Monday, October 3, 2011

Canadians make the best Acrobats - review of Traces

In the mood to see an innovative circus troupe with specialty acts, songs, stunts, ensemble dancing, and humor?

Don't bother with Cirque - see 7 Fingers's Traces, playing at the Union Square Theatre.

First off, what they have in common - they're both French-Canadian creations, and the founders of 7 Fingers are in fact Cirque alum. Both Cirque and 7 Fingers have acts with hoops, with ropes, with chairs, with poles. But 7 Fingers wanted to create circus work that they wanted to work on, and they wanted a more ensemble feel to the show - rather than having performers come on for ten minutes, do their thing, and then disappear until the curtain call, 7 Fingers performers are onstage nearly the whole time - if they're not participating in the current act, they are watching from chairs lining the back wall.

And ... dude. 7 Fingers is so much better.

No one can deny that the performers in Cirque are in tremendous shape and dripping with talent. No one can deny that Cirque is nothing short of a Spectacle. But that's perhaps part of the problem. Everything in a Cirque show is spectacular. Everything is huge and explosive and aimed to Wow the audience. But it's a little like if someone is shouting at you in the same decibel and tone for an hour - eventually you stop hearing it.They're performing extraordinary physical feats, but there's no break from the screaming. Neither the performers nor the audience feel like they've had the chance to breathe. Also - and maybe it's just me - the clown bits aren't that funny.

Traces is funny. Traces has extraordinary physical feats. Traces has enough balance in it that, though we see the performers working hard and performing many different styles of act, we're breathing through it with them. And, in perhaps its largest triumph over Cirque, Traces feels human. After the opening ensemble dance where performers flip and fly through the air effortlessly, as if they are truly weightless, a microphone drops from the flies and each performer grabs it in turn to introduce him (and her) self to the audience (including mentioning their weight, in order to belie any impression of true weightlessness presumed by this blogger, one assumes).

This mic makes several appearances throughout the show - often serving to break up the high energy between the larger ensemble acts, and to let us in more and more to who the performers are - sometimes in quiet sincere moments, sometimes in moments of "should we laugh?" humor - like when the strapping 6'2" fellow, having just performed a terrifying catch and throw duet act with the tiny female performer, announces to us all that he is "clumsy." Oops ... There are also whimsical breaks where the performers will trade places at the piano, plunking out Piano Man, Salsa music, and a Chinese song (that of course everyone is able to join in on).

The other delightful thing about several of the acts is how organic they feel. Particularly the Basketball Dance, the Skateboard Swing number, and the solo Book-reading act - all feel like they were built out of improv of the performers declaring that they would like to play with their favorite toy please. Some of the others are acts we've seen before - spinning in a large hoop, climbing and swinging off poles, balancing on first one, then three stacked, chairs, and spinning and twisting in a hanging loop of rope - but because we feel like we're becoming friends with these performers, each one feels special and new, as we watch someone we know do something extraordinary. The rope dance in particular is a lovely sweet interlude - as the one female in the cast, wearing loose pants and a white tank the whole show, appears in a gorgeous red dress with a flowing skirt that flies all around her as she spins high above us.

The rhythm of all this - the breaks where it seems the players are merely fooling around; the high energy full-ensemble dances/competitions; the short scenarios of fidgeting on chairs in a line as a clock ticks; the special solo or duet pieces - all slip together into a well-orchestrated physical symphony (great soundtrack for the show too, by the way) that, rather than overspectacularizing the performance, lets us smile and enjoy and then gasp in delight when yet another seemingly death-defying act is performed.

Sounds awesome? Of course it does. Go see it! Go go go! And if money's an issue (when is it not?), they have rush tickets for $25 if you show up at the box office two hours prior to curtain. That's two movies in Manhattan. No excuses!!!

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