If you only had 90 minutes left to live, what would you do with that time? Nothing, everything, or try to leave a lasting impression, a trace, of who you are? This question frames “Traces” (2006), which opened at ArtsEmerson’s Cutler Magestic Theatre on Oct. 1 — and its emphatic answer is, of course, the third option.
Whatever images or assumptions the above description conjures, throw them out. “Traces” defies several expectations of a typical night at “the theater.” For one thing, there is very little dialogue in the entire production. The technical script, however, could probably induce vertigo in the savviest stagehand. Everything about this show is laser sharp, yet it all maintains a human quality through the performers’ — acrobats — personal stories. A nagging realization, however, bubbles up: There are lives at stake in some of these vignettes.
“Traces” is fundamentally about its performers. The show is the work of Les 7 Doigts De La Main (Seven Fingers), a Montreal-based acrobatics group. The troupe travels from city to city year after year, and so the cast changes over time. Each time the cast changes, the show does as well (same concept and set, but with different people); audience members could see “Traces” every year of their lives and never witness the same show twice.
So much about the experience feels novel. As precise as the acrobatics may be, the skits in between these sometimes life-or-death scenes are playful in a (rehearsed) way. The performers make use of the steam-punk/apocalyptic circus set in ways that make the audience “ooh” and “ah,” while bringing a grin to their faces. A microphone flies around the stage, catching syllables here and there of each player’s story (it is also a great comedic prop). No one expects to see a microphone swing clear across a stage, but, in the moment, it makes perfect sense.
And from the moment the lights dim, this much is clear: “Traces” is not your parents’ circus. Amid the echoing ticks of clocks, hard and heavy alt-rock drumming and strobe lights, the performers explode onto the stage in a bout of controlled chaos, running into and around each other, hindering and helping, flying and falling. All in the first 30 seconds.
Time is of the essence, and the pulsing soundtrack — with moments of serenity interwoven between the thumping bass lines just as much to keep the audience from seizing as to give the performers a break — never lets up. The audience not only gets to know the performers as they are now, but also as they were when they were children. Some stock types feel familiar: the romantic, the ladies’ man, the intellectual, the naïve spirit, the boastful character. But then, we meet the boy who had the ridiculous gap-toothed smile at his birthday party, a child who had pigtails with ribbons and another who really liked playing with the rubber duck in the bathtub.
What’s amazing is how natural these pictures — mere glimpses into these super-humans’ pasts — seem. Memories of birthday parties, embarrassing outfits and the first day of school are all conjured up. Once upon a time, the seven people on stage were kids like everyone else.
Despite all the weighty importance that imbues the concept, “Traces” never becomes overbearing. Levity, in fact, seems vital to the show’s intention to present “traces” of the performers’ lives. Notably, the show does not shy away from using cultural stereotypes to create comedy — sometimes these jokes are effective, and at other times they are cringeworthy. Most of the time, however, the comedy is based purely on the humanity of the players.
“Traces” runs until Oct. 12 at ArtsEmerson. This coming weekend is an excellent opportunity to see this version of “Traces” — fleeting, changing and vital, it’s an experience well worth a visit.