- The Forgotten/L’oublié(e) by Raphaëlle Boitel
Foregrounding women’s corporeality at various ages, The Forgotten/L’Oublié(e) exploited Raphaëlle Boitel’s matrilineal biological heritage, as well as an adoptive matriarchal artistic lineage to explore memory and loss. Boitel, extending a tradition that stretches back to commedia dell’arte, employed relatives and intimates (including her mother, siblings, and lover) in her troupe. We might trace her theatrical ancestry to the famous Renaissance actress, manager, and writer, Isabella Andreini. Like Andreini, Boitel also wears multiple hats: director, conceiver, aerialist, and virtuosic performer. Boitel herself claims an inheritance from the Comtesse de Castiglione, Loie Fuller, Unica Zürn, and Camille Claudel. In her vision the long shadows of these women merged with fragments of her autobiography and distended into a feminist surreality. The acrobatic performance, influenced by Boitel’s training in cirque nouveau, placed her alongside her mother’s (Liliane Hérin) and sister’s (Alice Boitel) bodies. Although the title alludes to vacancy—a specter of someone neither she nor we can remember—I was sharply aware of the presence of women struggling, often physically, against a surging tide of absence. Women were permanent fixtures in Boitel’s somnambulistic landscape, while men’s appearances were fleeting. There was, in fact, an abundance of women who looked so similar that it was difficult at first to tell them apart.
The Forgotten began in silhouette, with a rippling scrim suggesting ribs and presaging the presence of the female body. Behind the scrim a frenetic hospital scene unfolded. Comical beeping, a Chaplin-esque seizure, and performers who popped out from behind a gurney created a tonal tension that signaled our entry into Boitel’s surreal world. A woman (Boitel) sat astride a man who was resuscitated, only to succumb; thereby engendering an immediate confrontation with loss. Boitel, dressed in white and barely distinguishable from the medical staff, introduced the surreal blurring of female identity that united her women across space, time, and loss. The gurney became a bed where the woman slept, now nude. The aerial apparatus tugged at her insistently, lifting her prone body into the air. Her taut body appeared at first to levitate unwillingly; eventually, her figure relaxed backward around the harness as she was beamed up, acquiescent at last to teleportation. Here and throughout the performance, the flying apparatus operated simultaneously as a site of conflict and a vehicle for freedom as women’s bodies encountered the burden of bereavement and the liberty of memory.
At the hospital though as a patient this time, Boitel’s body stood as collateral for her loss. Sitting on the gurney while her flying apparatus was removed as if surgically, she submitted to a grueling series of medical tests administered by a male physician. Was she mad with grief and being institutionalized? The exams became increasingly absurd, culminating when Boitel’s leg appeared to pass behind her head clockwise and rotate the remaining 180 degrees back to the floor as she stood incredulous. Once again, her body did not belong to her, colonized this time by a doctor skeptical of her ability to confront sorrow. Here, as with the flying apparatus, Boitel dramatized the undue burden placed on women’s bodies by a patriarchal structure that dictates the boundaries of mourning.
As we departed the hospital, a spectral surreality descended; scenes seemed to protract, as in a dream. Castiglione, Fuller, Zürn, and Claudel ghosted Boitel’s geography with visual and tonal quotations. Underscoring their family ties, Boitel and her mother and sister froze for a portrait as a pinhole closed around their faces, finally blacking them out. In another image of female exertion, the hanging fabric used for aerial dance became the endless train of a gown that Boitel strained to pull behind her as she moved diagonally upstage. Autumn leaves swirled as female figures holding parasols and wearing Victorian dresses—vestiges of subjugation—were silhouetted against a dark sky. Each image suspended Boitel’s...