Entertainment » Theatre

On the Wing :: Raphaëlle Boitel on Her New Show 'When Angels Fall'

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Feb 8, 2019

Raphaëlle Boitel has worked in just about every performative medium: From movies and television, to opera and music videos, to "circus theater" and cabaret. Now she's bringing her (literally) high-flying show "When Angels Fall" to Boston under the auspices of ArtsEmerson.

"When Angels Fall" tells a story set in a futuristic, dystopian world — a world of "global collapse," the press materials tell us, where "flightless angels" seek a return to the air. If it sounds like the sort of ambitious work that ArtsEmerson has brought to the stage in past seasons, you're not alone in thinking so; as Boitel told EDGE, "I think it's very relevant to be here in Boston with this show, with the projects of ArtsEmerson. I think it's just perfect for what they want to do."

In a free-ranging chat, Boitel discussed her work and the origins, development, and storyline of "When Angels Fall" in particular. What she described sounded more like soaring than any surrender to gravity.

EDGE: What is the seed for a show like "When Angels Fall?" Do you begin with music, or with a storyline, or ideas for the choreography?

Raphaëlle Boitel: That's a good question. In fact, we are a bit like the author with a blank page at the beginning. The stage is our blank page. This show came from different kinds of events and from life, from my self and the actual world. Even if what I do is very physical, and it comes from the body, it's very important for me to talk about something. And it's very important that everything — all the choreography [and other design elements] — is saying something. Not telling a closed story - it's very open.

The subject now is very contemporary. Two years ago [when we began to work on this show] it was very contemporary, but it became more and more so. [The story was developed] through discussions with Tristan [Baudoin], who is my main collaborator. He's doing the lighting, the set design, all of that. It really came from discussions that we had about life and the world, and from our observations of the world.

EDGE: So you've been working on "When Angels Fall" for two years?

Raphaëlle Boitel: Yes — it's [been] two years of thinking about it and working on it with Tristan. And then it's 18 weeks, all together, of stage rehearsals.

EDGE: I know Tristan is your main collaborator — and he's also in the cast — so I wonder what your roles are in creating something like this show? How does your creative collaboration process work?

Raphaëlle Boitel: We work completely in harmony together. I work with the performers on stage, together with the lighting and everything from the beginning. So all the techniques and everything [are developed in tandem]. We really do a lot of back and forth in the beginning, and then we write the story down. But in fact, [all of this] is a continuation of the discussions we've had. Sometimes we don't even have to talk — we just feel. And sometimes when we are on stage I'll work with my artists and I'll give them a scene, and I'll have some very precise exercise that I'll give to them. If it's an improvisation exercise it can be for thirteen or fourteen minutes, and they move on the stage and interact with each other, and Tristan lights them while we are doing the improvisation.

It's the same process, also, with the music, which is very important. All of the music is original, it's composed [specifically for the show]. When I see that something is really working with the theme or with the situation [of the scene we're creating], we are often very eager to keep this effect. We'll rewrite the story from this improvisation. It's all coming together since the beginning.

EDGE: There has to be a certain point in this process where it's no longer improvisation, isn't there? You don't want to still have people improvising when you're doing your aerial work.

Raphaëlle Boitel: Yes, of course. I do the improvisation exercises on the floor. It's for all the chorographical and group scenes. But we do have some improvisation in the air; I have one actress — her name is Alba [Faivre] — and she's a circus performer. She does Chinese pole. It's very risky, but [Alba] is extraordinary. She controls what she does, so it's possible for her to improvise because she knows where she can go, and she knows where she has to stop.

When I say improvisation, it's really based on something that's really quite precise. It's improvisation, but with precise directions. I always tell the artists to take care, and not to risk anything, but it's possible. We can find some really beautiful scenes. What we do is not a circus act; it's really a dance in the air.

EDGE: You mentioned the music for the shows and that the music is original. Does the composer come to see you working in rehearsal and improvising, and then go back and write according to what you show him? Or do you describe what you want and then adjust your choreography and other design elements according to what he comes up with?

