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A no-ring circus of sorts in ‘Traces'

Many of us who are underlings in our professional hives secretly wish we could make fellow employees leap through hoops, run around inside balls like hyperactive hamsters or shinny up a pole whenever we nod our heads. Shana Carroll has achieved this status, and it's a pleasant life indeed.

She's co-creator of “Traces,” which settles into the McGlohon Theatre on Tuesday for a six-week run and kicks off the Performing Arts Center's Broadway Lights series. The five-person show beggars description, but calling it “Cirque du Soleil without the glitz” and “something like ‘Stomp,' but with more variety and individual characters” will have to do.

Carroll spoke last week from the former Montreal nunnery where she lives with four other members of the troupe behind “Traces.” The company takes its name from a French phrase for a close-knit group, “the five fingers of the hand” – but there are seven of them. They're Les Sept Doigts de la Main, simplified in English to 7 Fingers.

Carroll was about to celebrate her 38th birthday (Oct. 2) and her first child (due this month). But the former trapeze artist was also celebrating the success of “Traces,” a hit at last year's Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and later embraced by Washington and New York.

“Contemporary Circus is a movement to mix circus skills with theater and dance and relate it to a theme,” she explains. “There are spectacular acts, yet it's intimate. Audiences get to know the performers, who play versions of themselves exaggerated for comedy. They're called by their names and tell real stories about their lives.

“‘Traces' has an apocalyptic scenario where they're in a bunker, hiding out in the last moments, trying to do everything they can to preserve a trace of themselves. We wanted to capture that feeling you have in your early 20s, that you can leave a mark on the world.”

In her own early 20s, Carroll was mostly glad to have found a proper job. She'd grown up in California, where her dad is San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. She was 18 years old, musing about college and planning to test the acting market, when she visited the Pickle Family Circus.

“I'd tap-danced a little, but I couldn't even touch my toes or do a pull-up,” she recalls. “I went to a (tryout), and they thought I had certain traits that were good for trapeze artists: an elongated body, natural flexibility I didn't know I had.

“I think there was a dancer stuck inside me, and trapeze helped me live that. Because of theater, I understood drama and visual composition. I knew how to put an act together.”

Carroll eventually went to circus schools in Montreal and Paris, as her “Traces” performers did years later. She tasted the grandeur of Cirque du Soleil before moving into directing and choreography, embracing changes in circus styles.

“With Cirque du Soleil, you do the exact same show every night and get this strange ‘Groundhog Day' feeling. Every trick you do is a difficult trick, so you never lose focus. Even if you've done it 300 times, you never feel you did it perfectly, so it's not dull. But the stuff around it is dull to you.

“We'd try to entertain ourselves onstage with running jokes, like seeing how many times we could touch each other's shoulders. If you were wearing masks in the background, that was the only way to keep sane. I remember the entire chorus once had to sing into umbrellas. Someone farted, and we were all laughing and trying to sing with tears rolling down our faces.”

There's no way to hide onstage in “Traces”: Either you catapult your partner through the air with the Korean plank or suspend your body from the vertical Chinese pole, or you don't. So how does one keep that show fresh for six weeks, let alone an international tour?

“In ‘Traces,' you don't actually change the choreography, but you have emotional freedom and the different energy you can put into it,” she says.

“We wanted these performers to talk, though they're not actors. They're great at expressing themselves with their bodies, but they had a lot of insecurity about speaking to an audience. Doing a double flip and landing on their head was no trouble. But saying a line? That made them nervous.”