Most of the time, “indescribable” isn't meant as praise. Cafeteria mystery meat is indescribable. Congress' current environmental policies? Good luck describing those! But in the case of “Traces,” which opens the Performing Arts Center's Broadway Lights Series, I can't adequately describe what I saw without going over every scene in tedious detail.
Suppose I say one of five acrobats climbs a freestanding pole by swirling around it higher and higher, then plunges face downward toward the floor and stops a few inches short of turning his head into pudding. I've made it seem as exciting and mysterious as I can, but I haven't caught the gasp-inducing moment.
Or suppose I tell you that one grabs a paperback book and plops into a battered chair on rollers, then performs a pas de deux that puts her on, over, under and next to it, smiling all the while as though intercourse with this intractable cushioned companion were quite natural. It's much funnier to see this silliness.
I struggle even to classify the performance. After a raucous entrance to hard rock music and pulsating lights, modern dance elements emerged in the pushing, coaxing, semi-romantic pairing of Héloïse Bourgeois and Will Underwood. Even the more acrobatic parts of the show – solo trapeze work, tumbling, movement inside and around a giant rolling hoop – conformed to Paul Taylor's belief that dance can come out of extensions of the body's everyday movements. (If you could call the things these 20-something athletes do “everyday movements.”) There's a skateboard number that sets the quintet sliding and rolling in patterns, dipping under or leaping over each other, and I have to apply the noun “ballet.”
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The audience alternated between “wooo-hooo” reception of the stunning gymnastic work and silent approval of the quieter, purely dancelike moments. (A balcony full of Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle-schoolers, many seeing their first theatrical performance, was rapt. “Traces” will never play before a tougher audience.)
Those of us in the crowd weren't always sure how to respond: Did it really help the performers if we clapped rhythmically before they attempted a difficult stunt? One fellow onstage clapped along, so maybe it did.
The show is based loosely on the premise that these five people have gathered in a makeshift shelter before a coming apocalypse and are determined to leave a record of their passing – with us, presumably – by revealing their talents and personalities. But while the premise gives all five a chance to talk to us and share stories that are apparently from their real-life pasts, we can't call them defined characters.
They share certain skills: All play the piano, all cartwheel or flip or pinwheel through the air, all make marvelous use of those freestanding poles, all take part in an impromptu basketball-tossing routine that echoes the relaxed goofiness of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Yet they also have defined strengths: Brothers Francisco and Raphael Cruz excel at hand-to-hand acrobatics, Brad Henderson rolls blithely around inside his large single hoop, Bourgeois does a trapeze turn on a looped rope extended from the ceiling, and she and Underwood partner in a balancing act.
The company covers every visible inch of the smallish McGlohon stage and uses offstage space for a few sound effects. (The show may change slightly over the next six weeks, as the five get thoroughly comfortable in that space.)
Actors drift to the back of the stage and remain visible when they're not in the spotlight; they seem to be writing or drawing or sipping on water bottles, as if everything that went on were done casually, as much for their pleasure as ours. They also make sure they have each others' backs in tricky routines; they make no attempt to pretend nothing can go wrong.
Most opulent, three-ring circuses want to dazzle us with tricks that seem impossibly difficult: We're meant to goggle at performers whose abilities are obviously far beyond our own.
But the performers in “Traces” have an easygoing air, as if they were mere mortals like ourselves who simply spent more time rehearsing. Occasionally, a trick didn't work Wednesday night; they repeated it patiently until it did, and the audience applauded both their doggedness and their ultimate success. They were our friends by then, not distant gods, and we had their backs, too.