On Monday, 7 Fingers circus performer Bradley Henderson boarded a plane for Los Angeles for the Music Center debut of Traces, which opens Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and runs through the weekend. Fresh off a three-week break from the US tour, he’s excited to re-unite with the cast as well as the show’s directors/choreographers, Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider, who choreographed the circus scenes for the current Broadway revival of Pippin and have been busier than usual, preparing for its opening night Thursday.
Henderson and these two (out of seven) founding members of Les 7 doigts de la main (7 Fingers) go way back. They all met in San Francisco, where their individual passions for circus were piqued, and then headed to Montreal, the epicenter of modern-day circus.
In 2002, seven like-minded circus lovers in Montreal — Carroll, Snider, their husbands and three former circus colleagues — decided to form 7 Fingers. Its first production was Loft, and the company went on to create a string of wildly popular shows, which although different in setting offer the same 7 Fingers style of blending circus with dance and theater. Most important, the performers play themselves, without makeup and costumes, and each new added cast member brings his or her personality and talent to a production.
Now in its third incarnation, Traces fuses classic acrobatics with street culture activities such as skateboarding, basketball and parcour. Since its premiere seven years ago, the production has scored excellent reviews — including the notices for the show’s LA debut in 2011 at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre in Hollywood.
One of the more appealing features about Traces, and any of the 7 Fingers productions, is how it aims to break down the barriers between circus performer and audience. The artists appear to be normal people whom audience members can relate to. Traces is set in a makeshift shelter, and the seven characters are awaiting an unknown catastrophe outside. For what they believe may be their last moments, they plan to live their lives out to the fullest. Creation is the only antidote to destruction, and so they burst into music, song, dance and high-risk acrobatics.
As the show unfolds, the audience gets to know the individual performers. They share details about their past and reveal their personal strengths and weaknesses. They’re not dressed up and parading around like characters. They’re just like you and me, except they can do amazing things. This is also an aspect of the show that the performers appreciate — they get to play themselves on stage.
Henderson is one of original Traces cast members. Starting in 2006, he toured with the first troupe of five artists for four years, took a year off while another five toured Europe, and then jumped back on board for round three. He’s performed the show more than 1,000 times.
While he admits that doing the same gig over and over can be repetitive, he’s also quick to declare his love for his job. When he returned to Traces for this US tour, the company had expanded to seven artists, which meant adding even more energy to the high-flying mix.
The energy can change at the drop of a hat — or a hoop — if someone gets injured. “There are 20 artists or more that know the show,” Henderson says, “and if anybody is available when someone gets injured they replace them, and the show changes again.”
Alongside the shake-ups caused by injuries, Traces leaves room for error. “[They] choose artists because [they’re] good at improvising,” says Henderson. “When stuff goes wrong, we can play it up. In so many shows, hoops fall over, a basketball falls off stage, but we make it work. It’s action-packed.”
Henderson, like Snider, was raised in a circus family — well, sort of. Although his mom is a nurse and his dad is a firefighter, Henderson’s brother and two sisters have also joined a circus at one time or another (his brother is part of 7 Fingers’ eighth and newest creation, Sequence 8). Snider, on the other hand, is the daughter of the founders of San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus. While she began performing at age four, Henderson waited until he was eight.
Already into basketball, skateboarding and various other sports, Henderson and his siblings got hooked on Chinese acrobatics with Mr. Lu Yi at the San Francisco Circus Center. They attended his class for two hours every other day after school. Henderson left for Montreal first to attend Montreal’s National Circus School, where his younger sister is currently enrolled, with one more year until she graduates. Snider has been a guest teacher at Montreal’s Circus School.
In his early days, Henderson chose to focus on Chinese acrobatics, specifically four disciplines including poles and hoop diving. When he left circus school, he had mastered the big metal rings, which spin like quarters on a table. As a key member of Traces, he’s expected to do a little bit of everything, except play live music on stage.
“I’m bad at that,” he says, adding that he leaves that part of the act to the other players.
Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau is another Traces cast member and graduate of Montreal’s National Circus School. The 23-year-old and her partner, Mason Ames, met there, and three years ago Traces recruited their hand-to-hand duet. She spent the first six months of her career with 7 Fingers in Montreal, readying herself for a show that calls for 90 minutes of nonstop moving from start to finish. She learned how to handle a basketball, skateboard and even play a piano. For the first time, she was also asked to perform solo.
Benoît-Charbonneau is fast approaching her 1,000th show with this production. Despite the fact that she is tossed up in the air on most nights, she only has one broken finger story. One night in Chicago she dislocated her finger while performing. Powered by an adrenaline rush, she put her finger back in place and kept on going.
Although he’s not yet 30 years old, Henderson is a veteran Traces performer, and he’s thinking about his next move. In September, he’ll be finished with the show. He is considering creating something with his family.
For now, though, his mind is on the week’s shows, and the special guest who will appear in Los Angeles. “He’s a rock star,” says Henderson about Daqi. After taking some time off, Daqi is returning to the production Friday night. “It’s funny because we’re always doing Chinese disciplines, and this is our first Chinese guy.”
Traces, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm. Tickets: $25-$70. www.musiccenter.org. 213-972-7211.
**All Traces production photos by Michael Meseke.