A soaring vision of angels at the end of the world
A little over two years ago, Raphaëlle Boitel was sitting in a box at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, discussing the beginning of the end with David Dower, ArtsEmerson’s artistic director.
“I was worried, as maybe a lot of people [are],” the French choreographer says during a recent visit to Boston. “It was the worry of the actual situation of the world.”
Steeped in quotidian anxieties of the past decade — a steadily warming planet, wildly polarized politics, a suspicion that technology has become dangerously powerful — Boitel began digging. She didn’t stop until she’d unearthed a post-apocalyptic tale of the underground, where survivors slog forward in silence, incapable of speaking.
Boitel’s divine dystopia, “When Angels Fall,” will take flight at the same venue on Feb. 20.
Aesthetically, everything about the production is dark, but its plot revolves around light. The world’s seven remaining inhabitants live under the control of machines that have forbidden speech. Unable to communicate with each other, their grip on humanity loosens.
Everything changes when the youngest among them defies her overlords and begins whispering to the light. “It’s the light of the show, but it’s also the eighth character,” Boitel explains.
Billed as “flightless angels,” the survivors might not have wings, but they’re suspended from wires that pull them into the theater’s heavens. Part dance, part circus, the show’s choreography reflects Boitel’s artistic background, a fizzy cocktail of acrobatics and ballet.
“[I like] to take [circus performers] in another direction, where they’re not just doing an act,” Boitel says. “They’re not doing movement for movement. I like to displace them and put them in a dramatic [setting] and use their bodies.”
Boitel’s influences vary widely, leapfrogging across art forms and oceans, from German dancer Pina Bausch to British author George Orwell to American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Though disparate, each possesses a gift for poking wounds with a grin, realizing humanity’s deepest fears and finding humor in them. Boitel hopes to do the same.
“I really like the tragicomic, to laugh off difficult situations sometimes because it’s always better to have humor about what happens,” she says. “[The show isn’t] just dramatic and it’s not just talking about the end of the world. It can be really funny sometimes.”
Even the piece’s tensest moments are infused with manic zeal. Boitel likened one scene to human ping-pong. The performers cannot look at each other, but they must react to each other’s movements quickly and perfectly.
“It’s very, very precise, and we had to rehearse it like hell,” she says.
“Seven performers, so if one is wrong, everybody's wrong,” says Tristan Baudoin, the show’s set and lighting designer, who joined Boitel on her Boston visit in advance of the show.
Boitel is glad they persevered.
“Every night when I see them, I’m so glad of this scene,” she says. “I really enjoy seeing it because the music is very strong and it’s very rock ’n’ roll.”
Like all good dystopias, “When Angels Fall” takes a low-level frustration of modern life, like stunted communication, and imagines how it could have contributed to the fall of civilization. The ping-pong sequence highlights how mechanical the survivors have become. They’re aware of each other, but without words or eye contact, they’ve lost the ability to connect.
“I’m not just pushing with the finger. It’s not a moral [lecture],” Boitel says. “But it makes me feel sad. Technology completely takes us, and it could be good, but there is a wonder of [what] if the technology possesses us and maybe directs the world?”
Despite her concerns and, you know, the fact that her piece begins after the world has already ended, Boitel is fundamentally hopeful. The notes about the show on her website ask, “What if nothing was unchangeable?”
She challenges viewers living in a world that’s amassed so much irreversible damage, running on several doomsday clocks, to suppose they still have time. After all, if the end of the world isn’t too late to make a difference, when is?
“I think we have the strength of changing things,” Boitel says. “The problem is that we’re too passive, and the world makes us very passive, and we should be in action. It doesn’t mean revolution, but being together and looking for what is right.”
Boitel doesn’t know what that is, but she believes we’ll find out when we find each other.
“I just want to say there is hope because maybe sometimes we lose hope. We just let it go and we are passive and we’ll look at the TV and we’re becoming a bit like zombies,” she says. “Solidarity, I think, is so important, but it’s not easy. There is not [one] answer, but I think art can save the world.”
When Angels Fall
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Feb. 20-24. Tickets from $30, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org