Raphaëlle Boitel ‘circus noir’ work, ‘Ombres Portées,’ tells story of a troubled family

ombres portees review


Mohamed Rarhib and Alba Faivre co-star in Raphaëlle Boitel’s “Ombres Portées,” which is being presented by the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University through March 26.

Like most people, the characters in “Ombres Portées (Shadows Cast)” have restless nights. Memories haunt them, rising unbidden out of the darkness and bringing to mind old injuries and quarrels. Unlike most people, however, the characters in “Ombres Portées” are acrobats. So, while you or I may simply toss and turn in bed, the members of this troubled family cut loose — flipping, tumbling and translating their worries into spectacular aerial maneuvers.

French choreographer Raphaëlle Boitel, whose Cie L’Oublié(s) gave this 2021 work its American debut on March 23 as part of the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University, knows we will sympathize with her tormented clan. We may even admire such unfettered and flamboyant neuroses. This piece of “circus noir” has its comic moments, and offers the pleasures of schadenfreude throughout.

Of the six family members — three sisters, an adopted brother, one sister’s husband and the family patriarch — only one appears untroubled. That would be Papa (Alain Anglaret), a domineering figure who, when confronted over dinner at a restaurant, prefers to discuss the menu. He is, of course, the problem. While he stands firmly planted, the others teeter perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, making “Ombres Portées” resemble an evening-length panic attack. All the Prozac in the world could not calm this family’s shattered nerves, and though the husband and wife are in therapy, their sessions are a joke, only adding to the manic atmosphere.


Vassiliki Rossillion and Alain Anglaret in “Ombres Portées.”

The piece opens on a carefree note, however, as Boitel imagines an innocent time before this family’s problems arose. Vassiliki Rossillion, known only as “K,” appears high above the stage, sitting in a swing made of rope. Smiling and laughing, she lolls in the air, casually changing position and allowing her long, blond hair to hang loose. She recalls her childhood as a time of unclouded joy, conversing intimately with us in French side-titled on screens. As a child, “K” tells us, she would share secrets with the trees; and a “shushing” gesture with a finger held to the lips becomes a recurring theme, emblematic of things that cannot be spoken.

Boitel never identifies the event that destroys this young woman’s happiness. We only know she blames her father, and we see the rippling effects of her trauma. Set and lighting designer Tristan Badouin has fashioned a smoky, cinematic environment in which flashes of light seem to “edit” the action onstage, just as Boitel’s choreography fragments the dancers’ bodies. The movement and lighting reflect the characters’ fractured personalities. At one point, they take turns sitting in a pyramid of light center stage, their figures disintegrating to a percussive beat like the rattle of a machine gun.

Their solos are even more revealing. Tia Balacey, as the youngest sister, has a halt to her step that suggests diffidence. In her private moments she appears overthrown, leaning backward into a bridge and slowly flipping over. Crouching on the floor, she starts and slides evasively and then begins to thrash. The adopted brother, Mohamed Rarhib, spins on his shoulders like a break-dancer, and tries desperately to turn off a radio, which, like obsessive thoughts, cannot be silenced. The married sister, Alba Faivre, regales her psychiatrist with trivial complaints, then finds herself hanging upside down, precariously tethered and utterly lost. “Is anybody there?” she calls weakly.


Nicolas Lourdelle in “Ombres Portées.”

Speaking to someone on the phone, her husband, Nicolas Lourdelle, pretends that everything is OK. The family, he says, is known for its “flexibility.” Yet even as he speaks, the phone and the desk where he is sitting begin to fly away, ultimately taking him with them.

Boitel cites filmmakers David Lynch, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock as inspiration for “Ombres Portées” and film buffs may enjoy hunting for references. The piece’s surprise ending reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ camp classic “Suddenly Last Summer.” Poor “K”! What price must she pay to give her family peace of mind?

Remaining performances of “Ombres Portées” take place at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, March 24 at 7:30 p.m.; March 25 at 8 p.m.; and March 26 at 3 p.m. Visit peakperfs.org.

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