Published in The New York Times
“When I’m not focused, stuff happens,” said Mason Ames, the performer in question, in an interview between shows at the Ricardo Montalbán Theater in Hollywood. “I bump into people.”
The show, which closes in Los Angeles on Sunday and opens in Denver on March 11, is the creation of the Montreal-based group 7 Fingers, founded in 2002 with the mission of bringing circus to a human scale. The British newspaper The Guardian called it “circus for the Facebook generation.”
Combining circus acts with emotion and intimacy to win over the audience is a tenet of the new circus movement that started in the 1960s as a countercultural departure from the stunt for stunt’s sake philosophy of traditional three-ring circuses like Ringling Brothers.
But “Traces” goes deeper in its relationship with the audience, as the performers open up about their personalities, vulnerabilities and obsessions. One cast member’s parents are revealed to be psychologists. Another hates when people don’t put the cap on the toothpaste. The show is “really trying to connect with the audience members as if we’re just like them,” said Bradley Henderson, one of the performers. “We’re not superheroes.”
In the early days of circus “it was all about, ‘Look how easy this is,’ ” added Florian Zumkehr, another performer. “We kind of show you how hard it is.”
“Traces” is directed and choreographed by two of the company’s original members, Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider. Ms. Snider grew up embedded in the Pickle Family Circus, which was co-founded by her parents in 1974 and exemplified the new circus movement. Ms. Carroll started working in the Pickle Family’s office before apprenticing with the company.
Both women performed for various companies, including Cirque du Soleil, but wanted the freedom to direct and choreograph on their own.
They formed 7 Fingers along with their husbands and three former circus colleagues and performed their first show, “Loft,” at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal in 2002. Ms. Carroll, who spent seven years with Cirque du Soleil, said: “We owe them our careers. But when you’ve been at Cirque so long, and you’re hidden in costumes and makeup, there was this desire to break all that down.”
“Loft” invited audience members to enter the set from backstage through an emptied-out prop refrigerator, walk across the stage and receive cups of coffee before sitting down. The performers played seven regular people living together and hanging out in their underwear, as their personality conflicts and neuroses sparked the circus acts, which sometimes incorporated household objects like knives and lamp shades. “It was kind of the ‘Friends’ of circus,” Ms. Snider said, citing the popular TV sitcom.
The group has since evolved into a kind of mini-Cirque, with multiple shows touring at once. “La Vie,” a cabaret-theme show, was performed in New York in 2007. “Psy,” whose world tour included a stop in Boston in January, starts as a group therapy session and turns into a trapeze act where an insomniac tries to sleep on the vertical Chinese pole.
The group is currently collaborating with the producer Barry Weissler (“Chicago”) and the director Diane Paulus (“Hair”) on a revival of “Pippin,” in which the chorus is a circus troupe.
“The desire to be extraordinary is one of the central ideas of ‘Pippin,’ ” said Ms. Paulus, the artistic director at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where she is considering staging the show next season. “They physicalize that idea with their incredible, athletic feats and they do it in character."
But Ms. Snider said it would be tough for 7 Fingers to find a lead actor who can sing well enough and, say, do flips off a trapeze: “There can’t be a huge separation between characters and circus, and I’d love to find a way to integrate those two worlds.”
“Traces” is emblematic of this multidisciplinary approach. Unlike a typical circus, where performers appear only for a 10-minute act that they’ve spent their entire careers perfecting, these performers are onstage for the entire show and collaborate on activities like jumping through hoops and skateboarding.
During breaks the performers blow off steam together as if they were backstage: joking, tickling, dribbling a basketball, singing in Chinese in full view of the audience. When their colleagues perform, they stand in the back drinking water, wiping off sweat or fiddling with a costume. Ms. Carroll and Ms. Snider drew inspiration from the gang scenes in “West Side Story” and the onstage-offstage dichotomy of “Noises Off.” Ms. Carroll also culled from her memories of watching the Pickle Family Circus’s trapeze artists rehearse.
“It was more touching and exciting when I would see training backstage,” she said. “I would see them in their training clothes and see their stress and watch the moment of suspense before they were going to do the trick.”
The show’s toggle between the extraordinary and the mundane often has a dramatic effect. After Mr. Zumkehr performs an extensive handstand act, including a grand finale in which he stands on his head on top of a stack of chairs, he is handed a guitar and expected to play and sing a love song.
“The singing isn’t so much a problem,” he said. “I have a harder time playing the chords nice, because those muscles are really sore from the handstands.”
The set is ragged and intended to have an apocalyptic feel, as if the world might end.
“It’s got this carpe-diem-y aspect,” Ms. Snider said. “The clock is ticking, so you’re forced to do this acrobatic that comes out of this rage or comes out of physical necessity to live this life and throw yourself into something as far as possible.”
Photo from The New York Times