Traveling 'Traces' offers 'circus on a human scale'

Doing skateboard tricks on a theater stage is usually deeply frowned upon. But at the Union Square Theatre these days, they're not only encouraged, they're a big part of the show.

During a rehearsal of the touring show "Traces," the seven ensemble members practiced flips, jumps and dance moves on and off their boards as they fine-tuned a section of their 90-minute, cardio-intensive circus.

"Is there any way I can get you guys to drop the boards at the same time?" Gypsy Snider, co-director and co-choreographer, asked from the empty seats. "Let's do it again and drop the boards at the same time."

The show's 10-week run in New York combines traditional acrobatic acts - juggling, teeterboard, spinning inside an oversized wheel - with street elements such as skateboarding and basketball.

There are no costumes or makeup or elaborate sets. The cast - six men and one woman - interact with the audience when they're not doing things that make your head hurt just watching.

In 2008, "Traces" played for six weeks at McGlohon Theater in Charlotte. Blumenthal Performing Arts is co-producer of the touring show with Fox Theatricals and Amanda Dubois.

Snider, one of the seven founding members of the Montreal-based collective known as 7 Fingers that created "Traces," acts as a gentle taskmaster, using English and French to motivate her international cast.

"Run, run, run, people! This has got to be fast," she says, somewhat annoyed. Another time she is encouraging: "Places, people. And music. Cinq, six, sept, huit..."

The skateboard scene is designed to be a light moment between some of the more grueling acts. In it, the cast jumps over each other and screeches across the stage with daredevil precision, but they also stop to dance with their boards as if in a Busby Berkeley musical as the song "It's Only a Paper Moon" plays. The show also includes music from Radiohead, Blackalicious and John Zorn.

The performers - two Americans, one Chinese, one Swiss and three Canadians - range in size from the biggest, Mason Ames, at 6 feet and 2 and 228 pounds, to Valerie Benoit-Charbonneau, who is 5 feet and 2 and 112 pounds, but they're all solid. That's important since they never leave the stage and perform crazy stunts for an hour and a half. The show has no understudies.

Snider and her six collaborators - all ex-Cirque du Soleil members - founded 7 Fingers in 2002. The show "Traces" has existed in one form or another for five years - it was last in New York in 2008 with five performers - and nicely encapsulates the troupe's mission statement of "circus on a human scale."

Unlike other circus shows that detest mistakes, 7 Fingers doesn't get upset if a trick fails. Snider thinks an audience gets more of an intimate thrill if an acrobat they are getting to know fails and then tries again.

"There's no sense of embarrassment. They could fall flat on their face and it would be part of the show," she says. "What these kids do is 10 times as exciting than if it were some perfectly choreographed, spectacular, wow-I-could-never-do-that show."