By ERIC GRODE
Les 7 Doigts de la Main, the Montreal circus troupe colloquially known as 7 Fingers, makes a point of pushing its virtuosic performers beyond the typical three-ring feats.
Take Traces, which opened earlier this month to rave reviews at the Union Square Theatre. This kinetic production interweaves the expected gasp-worthy acrobatics with self-effacing bits of dialogue, charmingly modest musical interludes, and stylized fisticuffs that make the Jets and Sharks look like coach potatoes.
Balancing these elements---making sure the performers remain down to earth even while they’re being flung alarmingly high into the air---was a very specific choice for the troupe. “They’re not singers," Gypsy Snider, one of the show's creators and a founding member of 7 Fingers, says of the seven performers. "They're not actors. They're not even dancers. They're circus performers who get to really explore a side that they don't usually get to in an exciting, unpretentious way."
From the beginning, some of the setpieces were obvious: Snider says performer Xia Zhengqi is among the world's finest Chinese hoop divers, and Traces ends with a dazzling sequence in which he and the rest of the cast propel themselves through an ever-growing tower of hoops. But other abilities had to be taught from the ground up: "No one played piano when we started," she says, "and pretty much no one skateboarded." All seven performers now do both, most memorably in a sort of skateboard soft-shoe to the accompaniment of "It's Only a Paper Moon."
Snider says the troupe's productions---there are a total of four---each take about six months to prepare. "That allows for both the training that you have to do and the creation of the acrobatic apparatus," she says. In the past, rehearsals for new shows would take place in and around previous engagements, but Snider and co-creator Shana Carroll were able to devote six months straight to creating Traces.
Snider and Carroll both teach at the National Circus School of Montreal, which is where several of the company members got their start. But Traces, which she calls the most acrobatic of all the 7 Fingers shows, has a diverse group of performers. Xia went through Chinese circus training, while Florian Zumkehr (whose skyscraping balancing act on a pile of upside-down chairs is an audience favorite) grew up in Switzerland and got his training in Berlin. "They brought a lot of disciplines from a lot of countries," Snider says of the group.
The show was originally staged with just five performers (including during an earlier New York appearance, at the family-friendly New Victory Theatre in 2008), but as it made its way across the country, the decision was made to bring in reinforcements. "Because the tour in the United States has been so extreme, we added two performers to lighten the workload,” Snider says.
Now that the production has settled in for what appears to be a long run at the Union Square Theatre, additional steps may be taken in this direction. With all four of its shows in steady rotation, 7 Fingers has about 30 full-time company members, and a second Traces cast may step in at some point and spell the current group.
If that happens, the show will change to suit the skills of the latest cast. "We're artist-based," says Snider, who still performs in occasional 7 Fingers pieces, as do Carroll and the other five founding members. "We were created by and for performers, and our constant challenge is how to best use each performer. We've never said, 'Do what that guy did,' and we never will."
Eric Grode is the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).