Raphaëlle Boitel: The composer, Arthur Bison, is, like Tristan, one of the main collaborators. We are, actually, three collaborators; Arthur has been with the company since the beginning. I've worked with him on all my shows. We know each other very well, and again, we don't have to talk; I don't have to explain everything to him because he knows what I want, and I know what he's capable of. Sometimes [in rehearsal] we work with music that is not by him; we have so many hours of rehearsal that he could not write all the music that we need. And when I like the atmosphere of some [piece of music] I show it to him. He doesn't do the same; it's just [a matter of] inspiration. And then he comes and looks with me at the rehearsal, then goes to his studio and writes the music. He comes back with the music, and we try it out. Sometimes it's even better than what I asked for; sometimes it doesn't work; sometimes it's too long, so we trim it down. We work back and forth. There's always pressure right until the end, because it's a very long process — and, in fact, quite exciting.

My work is very choreography-based, and I like to work also with circus performers because they have an incredible capacity for doing amazing acrobatics, and they can fly. But I make them dance — I kind of place them in another space where they become actors, they become dancers, and they are at the service of the story, in a way.

EDGE: Do you see this very athletic, physical form of work as being a kind of theater? Or is it more its own sort of expressive art?

Raphaëlle Boitel: For me, it's really both. It's theatrical, but it's also... we are creating the work together, the whole company. We're creating a different universe; it's our own way of expressing art because it's mixing different [disciplines], but it's always in a theatrical, or even cinematographic, context. My first inspirations are cinematic. For a theater person, they could see it as a theatrical piece, but there's no text.

And also, when I talk about circus, we always like to create new apparatus, so the scenery is an interactive set, really. The artists can use the sets to do what they know how to do — to climb, to do acrobatics. In this show there is no apparatus that [stands out] from the set; if the artist goes into the air, they're using the things they have around them.

EDGE: No words are spoken on stage in "When Angels Fall." Have you developed a physical "vocabulary" that the audience can learn and rely on to understand the story?

Raphaëlle Boitel: Exactly, yes — but I always like to compare my work with silent movies. In this specific show, we have no words, but we have whispering, so actually, this show talks a lot about the communication, the voice. In this show, a future society has lost [speech], or it is forbidden — we don't know, but there is one character that is whispering. We still don't really understand what she's saying. I like to play with that, also, because we don't have words but the show is talking about those characters. In that way, it is very theatrical: We have one character that wants to talk, but the others are very scared about that. But another character gets inspired by her and looks for his voice again — and he finally regains his voice, maybe.

[The show is] also inspired by science fiction movies, or books like "1984," this kind of dystopia.

EDGE: So, in what way are these characters angels? Is this a metaphor, or are they intended to represent some sort of metaphysical struggle?

Raphaëlle Boitel: [Laughing] Well, I'd like to keep this open. It's a very unique society with all kinds of people of different ages and different bodies. We have one character who is more than 65 years old; she's not dancing, but she's here, she's part of the group. And this woman is also my mother, and she's also the costume designer. The popularity of my work comes from that I put everybody on stage — the technicians, everyone. I really like to make a state of mind in the company where we are all at the same level, and we're all implicated in what we're doing. You can identify with these people even more.

Angels for me are very symbolic figures, so it could be a metaphor. I want to leave it to the audience. We don't know if they are angels maybe come down to Earth to save the world or something, but they can also be men who aspire to fly, and they want to be angels — they want to be gods, in a way, but they are falling. The world is falling.

My work is all about metaphors, all about symbols, and I want that the audience can identify with the characters, who are very human but who also can have some very angelic attributes — also because they have those incredible [athletic] capacities. [At one point] there's a scene where a woman is completely an angel, with clouds and a paradise around her. This scene comes from a moment when it's all very difficult, and she escapes from everything on Earth. She suddenly has this moment of grace.

EDGE: It also sounds like a totally different kind of storytelling from the usual theatrical experience, not telling the story in words but in light and movement and music. Those things are all very emotional, as opposed to a narrative, which has to have a certain kind of linear logic and structure.

Raphaëlle Boitel: Yeah, exactly, emotion is the perfect word to talk about my work. The audience [members] often tell me about his they feel emotional, seeing this kind of expression, because, yes, it's [not using] words but there are all the human emotions. What really interests me in this work, and in life, is the human being: Our contradictions, and who we are, and what our goals are. What is our life? Where do we come from? All those questions. This is why I can work with everybody. The show is very physical, and I like its virtuosity, but I can make anyone dance, in a way. When I work with opera singers, I make them go further than they think they can. I really love to brighten the lights in each one of us.

"When Angels Fall" is scheduled to run Feb. 20 — 24 at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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