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Stage Review

‘When Angels Fall,’ artistry soars

The production delivers propulsive dance sequences, whirling acrobatics, and impressive aerial routines.Georges Ridel

Dystopian scenarios are so prevalent nowadays — on film, on streaming series, on premium cable — that it’s hard for an artist to find much new to say.

But in her beautifully wrought and darkly captivating “When Angels Fall,’’ French director-choreographer Raphaëlle Boitel has found a way.

Boitel’s approach to her Miltonically-titled work is to take dialogue and linear story out of the mix and devise a physical vocabulary, constructed of dance and circus artistry, to explore her bleak vision of the future. A dreamlike depiction of men and women — or are they flightless angels? — who are struggling to survive in the aftermath of an unexplained apocalypse, “When Angels Fall’’ abounds in arresting visual representations of souls in torment, of captivity and attempted escape, of connection and (more often) disconnection in a mechanized world.


It’s possible to assemble the fragments of a loose narrative in your mind, but “When Angels Fall’’ is so richly expressive as metaphor that you won’t feel the need for dialogue or a linear story line. It’s also possible to simply enjoy the production as a combination of propulsive dance sequences, whirling acrobatics, and impressive aerial routines that are brilliantly executed by Boitel’s cast.

“When Angels Fall’’ has to be counted as further proof that ArtsEmerson has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of Boston. In the decade since it was founded, ArtsEmerson has brought many international productions to the Paramount Center and to the Cutler Majestic Theatre — where “When Angels Fall’’ is being presented only through Sunday, alas — that Boston theatergoers would otherwise have not seen.

A benefit of these visits from international companies are the glimpses of unfamiliar performance styles and stagecraft. In “When Angels Fall,’’ for example, Tristan Baudoin’s lighting design plays an unusual role. Being often visible to the audience, stage lighting instruments function at times almost as other characters, weaving back and forth above the performers. (Imagine that impish Pixar lamp grown to giant size and become even more restless and inquisitive and determined to be part of the action.) Also crucial to conveying the production’s shifting moods are Arthur Bison’s soundtrack and sound design, which alternate from pounding percussion to moody quiescence to a kind of industrial hum.


The most famous angel in contemporary theater history, of course, is the one who crashes through the ceiling of a Manhattan apartment in “Angels in America.’’ In a sequence as gradual as that was sudden, “When Angels Fall’’ begins with the descent of a figure from on high, to the tune of an unlikely ditty that brackets and punctuates “When Angels Fall’’: the 1892 chestnut “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two),’’ known for its chorus: “Daisy, Daisy/ Give me your answer do./ I’m half crazy all for the love of you.’’ That song will be heard later in the 70-minute show, on a scratched recording, and then again, hauntingly, at the end.

But it is the visual components that drive “When Angels Fall,’’ as when Alba Faivre entwines herself about a Chinese pole, defying gravity and seemingly the limits of the human body as she performs what amounts to an aerial ballet. When the performers are earthbound, their herky-jerky movements and windmill arm motions sometimes make it seem as if their bodies are not their own, but instead are objects manipulated like marionettes by unseen forces above.


In hectic interludes near the beginning of the production, performers take short, rapid strides across the stage like pedestrians in a Times Square intersection, seemingly oblivious of one another; at other times they move in lockstep.

A burst of individuality occurs when Emily Zuckerman crouches down and faces offstage, wearing an urgent expression, and moves her lips — but no sound comes out. As she “speaks’’ to an invisible listener offstage, seemingly asking for help or trying to communicate a message, the others vehemently hiss at her, “Shhh!’’ Are they cracking down on a dissenter? Trying to avoid detection by watchful, sinister forces? Both? Neither?

Ambiguity holds sway in that moment and in plenty of others, but when it comes to the originality of “When Angels Fall,’’ there is no room for doubt.


Created, choreographed, and directed by Raphaëlle Boitel. Presented by ArtsEmerson and Cie L’Oublié(e). At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, through Feb. 24. Tickets $20-$95, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin