Acrobats Demystified

The 7 Fingers return with their acclaimed piece, Traces, which explores what it means to have a shared human experience.

The art of circus, as with all spectacle, has traditionally relied upon a distance between the audience and the performer. Illusions are maintained at arm’s length and tend to dissolve upon close inspection: the space between allows for marvel. Yet it is this very gap that Montreal-based circus, Les 7 Doigts de La Main (The 7 Fingers of the Hand) aims to eliminate in their work. Leading the vanguard in contemporary circus, The 7 Fingers have been making shows about the human condition since their inception in 2002; they bring the audience and the performer closer together and they use circus to communicate their humanity, to show their similarities rather than to set themselves apart.

Gypsy Snider, one of the founding members of the group, muses: “If there is any meaning in our lives, it is in the traces that we leave behind, the way we affect the people around us.” It’s an incredibly generous thought and one that is articulated best through their show Traces, which explores the idea of sharing ourselves with one another. The piece takes place in a kind of bunker in the midst of catastrophe; outside, as society crumbles, the people in the shelter thrive off each other. Written not long after 9/11 and capturing some of that tragic time, it explores the vitality inherent in humankind: even surrounded by darkness, threat and emptiness, there is a dynamism to be found within and imagination is the only thing that will bring about change. Or, as Snider puts it: “You can survive any situation through creativity.”

From the very beginning of the production, the bleak set subverts audience expectations away from the affectations of “performance” and in towards the individuals performing.

That’s not to say they don’t do tricks or use theatre: there are film clips and skateboards and music, but the heart of the work is in the people onstage. “We don’t really want spectators to be impressed with the tricks – we want them to be impressed with the person doing the tricks.” This is circus at its most sincere and heartfelt, exposing the individuals behind the illusion and inviting the audience into the magic.

This willingness to make themselves vulnerable is what sets The 7 Fingers apart from other circus companies: rather than attempting to maintain an enigmatic presence, they aim instead to demystify the acrobat. Snider is enthusiastic about this prospect: “I love that it’s dangerous and exciting, but what I love more is that these guys are expressing themselves through their seeming impossible prowess.”

It’s not just acrobatics, though; they also speak directly to the audience. The use of voice is still unusual in circus productions and it is one of many things that make this show so different and intriguing. The performers are not trained actors and it is not anticipated that they will talk with their audience: it’s disarming, and Snider loves it. “Eight years down the line, that awkward moment when they first speak is one of my favourite bits of the show. The way that they talk to the audience is so sincere and not contrived. It’s a simple moment between an onlooker and an acrobat.”

This direct address is a powerful way to make a connection and to gently unpick the mythology we are apt to create around performers. They talk about who they are, and where and when they were born: simple human facts that we can all relate to. This is emphasised by other moments later in the show: at one point a slideshow of baby photos is shared with the audience, something Snider says “gets such a huge reaction every time for such a simple concept.” Of course it’s endearing to see photos of adults as children, but more than that, it’s humbling; it places the performers alongside the audience and acts as a reminder that we are all human, even acrobats, for all their superhuman tricks. Snider puts it neatly when she says: “This is just another person who followed a dream maybe not everybody follows.”

The unveiling of the mechanics does not compromise the artistry of the work, though: it’s the humanity behind it that is revealed, not so much the technique. In fact, since these are not trained actors, the comparatively unskilled way in which they share parts of themselves on stage helps to make their physical skill more impressive. It is an experience with authenticity: “The fragility with which they speak to the audience amplifies the invincibility they have physically on stage.” And their physical abilities are endless: despite all the other elements to the show. “Circus skills are their vocabulary” and they showcase an exhilarating array of different talents throughout the production, many of which they have not trained in or tried before the creation of this show.

In line with the accessible nature of Traces, The 7 Fingers substitute juggling balls for basketballs and skateboards in innovative choreography. Snider talks about wanting to find objects that audiences could relate to and didn’t necessarily associate with the circus: “Over the hour and a half of performance you need to make discoveries, and it’s not just a matter of showing off how incredibly talented these people are. The idea is to see them in different contexts.” Not only do the skateboards allow for a new type of movement but they also place the performer in a new dynamic so they can “explore who they are and how they can express themselves through this form of circus.” The audience benefits from gaining further insight into the unique personality of the individual performers whilst also enjoying the unusual and exciting aesthetics of skateboard manoeuvres.

The show is both a highly skilled piece of performance and, at the same time, a more relaxed conversation with the audience is partly due to the comedy: “The clowning aspect of Traces is important and very subtle. You should feel like you’ve built a rapport and know these guys on stage, that you could hang out with them at the pub.” It’s also about that willingness to fail and to be vulnerable. “It’s such an important part of circus, being able to fall and get up and being able to let people laugh at you when you fall.”

It’s refreshing to hear; in the rush to escape certain lowbrow associations of circus, many contemporary circus companies fall into the trap of taking themselves too seriously. The 7 Fingers is not one of them: they manage to create a show that is deep and sincere but without being self-aggrandising; instead, it’s humble and funny. This is a performance about communication, where the performers share themselves with the audience in order to develop a connection, and a mutual understanding of what it means to be human. It’s something more familiar in theatre than in circus and it’s incredibly exciting: “How much more refined it is for us to be able to say stop just looking at the tricks, let’s take a journey and go somewhere together.” This is the future of circus.

Traces was first performed in 2006 and has gone on to be performed over 1,700 times in 23 countries. Sadler’s Wells brings the show back to the UK this summer.

Bryony Byrne

Peacock Theatre, Holborn, London 9 June – 12 July