Circus News

When Angels Fall –French Devised Performance with Circus at Its Core Inspiring US Audiences

For the month of February in 2019, a new production from France calledWhen Angels Fall by Cie L’Oubliée’s founder and director Raphaëlle Boitel is visiting the USA, performing several shows at three university locations,Montclair State University in New Jersey, Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Programmers from universities around the country are beginning to see the benefit to programming complex multi-disciplinary work like Boitel’s, as it fosters a spirit of cultural exchange, and compliments arts curriculum, not to mention that it draws a broader crowd beyond the student population.

Still, Boitel’s background and the heart of her work are in circus, even while she discusses developing a new choreographic language, she always falls back on the physicality circus introduced to her as a young Fratellini circus school student studying under Annie Fratellini. CircusTalk contributor Madeline Hoak and I were both fortunate enough to see  When Angels Fall   along with a packed and appreciative house in Alexander Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University. After the show, like most of the audience, we had a lot to ruminate over, so we vowed to do it together, bouncing ideas off of each other in our first ever co-review.

Kim Campbell: One thing that I found so interesting about When Angels Fall is the audience’s completely enthusiastic and loving response to it–which we both witnessed in the talk back. I am not surprised that they loved it of course, but more surprised by how they embraced the dystopian themes, and how eager they were to engage with it. The show was by no means light (although it had its moments of fun), and they found so much in common with it in their own lives. Why do you think that is?

Madeline Hoak: I think people love and need dark escapism just as much as they love and need lighthearted, feel good stories. We need to grapple with both in art because both exist in life. I thought Boitel excelled at offering the audience a very specific mood, but left any sense of story open enough for personal interpretation. It was as if she said, ‘Here, let your mind sit in this world for a while, and have the experience you need to have while you’re there.’

I’ve been rereading Ernest Albrecht’s The New American Circus. In it he says, “The viewer may not always see what the creators had originally intended, but the essential abstract nature of the work allows one to draw from it any number of personal interpretations.” I kept thinking about the words ‘plasticity’ and ‘robotics’ and actions of containment from the piece keep replaying in my mind. What words or images have stuck with you?

KC: The images that sticks with me the most are the ones that create a sense of the cinematic. For example, the use of light (which Boitel says is a whole separate character) contrasted with the dark stage and black costumes. It brings to mind a black and white movie, especially when paired with the silence of the characters, and their movement style, which is very characteristic of Boitel’s work–this fast paced, spasmodic repetitive movement palette she uses that I find reminiscent of the old silent films where they have sort of sped-up twitchy motions.

You mentioned to me how fascinated you were by the fact that the work was devised. I was amazed also by how masterfully it was done–because devising art can lead to so many tangents that become off-theme and difficult to explore or tie in to the main ideas, especially when you are mixing disciplines because the rules are so spongy. But somehow this all felt so cohesive–and also the fact that circus was seamlessly integrated in to it, which is very difficult to do. There were moments of new magic illusion using light and dark, there were instances of puppetry, but I didn’t ever think “Oh, this is magic,” or “That is a puppet.”  And most surprisingly, at no point did I think “Oh, now it is time for the aerial act.” It just all flowed dramaturgically. It seems she has found the right equation of ingredients for producing impactful, multi-disciplinary work. What do you think the approach needs to be for that to happen? Coming from a dance background to circus, do you think there are any dangers involved in trying to strike that balance?

MH: You’re absolutely right. What struck me about this work was the equal weight all elements were given. And to me, that is a sign of a successful devising process. Often times I see work that makes use of many disciplines, but the disciplines are just coexisting on stage rather than being fully integrated. As you said, “now it’s time for the aerial act.” If the aerial act is made separately from the scenes which are rehearsed away from the choreography and lights and projection are only added during tech, of course the work will feel disjointed.

