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Traces: Cirque of the Street

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For as long as there's been streets and public parks, there's been performers using them as a venue for art of many kinds. Acrobats have always been a part of that landscape, and while their tricks and tools have evolved from using each other as props to stainless steel 10' diameter hoops or velvet ropes dangling from hydraulic pulleys their ability to cause jaws to drop remains.

Seven talented performers have come together for one of five touring shows of the Canadian-incepted and based dance/acrobatic fest "Traces. " This group will perform through February 20, 2011 at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Los Angeles before moving on for a three year outing stopping in a variety of cities (get the schedule at www.TracesUSA.com).

The press release says "Traces" takes place "in a make-shift shelter, with an unknown catastrophe waiting outside the doors of tarp and gaffer's tape. The audience learns that the characters have constructed this clubhouse to live to the fullest what they believe could be their last moments, hoping to leave nothing unsaid or undone...hoping to leave a lasting mark, their traces, as best they can..." There can be no doubt the play has a post-apocalyptic, raw edged feel, a set of steel and metal, a piano of planks and a black and white projection screen with a very Cloverfield aire as raw video is fed in from the front of the actual theatre and then used throughout. Some of the nuances of the referenced story may be lost, but the overall feeling that these dancers are using their bodies, their movement, their raw energy and emotion to desperately leave a mark before somehow disappearing is more than apparent.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="600" caption="Photo Courtesy Broadway L.A."][/caption]

It's easy to classify or compare "Traces" to other theatre experiences; It has the acrobatics of a Cirque production, the raw excitement and street feel of any current dance movie or "Think You Can Dance" TV show, the fluidness of a ballet and moves that seem to defy the laws of physics. The show could easily be in Las Vegas as a successful nightly production and the response from the star-studded audience at the Los Angeles premiere made it obvious why there's so many touring companies of the show.

While the group numbers leap of the stage, some literally, there's definitely some stand outs. Make no mistake, this is an ensemble show, with all the parts adding up to one creative and stunning whole, but the seven individuals each get a chance to shine when it's "their time."

Mason Ames is the adorable "lug" of the group. Taller, a little larger, he describes himself as "clumsy" in the play but is anything but clumsy. His "duet" with the only female of the group, the petite and beautiful Valerie Benoit-Charbonneau, sets the tone early on that there would be as much emotion in the production as dance, as much emotional nuance as sweat.

"The play is all about trying to make a mark," Ames told me at the "Venice" Magazine after party. "It's about each of us trying to leave a trace, something behind. But it's also about our relationship to each other. My character and Valerie's have something and throughout the play we find out what, exactly, that may be," he concluded.

Florian Zumkehr dazzles high atop a chair on his head, or at the guitar singing a ballad right after a winded performance. Later he would tell me the song is actually from a German punk band, but in "Traces" it's given the handsome Swiss man with a guitar treatment and it works, providing a respite from the frenetic pace the troupe maintains.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="600" caption="Florian Zumkehr"][/caption]

Bradley Henderson, originally from San Francisco who told me his parents were more than happy to "send me to the National Circus School in Montreal, no, they were thrilled, really!" does a spectacular routine with a giant metal hoop, part art, part acrobatics, part dance and all entertaining, it shows how a human's simple interaction with an inanimate object can create a stunning visual experience.

Valerie Charbonneau's aerial routine on a single velvet rope, propelling her across the stage at the top of the theatre with no net below is as dangerous as it is breathtaking. I asked her afterwards if she had seen our Pop star Pink's last tour or 2009 Grammy Performance where she does a few of the same moves and while she had not seen it she did state, "I can't imagine having to sing and be soaking wet when doing that every night," she laughed.

The oldest of the troupe at 28 is the Chinese born Xia Zhengqi who, because of his size, spends a lot of time being thrown about in ways that would make most faint. His talent with what I can best describe as a deconstructed large spinning Duncan butterfly yo-yo-on-a-string (I'm sure there's a technical term that escapes me) should be an Olympic sport, if it's not already.

Philippe Normand-Jenny tests the height of the theatre's ceiling as he is propelled through the air off a see-saw with two other cast mates jumping on one side and him flying off the other landing in the arms of three other cast mates and a giant memory foam pillow solicited more than a few gasps from his spins, height and speed. Had one thing gone wrong he easily could have ended up with his name and the rest of his body in the lights above the stage.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="600" caption="Karel and Mathieu Cloutier at "Venice" After Party for "Traces""][/caption]

Created by seven acrobats in Montreal--7 Fingers productions--The name of the troupe is a play on the French idiom regarding the "five fingers of the hand." The phrase pays reference to distinct, individual parts moving in coordination towards one common goal. With five touring groups, that's 35 acrobats touring the world mixing cutting-edged music (think Chemical Brothers mixed with contemporary Jazz, Hip-Hop and even a little Yael Naim flavor) with as many dance and acrobatic influences.

To gauge the success of a creative endeavor such as this, one that calls upon music and dance more than dialogue and production, all one has to do is look at its multigenerational appeal. Everyone at the Montalban theatre, young and old, were brought to their feet more than once and for quite a sustained (and deserved) standing ovation at the end by number after number. Mason Ames, Valerie Benoit Charbonneau, Mathieu Cloutier, Bradley Henderson, Philippe Normand Jenny, Xia Zhengqi and Florian Zumkehr need not worry about leaving a trace, as the play moves the audience in a much more emotional way than a typically staged production with dialogue and action. This play appeals, plays directly to, the basic emotions of the audience, joy, elation, sorrow, fear, anger, doubt, love...with a moving and often invigorating soundtrack. The raw visuals, whether used for dramatic impact or for comic relief (there's a very funny Busby Berkley-esque number complete with overhead visuals) add to the production just enough without distraction and what's left is the audience being able to tap in to the very essence of each of the character's dance or stunts, leaving us as exhausted as them when done.

See "Traces" more than once and bring a friend. You'll leave the theatre ready to sing and dance, and amazed at the many ways the human body can be used to create beauty and art.

To read or hear more from Karel go to The Karel Show
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="600" caption="Karel and Florian Zumkehr at "Traces" premiere"][/caption]