Cirque Punque | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Cirque Punque

Montreal's 7 Fingers brings high-risk acrobatic performance back to earth.

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TRACES Broadway Playhouse

New owners have transformed the theater at Water Tower Place. What used to be the gilt-and-glitz Drury Lane is now the sleek, contemporary Broadway Playhouse, and its first postrenovation occupants are giving circus an update, too. Montreal's Les 7 Doigts de la Main (or 7 Fingers) reject the high-concept, high-end style epitomized by their fellow Canadiennes at Cirque du Soleil, offering something much more immediate, personal, and gritty. The aesthetic of their show Traces is cirque punque, and it's mostly exhilarating.

The seven cast members—six men and one woman—are nearly all Cirque du Soleil vets, but the directors/choreographers, Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider, have roots in San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus. An offshoot of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Pickle drew on some of the same community-centered, egalitarian principles as the Mimes while also making room for world-class clowning by the likes of Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle, and Snider's stepfather, Larry Pisoni. 7 Fingers doesn't have clowns, but the "digits" use sly, self-effacing physical humor to establish distinct onstage identities. That usually isn't allowed to happen in Cirque du Soleil shows, where big fat production values trump individuality.

Also in contrast to C du S, there's no pretense of a narrative arc in Traces—a good thing inasmuch as the conceptual legs holding up most Cirque shows get noodly under close scrutiny. Instead, continuity is a function of personality: between astounding acrobatic displays (which feel far more dangerous on the Broadway Playhouse stage than they would in the big top, where you'd never worry about performers getting clocked by a lighting instrument) the seven provide endearing personal factoids, including birth date, hometown, and a few adjectives—"clumsy," "flirtatious," "cool"—describing themselves. "I have a great sense of humor," says Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau, the sole female digit, with deadpan intensity.

Nor are the performers subsumed, Blue Man-style, into a multimedia hive-mind performance rave. Wearing black, white, and gray street clothes and performing on a set suggesting a run-down rehearsal hall—with shabby chairs and a piano that's seen better days—they come across as a group of friends hanging out backstage, challenging one another to ever-greater feats of physical daring. Extreme sports are an obvious influence throughout, and at points Traces threatens to become an artsier version of Jackass. But Carroll and Snider also introduce elements of dance. Benoît-Charbonneau and Mason Ames perform an athletic pas de deux that deftly captures the attraction/repulsion axis of romantic love. In its more aggressive moments, the show reminded me of the body-slam techniques of local choreographer Atalee Judy and her Breakbone DanceCo.

Musical interludes in Traces burnish facets of the performers' personalities. Benoît-Charbonneau, for instance, breaks into a winsome version of "Paper Moon" that's greeted at first with eye rolls. But soon everybody is formed up into a Busby Berkeley-esque kickline—with skateboards—that's captured in an overhead shot by the live-feed video camera. The passage is a pretty apt encapsulation of how Traces finesses the line between old-time sentiment and contemporary self-awareness. Another section involving a fast-moving basketball drill spills into the audience and pays sly homage to the showmanship of the Harlem Globetrotters.

But what impresses me most here is 7 Fingers's balls-out energy and commitment. There are lyrical moments, to be sure (Benoît-Charbonneau's aerial work, Florian Zumkehr's handstands), but the sense of danger threaded throughout the evening gives it visceral power. When two performers swing in tandem around parallel vertical poles, they look like human tetherballs at risk of flying headfirst into the wall. And the closing feat, in which the impossibly lithe Xi Zhengqi flies through the tiny hoop atop a stack of five bigger ones left me gasping.

Carroll, Snider, and company understand the complex relationship audiences have with daredevil physicality—with the fact that at any given moment something could go horribly wrong. Fancier circuses sugarcoat the risks with Vegasy costumes, soaring electronic music, and the safe distance afforded by a big arena. Sure, 7 Fingers makes flying without a net in a small space look easy. But by emphasizing personality over faceless synchronized pageantry, they up the stakes and truly do reinvent the circus.   v

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