Imagine Cirque du Soleil without the “cirque.” And without the sun. And without the costumes and the large cast. But imagine it with a gritty urban feel, a definite “downtown” sensibility and a remarkable sense of intimacy.
That is perhaps the best way to describe “Traces,” a remarkable and rewarding mash-up of dance and acrobatics now playing at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts’s Belding Theater now through Sunday, October 9.
An unbelievably talented cast of five, dressed in white and grey street clothes, is all it takes to deliver stunning visuals, some breathtaking tricks and cunning interplay in a constantly moving production that pushes acrobatics beyond the confines of a strictly circus environment. “Traces” was created and developed by a collaborative of artists called “7 Fingers” based in Montreal, today’s ground zero of the acrobatic trade where Cirque du Soleil and several similar troupes are located. Earlier this summer, “Traces” opened to excellent reviews in New York City and a second company is now touring this fall including this stop in Hartford.
This production is directed and choreographed by two of the seven founders of 7 Fingers, Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider, both with extensive circus experience including San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus, which itself was founded by Snider’s parents. Unlike a typical circus in which each artist or group of artists have specific specialty acts, the performers in “Traces” move easily from one act to another demonstrating well-honed abilities that astonish in their range.
Set in a dark, no-man’s land environment, the stage features a huge sheet hanging from the back of the stage, two essentially vertical poles at center stage, a swinging microphone similar to those used by boxing announcers, and a few other props that can be dragged in and out for the impressive actions. After some initial horseplay between the four men and one woman as they appear on stage, they introduce themselves to the audience, identifying their real names, year of birth, hometown and three words to describe themselves. This creates an immediate connection between audience and cast and encourages us to root for the performers as they attempt their ever-more challenging routines.
Each of the performers conveys an individual personality as well, especially Genevieve Morin, the sole female on stage, who frequently registers her exasperation with the “boys” who can slip from mature behavior to adolescent shenanigans at a moment’s notice. She offers a knowing edge to her role in a manner reminiscent of Evangeline Lilly of television’s “Lost” fame. Dirty disheveled blond Antoine Auger offers a cocky confidence often in a subtle rivalry with the clean-cut Devin Henderson who impresses later in the show with some more audacious acrobatics.
Francisco Cruz comes off as an eager to please performer wishing to demonstrate that he is the equal of his colleagues, while the diminutive Sen Lin is the consummate professional acrobat, ready to jump in when required, stunning the audience with his speedy moves and quiet yet assured confidence.
The playful interaction between the various cast members adds to the excitement of the various “acts” in the show which flow naturally out of the previous acts. There are amazing moments as the cast jumps and climbs up and over each other to reach higher locations on the twin poles, often hanging by a wrist or ankle from one of the poles in a pose parallel to the ground. Nothing quite prepares the audience for when Lin, upside down, slips quickly head first down a pole literally stopping a mere inches from the floor.
The guys do a series of ever-more complicated jumps off of a catapult onto a double-layer mat and the whole cast demonstrates a mastery of the skateboard by maneuvering through a hastily-created obstacle course or jumping over the bodies of their fellow players. Morin will later rise above the stage in a sweet but occasionally harrowing dance on a swing ultimately dangling by an ankle. Henderson mpresses as he places himself inside a body-size hoop that he spins in ever faster rotations while moving it in circles across the stage. They throw, move and exchange a basketball in seemingly easy moves and smooth coordination that would challenge UConn’s Number One Men’s Team and the Women’s Team.
Perhaps most impressive are their jumps through an ever-heightening series of attached barrel hoops of various sizes, that require the cast members to contort their bodies into a multitude of positions in order to zip through the rings and propel themselves over the bodies of their cast mates on the other side.
Music is an important component of the evening with a wonderful array of international recordings ranging from Radiohead to John Zorn, from Blackalicious to Stephane Grappelli providing welcome and innovative accompaniment. A particularly creative piece involves the cast employing their skateboards as canes while mimicking great dances from 30’s and 40’s motion pictures to the tune of “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
Although the stage setting can be quite stark, with all the props in basic black, there is a great warmth underlying this production. As various performers engage in complicated, dangerous stunts, their colleagues are frequently nearby, spotting them for safety’s sake or encouraging them on. Their coordination and sense of mutual trust is palpable, demonstrating a level of support that overcomes the dark environment in which they find themselves. The lighting design complements the underlying darkness, while allowing the audience to clearly see all of the action and unobtrusively highlighting individual acts.
The energy and exertion expended by the cast is driven home as they introduce themselves after a particularly grueling opening routine. Amplified by the microphone, their heavy breathing, chest heaving and hesitant speaking eliminates any doubt that what this cast is doing is indeed physically challenging.
The show sort of sounds like a circus for hipsters and I guess that in part it is. If Cirque du Soleil isn’t sufficiently ironic for you, then “Traces” should definitely meet your 21st century sensibilities. “Traces” combines movement, dance and acrobatics in a post-modern way that allows our inner child to be thrilled without losing any of our sophisticated cred.
Tickets are currently on sale at the Bushnell Box Office, 16 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, by calling 860.987.5900 or by visiting the Bushnell website. Performances run through October 9.