In the talk back, Boitel mentioned needing to rehearse in a theater. The company was unable to create the work without all of the elements present and in an appropriate space. This is key to making a successful devised work. All elements and all specialists need to be present during the creation process to find the work’s full potential. Devising requires deep collaboration. While leadership is important to make final decisions, the input from every person and discipline in the room needs to be valued. The only danger in this which I have experienced in my professional life — and it’s in any discipline dance, circus, theater, teaching — is when everyone isn’t on the same page about how the collaboration is going to take place and willing to reassess that as the process goes on. Creation is very personal, and feathers can get easily ruffled if roles aren’t clear or collaborators want something different out of the experience.

You mentioned never thinking, “Oh, this is magic.” I also left loving the fact that this piece was so integrated — I never even tried to categorize it. It made me remember an interesting cultural quip I once heard. When talking about a new movie, Americans will ask, “Who’s in it?” while people of other nationalities will ask, “What’s it about?” I imagined telling friends about When Angels Fall and them asking, “Was it dance, circus or theater?” instead of just wondering, “What was it about?” I think it’s important for American audiences to see works by creators like Boitel to help us let go of our need to categorize experiences. What do you think American audiences gain by being exposed to international contemporary circus companies?

KC: I think American audiences can gain insight into how circus can be a larger part of the arts landscape, and if the audience we were with is any example, they can also be invigorated by that. Circus writer John Ellingsworth has famously said “Circus was always on the border of societies. Now it’s on the border of art forms.” I would take that a step further and say that circus is now actively revitalizing other art forms by adding a physical depth of expression.

International companies like Boitel’s Cie L’Oubliée can offer US circus makers and programmers a vision of what it takes to produce a contemporary work of this caliber. From creation mode to touring time it takes a community. There is so much infrastructure behind each circus production in Europe, particularly France where there are several professional circus schools, and even post graduation support organizations like La Grainerie which help emerging artists develop shows. There are large circus festivals, residencies, and a network of arts associations that work to program circus. And of course there is government support. That arts rich environment makes the space and the right tone for the creative collaborations required to produce a work like Boitel’s–plus of course the tremendous talent of the artistic team. Although it will take time and commitment to build as prolific of a contemporary circus culture in the US, access to the shows from Europe will build understanding of the ingredients that add up to so much output.

When Angels Fall constantly tugs between multiple polarities. It is futuristic yet old. It presents images of beauty and the grotesque. Actions and interactions dismiss and beg for affection. Inanimate objects elicit emotion, and beams of light create palpable textures that seem to have their own vernacular. At its core is humanity in all of its complexity. Audiences are able to absorb these multiplicities due to Boitel’s expert craftsmanship. She exemplifies how, at its best, contemporary circus excels at reframing and refracting life. Universities such as Montclair State are doing a great service to the art form by inviting exciting artists like Boitel to present their work in the United States. It raises the bar for presenters, artists and audience. May we all continue to have such thoughtful, artful and international exchanges.

All photos courtesy of Cie L'Oubliée, Photo credit: Sophian Ridel & Georges Ridel
Kim Campbell
Editor, Writer -United States
Kim Campbell is the editor of CircusTalk News. She has written about circus for Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Promoters and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. She is the former editor of American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where she writes about circus, theatre, arts and culture.
Madeline Hoak
Author, Professor, Performer

Madeline is a NYC based performer, producer, professor, and choreographer specializing in aerial, acrobatics, dance and movement direction. She is an adjunct professor of Aerial Arts at Pace University, on staff at Aerial Arts NYC and The Muse Brooklyn and initiated the Aerial program at Muhlenberg College where she taught from 2011 - 2017. Her movement direction contributed to Circle Theater NYC’s production of The Mountain winning Outstanding Original Choreography/Movement, 2015. She co-choreographed The Battles, a musical voted by Broadway producer Ken Davenport one of the top 10 new scripts of 2016. Madeline's choreography has been presented at Dixon Place, Circus Warehouse, BAX, The House of Yes, Abron Arts Center, Times Square, The Flea, STREB, Galapagos, and The Muse. She received BAs in Dance and Theater from Muhlenberg College and is currently studying at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study where she is designing a master’s degree in circus studies with a focus on dramaturgy and creative processes.

Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell is the editor of CircusTalk News. She has written about circus for Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Promoters and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. She is the former editor of American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where she writes about circus, theatre, arts and culture.