Brace yourself for a 90-minute punch that just might redefine your perception of a circus performer. The off-Broadway hit Traces, created by Montreal-based 7 Fingers Productions, jumps into Dallas for a run at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, closing its 2012-’13 Lexus Broadway Series. With a set suggestive of a cardboard shack and various set pieces that are anything but shiny and colorful, one wonders what kind of circus show this could possibly be.
The video promo appropriately does not do it justice. While it gives away some of the jaw-dropping tricks and physical feats, it saves the most powerful features of the performance for the viewer to experience live.
The death-defying stunts are present (as with all shows of this genre), but my heart stopped more times in this 90-minute performance than any other circus/acrobatic show. Why?
Because they constantly remind us that they’re real people.
Fancy acrobats with neat costumes and exquisite lines make us gasp in wonder at the beauty and excitement of the trick, but they don’t seem like normal human beings. The sweat doesn’t dent their makeup, and we expect that they will do their unbelievable stunts perfectly.
On the other hand, the performers of Traces breathe hard, get dirty, rarely plaster on a smile (unless to flirt), and their maneuvers aren’t as pristine. They share personal details about themselves and even show us their baby pictures. So pedestrian are their movements that it’s easy to forget what kind of production this is.
So when one of them randomly jumps on someone’s shoulders or quickly climbs up a pole, it seems somehow more extraordinary, even though the activity should be completely expected in an acrobatic show. When another artist slides head-first down that pole so fast that you think there’s no way he can stop himself—and then screeches to a halt with his skull two inches from the ground—we gasp in excitement, but also in relief because we genuinely feared for the safety of a man who appears to be just like us.
That unexpectedness propels the excitement throughout the performance and in different ways. Take the skateboarding sequence, for example. Our culture equates the sport with a gritty, defiant demeanor, but these performers act more like Fred Astaire than Tony Hawk. Donning jackets and gliding around the stage to smooth jazz music (with one of them on roller blades), they completely turn the stereotype around with their flirtatious manners and suave styling. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s tap-dancing sequence on roller skates (minus the tap).
Another fun surprise is the use of technology and how it changes the perception of space. They don’t just eliminate the fourth wall, they create new ones. Live camera feeds add new dimensions to the performance. One shot shows the lobby, and overhead angles show what’s happening on the floor (Busby Berkeley-style) and what one man draws at his desk.
Also astonishing is a key element of the troupe, the “jack-of-all-trades,” and something else that is easy to forget with the down-to-earth nature of the show. Most of the stunts are performed by all of the artists, instead of each artist exhibiting his/her specialty. Everyone even gets a turn at the piano.
All that aside, some might wonder if the world really needs yet another circus/acrobatic show.
This performance will erase all doubts.
The current dominating circus productions will likely remain popular as long as they’re in existence, and for good reason. It’s exhilarating to watch how the human body interacts with and seemingly defies the laws of physics. However, it’s utterly refreshing to see a completely different take on an ancient art form.
Bravo, 7 Fingers and the artists of Traces. This is how you keep the awe and wonder of circus arts alive.
◊ Here is the Chinese Poles segment from the show (this video has a different cast). The music is Radiohead's "Talk Show Host."