango.

I had few expectations going into the show -- while Kate tells me that the article some months ago mentioned that there was little spoken word, I apparently had forgotten that, and certainly hadn't ever realized it was a true ballet. There is only a little bit of speech in it, and what little there is isn't English. (There is some video-over, providing translations of the important bits, and a couple of video clips in English that help provide historical context. But basically, it's a ballet.)

While there is a definite story here, a good deal of it is pretty impressionistic -- this is ballet in the American in Paris sense. It's more narrative than pure classical ballet, but you still need to be prepared to interpret the dance. That said, it proves beyond a doubt that tango is every bit as valid a narrative form as either classical or contemporary ballet -- it isn't hard to understand the story being told.

That story is set on a backdrop of the Argentine dictatorship. The first act is set in 1976, as young Rodolfo leaves his baby daughter with his mother so he can go out for a night of dancing and protest, and is then captured by the forces of the rising police state. Most of the rest takes place in 1994, as his now 18-year-old daughter Arrabal goes to the big city and learns about her father. It's very much a coming-of-age story for her, but also a tale of memory, loss and grief for Rodolfo's mother and friends.

And the dancing -- the dancing is breath-taking. This is ballet for the So You Think You Can Dance age: powerful, vibrant, and enormously creative dance. The performances are delightful, and choreography and direction brilliant.

(I was particularly struck by the way that Arrabal's movement idiom is subtly different from everyone else's: more legato and flowing, almost weightlessly emphasizing the youth of our ingenue protagonist. It was especially striking that, as soon as the show ended and the stage turned into an open dance party, she instantly gained about five years as she started dancing like herself rather than her character. That is great dance direction and performance.)

It is mostly tango, but freely mixes in other forms: Arrabal herself starts off with a little bit of classical ballet (which looks terribly innocent in the tango-centric environment), and there's a lot of contemporary and jazz flavor in here to help the storytelling. And one of the major characters, El Duende, has his own unique style that is a sort of fun, fluid hip-hoppy thing.

I'll caveat here that Kate wasn't as enthralled as I: she thought the music was too loud (it is pretty loud, although not rock-concert loud), and she found the constant tango rhythm repetitive. I didn't especially notice either point -- this may reflect the fact that she is more into musical theater, and I'm more into rock. The music is roughly latin rock: a mix of violin, accordion and electric guitar that comes out sounding like nothing quite so much in my experience as Cirque du Soleil.

Kate is still of the opinion that Fingersmith was this year's best show, and I agree that it was brilliant and fun (and would likely translate better to Broadway, so keep an eye open). But Arrabal is brilliant and well worth seeing, especially if you like dance. It runs through June 18th -- check it out...


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