Hailing from France and presented by not one but three organizations for its North American premiere, Raphaëlle Boitel’s “When Angels Fall” masterfully blends contemporary dance, theatre, and circus arts in a war against the machine—peering into a bleak future should our reliance on technology suffuse our natural ability to communicate as humans.
“When Angels Fall” debuted in New Jersey these past two weeks, presented by Peak Performances at Montclair State University—the same presenter who introduced American audiences to Boitel’s impressive talents in 2016 with her directorial debut, “The Forgotten.” The production’s US tour is additionally supported by FACE Contemporary Theater, a program developed by FACE Foundation and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States with support from the Florence Gould Foundation, Institut Français-Paris, the French Ministry of Culture, and private donors.
Performed by Boitel’s company Cie l’Oublié(e), “Angels” begins in descent. As house lights dim, a low humming fills the void, and the silhouette of a man straddling scaffolding lowers from above. Once deposited on the ground, his body jostles fervently, sending him teetering across the floor while a circus-y tune plays in the abyss. The man seems tied to an equally tremulous stage light—a first glimpse at the control these lights command over their human counterparts in this Orwellian world.
From here, the production expands with mesmerizing intrigue. Our fallen angel is joined by others in a battle to remain grounded as their jacket collars suspend them, swinging in the air. Their frenetic attempts to unbutton themselves to freedom are rewarded with a tug aloft, like puppets on a string, until each jacket slips overhead—leaving bodies behind to march with percussive precision. As the full septet marches across the stage with determined focus, Boitel quietly reminds us of their flightless existence: one woman pauses to looks wistfully upwards before another rights her head to its frontal position and sends her back to marching along her horizontal plane.
As the production progresses, the mechanical lights dominate the space. Artistic collaborator, set and lighting designer Tristan Baudoin—along with rigging, machinery, and set design partner Nicolas Lourdelle (also one of the cast)—creates a dystopian nightmare where stage lights resembling gigantic desk lamps tower over their plebeians, moving with eerily anthropomorphic dexterity.
The animated machinery corralling the dancers gives rise to varied interpretations: At times it seems the machines are godlike, playing on “heading towards the light;” at others, the desk lamp imagery paired with the performers’ dark suits evokes the daily grind, trapped by the mundane (made even more visceral as an enormous pipe swings repeatedly across the space like the pendulum of a clock). Regardless of interpretation, one message is clear: when we lose our ability to communicate, we lose our ability to connect. A man struggles to speak, uttering guttural sounds at the discomfort of his peers; an old woman sits silently on the ground as the classic Speak and Spell toy sounds out “I” and “You” for her.
“Angels” has lighter moments as well: A seemingly headless man in trench coat delightfully attempts to hook his hanger back onto the wires that once gave him flight; a stern “shush” devolves into an amusing cacophony of shushing as each member asserts themselves with defiant aplomb; and a moment of curiosity backfires as one the motley crew accidentally breaks (then hilariously tries to fix) one of the lamps.
And yet, there is an outlier. A suitless woman appears periodically, crouched by an offstage light, whispering and gesturing, as though in dialogue with the glow beyond. In a dramatic scene, we find our whisperer alone under the inquisitive “Big Brother” watch of the lamps, showing no fear as pipes swing dangerously close to her. Still she continues murmuring, ultimately extending a hand to touch the light in front of her. As the production reaches its final climax, our whisperer again reappears—she scales the now erratically-swaying scaffolding higher and higher into the formidable brilliance of the lights with focused, calm curiosity. We can only wonder if she has “made it” as she leaves her peers behind.
“When Angels Fall” is on a mission to make us think—about ourselves, our society, and the role technology plays in the evolution (or is it devolution?) of humanity. In her program notes, Boitel states, “Each of my projects is a step, part of a ‘global’ project to create this language of motion. Language that I hope to be for the audience a channel of reflections, wonder and emotions.” With “Angels,” she has done exactly that.