I was enthralled the first time I saw Cirque du Soleil, forever ago when all that myth, glitter and spectacle was new to me. I still remember one specific moment clearly: I had the luck to be sitting very near the stage, and at the end of the performance, the acrobat who had rolled around the stage in a huge hoop — something I'd never seen before — noted my elated clapping and mouthed the words "Thank you." "No, no," I mouthed back. "Thank you." I don't know why this exchange remains more vivid than the rest of the evening's swaying, dancing, tightroping, trapezing, leaping and flying, but I think it was the realization that this god of muscle and grace was just a guy — and a rather nice one, at that.
Which is exactly why Traces, a production of Montreal's 7 fingers, grabs you. The performers, six men and a woman, aren't dressed in masks or feathers; they're not working with artsy, enigmatic, mythical stories or cavorting in fairytale landscapes. They're just a group of folks in dull gray, brown and black street clothes. They share a little information about themselves, though not a lot. In fact, the program note that speaks of a narrative is a little misleading; if there's a story here, it's fairly undefined. For the most part, these seem to be kids hanging around on a street corner, dancing, jostling each other, fighting a bit. There's a screen behind them that sometimes flickers with black-and-white images (hint: if you're an exhibitionist, be sure to preen as you enter the theater) and sometimes shows Chinese characters or drawings of skyscrapers. The music ranges from pulse-pounding to old songs ("It's Only a Paper Moon") to soft, Erik Satie-like piano phrases, often produced by the multi-talented cast members themselves. Everything's kind of punky, satiric, a little West Side Story-ish.
Some of the individual pieces that make up the ninety-minute evening have their own plots. One of my favorites has lithe Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau ensconced in a large armchair, reading a book — and continuing to read as the armchair is put through every kind of change of position, so that she's sideways, twisted up, waving her feet in the air like a bug, practically on her head, so determined not to be interrupted that at one point she holds the book between her teeth like a rat-shaking little terrier. I couldn't help thinking about reading Alice in Wonderland when I was a little girl, squirming on the floor, lying on my side with my head propped on elbow, even reading with a candle under the covers after I'd been sent to bed — risking hair, eyebrows and the entire house because I was so desperate not to stop.
But the real story lies in the acrobatics: someone skimming weightlessly up a pole, then stretching his body out in a true horizontal; actors leaping straight up from the ground and over the others' bodies; Florian Zumkehr doing impossible tricks with an ever-growing pile of chairs; the group at times using skateboards as bats, or making like Fred Astaire with his elegant cane. Troupe members fly through a stack of hoops, then set the top hoop higher, and again higher...until, as one of them poises for action, you want to yell, Don't even try it. He does. The top hoop clatters to the ground. We groan. And then he tries again and succeeds and we all cheer like mad.
Because these aren't faceless, moving figures. When you cheer, you're cheering Mason Ames, who hates it when the cap is left off a toothpaste tube; daring Benoît-Charbonneau; serious-looking Mathieu Cloutier; leaping Bradley Henderson; Philippe Normand-Jenny, whose parents are psychologists; Sen Lin, who says he tells jokes when he's sad; and Swiss-born Florian Zumkehr, who mockingly says he likes chocolate and cute little houses, and who moves like a dancer. We've seen these people's baby pictures on the screen. When they speak to us, their voices are ragged with exertion.