Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tracing the limits of physical possibility in Traces

A video sampler of "Traces." 

Those in the theatrical know already know what to expect from Montreal's most "millennial" circus troupe, Les 7 Doigts de la Main ("The Seven Fingers of the Hand") - and they also know to seek out this off-handedly dazzling troupe whenever they perform locally (by now they're a mainstay of ArtsEmerson, which is hosting their latest, "Traces" through this weekend).

But just in case you've been living under a rock for the past few years, the Digits (as I call them) have taken the core acrobatics of the Montreal circus - involving the usual hoops, bars, and poles - shaken all the Cirque-du-Soleil spangles and sex off them, and then precision-engineered them to (frankly) unbelievable levels of physical virtuosity. In technical terms, these acrobats (Naomie Zimmermann-Pichon, Hou Kai, Lucas Boutin, L.J. Marles, Diego Rodarte-Amor, Fletcher Sanchez, and Renaldo Williams, for the record) don't "impress" you: they actually shock you. You simply cannot believe human beings can pull off the maneuvers they casually accomplish. Much less that they can then move on to their next act with simply a shrug.

But to be honest, it's pointless to describe the wonders they perform (much as I'd like to), as the delight of their many feats - which tend to emerge from nearly-sloppy slapstick - depends on surprise. I'll only say that the average 7 Doigts routine is built on a strategy of steady escalation. The whirling leaps spin faster; the head-first plunges become more terrifying; the tunnels grow tighter, and the hand-offs trickier and trickier - and trickier. By the end of each sequence, you may find yourself shaking - even if the performers all seem cool as Québécois cucumbers (although yes, they've been imported from all over the world).

This isn't to say these artist/athletes aren't also a friendly bunch - in fact they often pause to share scraps of their personal histories with us. Indeed, perhaps there are a few too many such interludes in "Traces" (although the performers do eventually parody these age-old, time-killing routines with a snappy satire of American Idol).  And I couldn't really tell you exactly what the conceptual frame of the evening was supposed to be (it seemed vaguely apocalyptic, that's all I could glean from the occasional strobe lights and multi-media gambits). The troupe's earlier efforts, particularly the witty "PSY," struck me as far more coherent on this score, frankly.

But who's complaining? Not this critic. And at any rate, this isn't a show built on narrative or personality so much as camaraderie - the feats of Les 7 Doigts would simply be impossible without the most supremely focused cooperation, and the performers' mutual respect and support is palpable, even across the footlights. Still, while everyone in the troupe is basically in a league of their own, it seems special mention must go to the calmly amazing Hou Kai and the group's sole female performer, Naomie Zimmermann-Pichon - who conceals within her physical delicacy some utterly centered form of physical steel.  If there is a "next level" to amazement, these two repeatedly achieve it.

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