Cirque du Soleil became famous both for the amazing things its performers could do and for the world that each Cirque show creates: original music in a made-up language (except for in the newer tribute shows, at least), elaborate sets, other-worldly costumes, makeup that disguises the human performers and often makes them into something more animal. And that’s all well and good: Cirque deserves its reputation. But at the same time, sometimes all of the “stuff” that happens during Cirque gets in the way of the performance, and ultimately the audience is just as likely to remember the monkey make-up as the acrobatic feats performed by the gymnasts wearing it.
To that end, 7 Fingers offers an alternative: a very similar technical performance, but without the bells and whistles. Their Traces, which briefly interrupted its New York City run to close the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival (and is currently playing in Hartford, CT), embraces this anti-aesthetic, not only abandoning costumes and theatrical makeup but also allowing each of the seven members of the company (Mason Ames, Valérie Benoit-Charbonneau, Mathieu Cloutier, Bradley Henderson, Philippe Normand-Jenny, Xia Zengqi, and Florian Zumkehr) to introduce themselves, to share bits about their lives, to appear before us as they truly are. This performative philosophy also enables each performer to take on multiple roles—whereas in Cirque, there would be the aerialist, the gymnast, the juggler, and so on, the Traces cast each display an array of skills within the show. The result is an impressive display of talent that manages to be more emotionally resonant than most Circus-style shows can be.
The emotional climax of the show, though perhaps not the most physically impressive moment, comes early in Traces, in the form of a pas de deux between Ames and Benoit-Charbonneau. Neither is a dancer in the traditional sense—their training is in the circus arts, through and through—and yet what they do can only be described as a dance. A dance between two artists who, if they are not now or were not formerly in a relationship, managed to fool the audience into believing every moment they touched, and every moment they recoiled, was loaded with history and feeling. The movements were polished, but with a raw edge that you would never see in a Cirque show. As difficult as the choreography was, Ames and Benoit-Charbonneau executed it as easily as you or I might walk down the street. There were no pauses for applause, no movements intended just for show—the lack of artifice was almost as impressive as the abundance of skill. I wept, and I was not alone, judging from the audible nose-blowing at that number’s end.
Other memorable moments include Zumkher’s chair-balancing act, Henderson’s acrobatic hoop spinning (that I can’t even begin to describe—but he did perform it on America’s Got Talent this last summer, so you can see yourselves), and some yo-yo work the likes of which I’ve never seen by Zengqi. Despite the many standouts, each act (even Ames and Benoit-Charbonneau’s) was in service to the full production—an authentic showcase of amazing talent that hinged on ability more than spectacle—and in so doing, managed to be quite spectacular.
Photo courtesy 7 Fingers.