Something spooky happens in the opening moments of Traces.
This is the second show brought to London by the quintet of young Canadian-trained circus artists who go under the name Les 7 doigts de la main. Seven fingers? It's not the only thing that's inexplicable here. Just as the theatre begins to darken, just as you start to focus on the empty stage, a faint golden streak flashes across your vision, like the ghostly trace of a human life.
Not that Traces is a dark show. But it's as far as it's possible to get from the kind of sledgehammer circus purveyed by the gargantuan Cirque du Soleil. Set against a grubby curtain of plastic tarp and canvas, it's as if a traditional big top has been torn down, dumped and then recycled, along with all the usual expectations.
The entire troupe consists of just four guys and one girl. In T-shirts and jeans they look barely old enough to drink, and they're as casual and chatty as your average Lycra-clad artiste is arch and mute. Will tells us the date he gave up smoking. Francisco reels off the two dozen branded breakfast cereals he likes. Héloise (pictured with Will Underwood, below) introduces herself sweetly in English, but later lashes out at her colleagues in very rude French.
At least three of the five turn out to be competent pianists, providing some of their own accompaniment – a Chopin waltz, a thunder of Liszt, a burst of jazz – on a piano apparently knocked together from driftwood. But first we get sternum-thumping rock, as Héloise Bourgeois, ("5ft 2in and 112 pounds") balances on the head of Underwood ("6ft 2in ..." etc), her outstretched hands clasping his skull, their two bodies forming a single vertical, like stick insects mating.
Such wonders arise so casually, they produce a reaction I didn't expect. Rather than gasp, or ooh or aah, I and everyone around me found ourselves laughing, gleeful in our awe and disbelief. When comedy does arise on stage it's laid on with the lightest touch. I loved the sense of turnabout when the girl, absorbed in a book in an armchair, fidgets to get comfortable and continues to read while the chair itself appears to execute a forward roll, an off-centre balance and a lumbering Parker Knoll backflip.
In a skateboard number, the comradeship is such that you can believe these kids grew up together honing these skills on the sidewalk (and they did). Ditto a basketball sketch, in the course of whose slick choreography the five dodge, swerve and shoot. The fabulous hoop-diving is clearly a later accomplishment, as well as the "Chinese Poles", from which their bodies flare like flags in a stiff wind. Most remarkable of all is the comforting knowledge that the heat you feel emanating from the action is generated by fun, not fear.
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