'Traces'

A successful effort at easing away the sense of manufactured entertainment and replacing it with personal expression

There are all sorts of theories about how geographical clusters of like-minded folk foster creativity and innovation — Elizabethan England, Paris in the 1920s, Silicon Valley in the 1990s, etc. More proof comes in the form of 7 Fingers, a modern cirque group emerging from, of all places, Quebec, home base of Cirque du Soleil. You can think of 7 Fingers as the creative startup operating in direct contrast to the gigantic and now highly corporate Cirque du Soleil: no tent, no bright colors, no made-up languages, no clowns. But as the American tour of their exhilarating show “Traces” demonstrates, they’ve got the goods.

This is cirque on a human scale, a successful effort at easing away the sense of manufactured entertainment and replacing it with personal expression (or at least, the illusion of it). It’s low-key but high volume, with the various acrobatic sequences set to contemporary music. “Traces” is all about urban hip, as the performers wear black and white and gray clothes, work with a basketball and skateboards, trace each other’s silhouettes in chalk on the floor, take turns adding to a drawing that’s projected on the back wall, and even stop balancing and spinning to play the piano or an acoustic guitar. This is a refined grunge cirque, current and crazy-energetic.

To be honest, the basketball and skateboards are props — those sequences are all showmanship, albeit clever. But when the entire ensemble starts climbing up and spinning around the two large poles on the mostly empty, loft-like stage, they’re hugely impressive. The same is true when the tallest member, Mason Ames, does a hybrid acrobatic and contemporary dance piece with Valerie Benoit-Charbonneau — it’s beautifully choreographed and heartfelt. And when Florian Zumkehr goes from balancing on one chair to balancing on a bunch of them. And, above all, when the diminutive Xia Zhengqi jumps through hoops that keep getting raised higher and higher … and higher.

It’s a device, of course, but it feels honest, as does the camaraderie of the company members as they mingle among each other in between the setpieces. Sometimes, when they just seem to be kidding around as if hanging out at a local playground, you begin to realize the seeming improvisations are gradually transitioning into another acrobatic act. And suddenly, they’re all up and whirling around on each other at full speed.

In its variations from quietude to intensity, “Traces” really does end up being a cirque with its finger on how lives are lived today.

Traces

Broadway Playhouse, Chicago; 550 seats; $71.50 top

Production

A Broadway in Chicago, Fox Theatricals, Tom Gabbard, Amanda Dubois and Denver Center for the Performing Arts presentation of a performance in one act with creative direction by 7 Fingers. Directed and choreographed by Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider. Acrobatic designer, Sebastien Soldevila. Opened, reviewed Nov. 3, 2010. Runs through Dec. 19. Running time: 90 MIN.

Cast

With: Mason Ames, Valerie Benoit-Charbonneau, Mathieu Cloutier, Bradley Henderson, Philippe Normand-Jenny, Xia Zhengqi, Florian Zumkehr.
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