A woman dangles midair above the audience, hanging from a horizontal, crane-like construction bar while she is connected only by her feet. As the bar shifts its right side toward the sky and left side toward the ground, the woman reaches for a light from the bar’s highest rung only to fail to grasp it.
ArtsEmerson’s When Angels Fall depicts a community of people who live with their every move manipulated amid a dystopia, as stated in director and choreographer Raphaëlle Boitel’s director’s note. The abstract work combines thrilling dances, feats, and acrobatics to convey a community’s clash between restraint and free will.
Instead of following a concrete narrative, When Angels Fall includes moments that show an imagined and frightening setting alongside the reactions of those who live within it. Fog and light gush out of the background to illuminate a woman performing acrobatics on a pole; a man and a woman communicate through controlling another pair of citizens like marionettes; three figures suspended by unusually large jackets draped over a hanger fly in the air. People appear manipulated through jerky motions, a hive-mind mentality of scolding dissenters, and the light of distortedly long-bodied lamps.
The show heavily plays on how a community can communicate without speech. The audience hears a man sing while the crane-like construction bar lowers him down. This instance acts as the only time the audience hears someone speak a cohesive language. All other communication occurs through dance, mouthing, and gesture.
At first, the citizens only pronounce “sh” to speak—this ironically happened when two phones rang in the audience. The entire community later becomes enraptured by a phonograph and a red toy that sounds out vowels at different moments. One man screams into the phonograph and later attempts to pronounce the vowels, seemingly discovering his own voice.
The show’s dancing hardly ever pauses except for purposefully still scenes. Fluid motions represent free will disrupting the manipulated and convulsive movements. Due to the piece’s abstract nature, the dances convey emotion rather than a larger narrative. At times, so much happened on stage that my eyes didn’t know where to look. Each segment of the choreography worked well together as a whole.
The acrobatics left me wanting to see more. The actors effortlessly pick each other up and sculpt one another into whatever they wish. Two men seesaw each other into the sky by running, jumping, and hanging onto the crane-like bar while a woman spins in the middle. Sometimes I wondered how they contributed to the dystopia, but I enjoyed them regardless.
The scenes transition seamlessly through set and light designer Tristan Baudoin’s heavy use of darkness. The stage rarely becomes fully lit, and the audience seemed unsure if the show ended or not when the lights grew dim at the end. One actor becomes the full ensemble of six as figures shift back and forth from shadow to light. The contrast between heavily-illuminated sequences and times of complete darkness looked stunning.
Caricatured lamps—similar to the Pixar logo if it had a long, metal extension—brighten and manipulate the dystopian community. The lamps appear and disappear so fast one can hardly keep track. Several of the lamps resemble eyes, forcing the citizens to perform accelerated, penguin-like movements alongside songs from a phonograph.
Arthur Bison’s score holds true to each of the segments it accompanies. Eerie phonograph music summons manipulation while songs with heavy basslines emphasize the actor’s jerkier movements. Moments of silence become stronger due to the music bobbing and weaving as the dances unfolded. Although the soundtrack doesn’t stand out, it serves its purpose well.
Finally, the strength of each actor was truly incredible. A woman climbed up and down a pole nearly as tall as the stage several times with the ease of walking down the street. Although the abstract nature of the show may deter those interested in a firm narrative, When Angels Fall provides amazing athleticism, gorgeous lighting, and an exploration into how one communicates in a restrained world.
The Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre features When Angels Fall until Feb. 24. Students can reserve a $10 ticket in advance or get one free by presenting their Emerson ID at the box office starting two hours before any show.