Montreal circus troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main considers the bitter and beautiful end of the world...and they do it with flair
By Caroline Zimmerman
I walked into the TOHU theatre's performance
hall to see its latest production, Traces, a few minutes late, so that
I had no time to sink into my chair and wait with my legs crossed for
Les 7 Doigts de le Main (The Seven Fingers of the Hand) to make their
appearance. Instead, I was still trotting behind an usher with a
flashlight when the circus troupe erupted on stage with the force of a
not-so-painful punch to the stomach.
And yet, as I finally settled into my seat, I found that my eyes had strangely moistened: The volcanic energy with which the five young acrobats had captured my attention was prompting my own emotional release. The feeling of catharsis rarely subsided throughout the show, as the crackerjack quintet established a dialectic of suspense and relief that left me, at times, genuinely breathless.
Performing on a set reminiscent of an urban junkyard, to a soundtrack ranging from Radiohead to instrumental hip hop, Francisco Cruz, Raphael Cruz, Brad Henderson, Will Underwood, and Heloise Bourgeois executed eclectic, conflict-driven acts that grappled with the show's central concern: What would a post-apocalyptic world look like and on what foundations would it be rebuilt? The fivesome created a multimedia collage featuring visual projections, live piano, basketball skirmishes, mock ballet, street skateboarding performed in the style of an old Hollywood musical, and drawings in chalk on the stage floor, to address this ubiquitous question.
A narrative of tension and extravagance
Genre slippage may be endemic to Traces, and yet it remains, fundamentally, a circus performance. Traces has little in common with the travelling circus that would set up shop twice a year at a park near my childhood home in the suburbs of Paris, where clowns in polyester costumes jigged beside forlorn dromedaries and mangy billy goats.
Instead, Les 7 Doigts, like the celebrated Cirque du Soleil, follows the principles of Nouveau Cirque, a movement founded in France in the 1970s that uses acrobatics as a narrative tool and relies solely on humans to do so.
Gypsy Snider, co-director of Traces with fellow 7 Doigts member Shana Carroll, explains that "what's different about Nouveau Cirque is that the circus arts become a form of artistic expression. The acrobatics don�t stand alone anymore; they are phrases that have to be completed and justified, and you have to get to them in a way that feels right, that makes sense.
She argues, "If you're going to express something, you need to build the tension that brings you to an acrobatic level."
It seemed to me that Nouveau Cirque, as articulated by Les 7 Doigts, bore a keen resemblance to performance art.
But Snider clarifies: "The thing is, we're not actors, not dancers, not musicians, even if we act and dance and play music in the show; we're circus performers who have made an insane physical investment — to build and perfect a repertoire of acrobatic feats. I mean, you know it's the circus," she playfully adds, "when you watch somebody doing a crazy flip and you go, "Damn, that�s hard!��"
The thought certainly crossed my mind on various occasions. Whether it was Henderson climbing up metal poles upside down, Bourgeois holding an elegant one-handed handstand on Underwood's head, or the Cruz brothers flying through small wooden rings in unseemly positions, the company offers a steady display of its acrobatic virtuosity.
When performed against the backdrop of the distinctly urban set, some of these numbers echoed the discipline known as parkour, often translated in English as "free-running." Originating in the impoverished, predominantly immigrant French banlieues (suburbs), parkour involves passing cityscape obstacles using acrobatic skills like jumping, vaulting, and climbing. The participants use freestyle moves as well as canonized figures. These include the "tic-tac" — defined by Wikipedia as "to kick off a wall in order to overcome an obstacle in the path or gain height to grab something" — or the "roulade" — "to roll on the diagonal of your back to transfer the momentum/energy from jumps." These moves are combined to draw a course through the neighborhood. More importantly, the participant is referred to as a traceur, or tracer, a pertinent term in light of the show's title.
Snider sees the five performers as literal and figurative tracers, both as artists charting their routine on stage and as individuals trying to leave a mark.
"The meaning of life is what you leave behind," says the director, "it's about how you affect the world and the people in it. You just hope that someone's changed by you. We are our traces."
She elaborates on the concept of the trace, describing the post-9/11 social environment as "a climate of fear," in which "nobody feels any power anymore, nobody feels like they can effect change. Traces is a reaction to that feeling as an artist today. Maybe the only way to save anything," she muses, "is to be creative. It's like, wow, maybe we can do something. We can make a company!�
Intimacy and acrobatics
In light of her concern with disempowerment and modern alienation, Snider deliberately designed the performance to generate an atmosphere of informality, even intimacy between the audience and the acrobats. Snider says that, �it�s a priority for us for the audience to experience what we experience. We wanted to make a show on a human scale.�
Beyond the conscious goal to transform the audience member from voyeur to participant, the sense of familiarity that the performers establish stems from the closeness of their mutual friendship. The four boys have been friends since early infancy, when they all started training at San Francisco circus school, as an after-school activity. They all entered Montreals National Circus School three years ago, where they met and worked with Bourgeois, who grew up in France and, according to Snider, "wears the pants" in the group. Their long years of practicing and performing side by side make for a contagious sense of closeness — my neighbor at one point exclaimed: "Now that's chemistry!� — that lures the public in. Watching the show made me feel like I was somehow in on the group's secrets.
Snider adds that rather than watch her students part ways after graduation, she chose to include them in Les 7 Doigts and build a show around them.
"No one could make them shine like we could," she says, "because we know them. It's not just egos flaring. The show: It's them and their relationships and their personal challenges. You can't be anything more original than being yourself, and all my work starts with that belief." Early on in the performance, each of her proteges shares his date and place of birth, and a few salient details about his personality (Underwood is "shy, determined, and messy"). "Even the birthdates," says Snider, "right away it's a personal piece of information, and you can relate to it because it's real and it creates this connection between the performer and the audience."
If life were more like the circus...
Coupled with the acrobatics, these autobiographical details exterminate the possibility of a deadpan audience and offer a refreshingly visceral performance. The increase in my heart rate that occurred each time I saw one of the performers' bodies pause and tense up in preparation for a particularly demanding flip virtually blocked me from fetishizing the performers. My physical response to the performance stopped me from being overly reverent, the way I can sometimes be when I go to the theatre or the ballet.
Traces satisfies "low" instincts as much as it does the "high" ones, and doesn't discriminate between the two. It can be as pleasurable for a five-year old as it is for a young adult or a grandmother, as the show simultaneously invites serious contemplation and engagement with its implicit social commentary, while allowing the more animal satisfaction of watching a young woman in a red dress weave her body around a trapeze. It is an exquisite mish-mash of "high art" and "popular culture," where the ideas are palpable and the acrobatics symbolic.
After watching Traces, I think I would have to agree with Snider: "If life were more like the circus, the world would be a better place."
P.S. - That's my 6'2" lanky Will in the photo, flying impossibly through the hoop (I mean, THINK about it. How did he get from the floor to that position THERE, in the air, on his back, going backwards and head first through a hoop that high off the ground? And keep in mind that because he does NOT have a short, compact body, this feat is even harder to pull off. Also keep in mind that those hoops are light and can be easily knocked over by the smallest nudge. When I see photos like this, it brings back a flood of memories of watching him when he was just beginning to learn hoop diving, way back when he was still in grade school. I know how hard it was to learn this stuff. I saw him practice and practice and practice, never giving up, and it amazed me. Still does. Gives me the shivers. And...here's one more press release photo, just sent to me by the Great Plotnik, my friend and fellow writing group member who got the photo because he writes restaurant and theater reviews for AOL online.
I can't believe how buff he is. As for the goatee, well. . .that's just plain surreal.