If you ever fancied the notion to run away and join the circus, 7 Fingers would be the cool option to consider. The Montreal based circus troupe, established in 2002, fuses aerial arts, acrobatics, music, street art, video, song, and even sketching to create a playful, urban version of big top entertainment that was humorously impressive. They debuted their hit show Traces at the Los Angeles Music Center April 26th and the evening proved to be a lighthearted display of a new kind of performance…one that had the audience hooting, hollering, and on their feet.
It was a crowd-pleaser, no doubt, and one that affirms the growing prevalence and popularity of circus arts in the theatrical sphere. I suspect this is the direction more and more theater productions are going to head in the coming years. Performers best get themselves to some circus classes if they want to stay ahead of the curve.
The show was a perfect example of how being a “triple threat” – singer, dancer, and actor – isn’t enough anymore. One should also try to have sufficient expertise in other skills such as aerial work, acrobatics, and even skateboarding. The limits of stage craft are being broken down in every direction and Traces is a testimony to this cultural change and the demand for it from the public.
It’s the same demand that’s cropping up in dance studios all over Los Angeles. Aerial work and circus training is appearing more and more on dance academy syllabi and artists’ resumes. On the one hand, it’s thrilling that this fusion of theater, dance, and circus is growing, but on the other, this new demand puts a new level of pressure on performers to learn even more skills, some that may not be completely conducive to the others. Where is the line between fusion and a frank bastardization of different art forms? Right now the circus arts are literally walking a tightrope between their big top roots and the “legitimate theater,” and it’s rather unclear which way they’re going to fall.
It was strange to see tattered wings and an industrial style set on the elegant Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage. Right away the show seemed out of place in it’s environment. It felt like the kind of show one would normally see in a small indie theater, on the hip side of town. Still the theater was packed – another sign that the circus has perhaps outgrown it’s tent. Yet again, I was impressed with the Music Center’s choice to bring in a more diverse program of shows to their repertoire.
Traces, directed and choreographed by Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider, is performed by eight men and one woman. As a result, lone woman Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau perhaps did the most in the show, and spent a good deal of time being thrown through the air. The troupe began the performance with each artist introducing themselves. They threw a hanging microphone around the stage, each then giving their name, hometown, and a few choice adjectives like “flirtatious,” “clumsy,” or “romantic.” Like the seven dwarves, these adjectives became a way to identify each performer.
The audience was given the chance to get to know them on a first name basis and see their different personalities emerge throughout the show. As a result, we rooted for them. We wanted them to succeed in their gravity-defying feats, cheering for them even when a mistake was made. We were made to really like them and this culminated in a moment near the end where the troupe played out a farce on the American Idol style of being asked to vote for your favorite performer by texting in numbers.
Traces had a little bit of everything, from aerial bands to steel poles, to staked hoops, to diabolos. The performers implemented these forms to show a myriad of tricks that were impressive and, at times, nerve-wracking. There were a few minor slip ups, but when a gag didn’t work perfectly, the troupe reset and did it again until they nailed it. There were no sparkly, elaborate costumes or grand set changes – the show remained focused on a realistic, urban look, which kept the attention on the action rather than the spectacle. This look at the reality of their process further humanized the performers for the audience.
However, the most enjoyable tricks of the night were those done with common everyday objects. One number in particular, set to the song Paper Moon, was cleverly performed with skateboards in a style Fred Astaire would have appreciated. It had all the grace and charm of his iconic roller-skating dance number to Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, from Shall We Dance, but maintained a modern street flavor. Another piece, performed by Benoit-Charbonneau, featured her executing amazing contortions with an easy chair and a good book. In it’s charming simplicity, the piece got to the heart of how we all feel when simply engrossed by the written word.
In between numbers we were treated to the artists interacting as friends, throwing a basketball around the stage and taking turns at playing the piano. Clearly, all nine artists are very talented and they seemed genuinely at ease with each other on stage.
All these interludes wove a tapestry of ideas about friendship, time, and childishness. This added up to an overall theme about growing up, or rather refusing to do so. There was a potency in several moments about the way we continue to postpone adulthood, and whether that’s good or bad, I’m not sure.
Regardless of what Traces sets out to achieve artistically, it ultimately is just pure entertainment. It’s straight-forward fun and impressive performing that is sure to delight children and adults with it’s fabulous production values and easy-going style. It successfully breaks down the fourth wall and conventions about both the circus and the theater, resulting in a show that’s both accessible and clever. It was uncomplicated and easy to just sit back and enjoy. If you’re looking for an unpretentious kind of circus theater show, 7 Fingers’ Traces hits the mark.