If the end of the world was looming, would you hide away and wait for your imminent demise? Or would you spend your last few hours doing what you love and sharing your story with those around you? For the seven-member cast of Traces, the impending apocalypse is just an excuse to put on a talent show of epic proportions.
Created in 2005, Traces is the second show from Montreal-based Les 7 Doigts de la Main (Seven Fingers), a company committed to bringing circus to a human level. Directors Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider have deep roots in the circus world; Snider’s parents founded San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus, and Carroll joined that company as a teenager. It was during their San Francisco days that they first met the original cast of Traces.
Back then, they were just four young boys who, in addition to the skills they were learning in circus school, had a number of more unique talents. “They really loved break-dancing and skateboarding and playing basketball and things like that, whereas most people who do circus come from more of a gymnastics background and are a little more conservative in their way of doing it,” Carroll says. “But they’d been doing circus all their lives and not gymnastics, so they had a real sort of rough way of doing acrobatics.” Carroll says they were like “street boys” with an original and rebellious approach to performing that she didn’t want to see go to waste — so she and Snider built a show around them.
“Here are these talented boys with this incredible connection,” Carroll says. “If they were going to go and work at a different company, not only would they maybe not use their talents in such a way to really create this group dynamic between them and all the numbers they could do together, but on top of it, we said if anyone is going to do a show with them, it should be us, because we know them so well and care about them so much.”
Carroll and Snider had always been like maternal figures to the boys — now men — and they invited them to Montreal after they graduated from circus school. One of the men’s partners came along as well, and the original cast was complete. They started working on a show that would display their individual talents and personalities, but they also needed a narrative hook.
“The whole concept of the show is they have a limited amount of time to express themselves in as many ways possible with as many means and leave their trace on society,” Carroll says. “So it was both this dark context with this feeling that there was an impending catastrophe outside the walls of their shelter … but there’s also this light context that inside it they were making art and poetry and dancing and playing around and living intimate moments between themselves.”
The performers gave their all at every show, as if it really was their last night on earth. Such intensive, demanding performances — coupled with eight hours of daily training — inevitably take their toll. The original cast, with the exception of Brad Henderson, hung up their skateboards in 2009, making way for a new generation of performers hoping to leave their trace. (All five original cast members are still connected to the 7 Doigts family in one way or another.)
Because the show’s creation was so tied to the original cast, adapting it to a new set of performers has been challenging, but Carroll says the key was taking a step back and tapping into each of their personalities. “We actually discovered there was a core that was the essence of Traces, and there was material around that that was changeable,” Carroll says. “With Traces, we’re constantly changing the text they say, even sometimes the musical numbers themselves, the characters — because they do create characters for themselves. We try to show them as themselves, but of course certain elements get magnified and one person sort of turns into more of the goofy person and the other is a little more volatile, and yet it’s not these 2-D characters that we decided in advance.”
The current cast includes seven members. There’s Mason Ames, “the big guy,” who describes himself as affectionate, uninhibited, and clumsy. Quebec native Mathieu Cloutier specializes in acrobatics, rollerblading, and diabolo. Xia Zhengqi has been performing in China since age 6, and Valerie Benoit-Charbonneau, the sole female of the group, is an “atomic bomb,” according to Carroll. “She brings the femininity and sexuality as the only girl, but she’s also kind of spunky and temperamental and tomboy-y in certain moments … She tends to be the one with the power even though she’s this teeny girl with these huge guys, she’s one of the strongest.” The cast is filled out by Philippe Normand-Jenny, Florian Zumkher, and Henderson.
“They bring their own individuality to it,” Carroll says. “No one is pretending.”