A glimpse of Traces at the Broadway Playhouse
Broadway in Chicago showed off its new Water Tower digs on Oct 18, with a preview of two upcoming Broadway Playhouse shows. Wicked’s Barbara Robertson ventured back into Stephen Schwartz’s melodic grab-bag with a song from Working, the musical adaptation of Studs Terkel. “It’s an Art” salutes the craft of waiting tables, a subject close to any actor’s heart, and Robertson performed it with panache. But the real showstopper followed, when the adroit acrobats of 7 Fingers performed snippets of Traces. Theatrical circus acts out of Montreal may sound a little familiar, but 7 Fingers eschews lavish ready-for-Vegas production values for a more urban, contemporary feel. Phillippe Normand-Jenny and Mathieu Clotier flung each other aloft like CGI-enhanced b-boys, while Xia Zhengqi , or Daqi, wielded the traditional Chinese diabolo breathtakingly, whirling and cartwheeling around his spinning top.
I caught up afterward with Traces’s director and choreographer Shana Carroll, who elaborated on the group and its vision for the piece. “We’re all circus artists, but with many ties to other art forms: Some of us have theater backgrounds, others have studied dance seriously,” she explains. “So something we were passionate about from the beginning was to try to make scenarios for our pieces, to create a conceptual throughline that justifies the acrobatics. And it was important that it be expressive.”
Traces heightens this expressive quality by having its performers speak. “It’s hard for circus artists to be actors,” she notes, and using texts exposes them in an unusual way. “It’s worth it to hear their voices, because then when they start flipping into the air, the audience is more touched by it.”
The particular theme for this piece, though it’s not always overt, is post-apocalyptic, with the set forming some kind of shelter. “People think it’s dark,” says Carroll, “but it’s about leaving traces on the world, creating moments of joy in a safe haven. It’s a way of finding depth in the moment.” For instance, one Chinese pole act is built around the idea of imprisonment; the opening set piece, Crash, features performers escaping from an unspecified cataclysm. Despite this bleak backdrop, the director emphasizes that the piece is ultimately a celebration: “It’s really about the performers, their youth and their vibrant energy.”
Judging from the preview, those performers are brimming with energy. They’re also ferociously skilled. I was daunted to learn that Daqi specializes in hoop diving, and his virtuousic diabolo work is something he picked up on the side. “That’s the thing with this show,” Carroll agrees. “It’s not like a traditional circus where each person sticks to their specialty. You can’t even be sure what anyone’s specialty is.”
Traces closes on an explosive note, a hoop diving routine that Carroll calls the piece’s most technically impressive. But her personal favorite is the second piece in the show, a two-person dance routine that in her view qualifies both as a grueling circus piece and a legitimate work of art. It epitomizes the dual nature of the troupe: performing feats that few others in the world can pull off, and crafting them into an artistically savvy whole.