Shana Carroll had never cared much for spectacle. So when her father — a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle — suggested she see about an office job with the Pickle Family Circus (the subject of a book he’d recently co-authored for the troupe’s 10-year anniversary), the Berkeley native begrudgingly agreed to make the trek across the bay. There, in an old, converted San Francisco church that served as the company’s training quarters, she watched, mesmerized, as a young trapeze artist by the name of Sky de Sela flew above her in a glorious display of athletic artistry.
It was 1988, and an 18-year-old Carroll knew she had found her calling. “It was the proximity that finally humanized it all for me,” she remembered. “As a child, I never bought into the trickery of a traditional circus — it never felt real. But here was Sky, 15 feet above me, hair flowing and wearing sweatpants. I could relate to her, could feel my muscles contracting with hers. I felt like I could actually be her.”
The arduous training that followed would test Carroll’s dedication to her newfound craft: long and bruise-filled years learning the intricacies of the trapeze with “The Pickles” and at the national circus schools of Montreal and Paris. In 1993, her perseverance paid off, and she found herself on the artists’ roster for Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco production, a path that would cultivate enduring relationships in both love and career.
Fast-forward to 2002, and Carroll and her husband, Sébastien Soldevila (a French acro-sport champion whom she met on Saltimbanco), sit around a coffee table, locked into a brainstorming session with five close friends to decide the name of their newly formed company—seven highly skilled artists banding together over a mutual desire to flesh out a contemporary performance troupe that “focuses on the dancing and artistic elements of the circus,” Carroll said. They settle on Les 7 doigts de la main, a riff on the French equivalent of “two peas in a pod” — only with a seven-fingered hand. “It’s really a great title for us,” laughed Carroll. “It represents the quirky spirit and beautiful deformities of our company.”
Now in its 15th season (and simply known internationally as 7 Fingers), the Montreal-based company’s unique approach to physical storytelling has amplified its success across continents, due in large part to the group’s stunning ability to humanize acrobatic prowess. “My background is in theater,” said Carroll, “so I have a strong desire to make sure all of my work has a subtext. Daredevil tricks were never my thing — emotional connection with the audience is.” Next week, the company will be rolling through town to present Cuisine & Confessions, a multisensory “storytelling through food” choreographed and directed by Carroll and Soldevila, and featuring nine multidisciplinary artists who will leap and fly in reverence to “life as it happens in the kitchen.”
As our conversation wound down, the subject turned to the growing appeal of cross-disciplinary performance companies, and the rising popularity of experiential theater — a trend Carroll helped to fuel when she choreographed Queen of the Night in New York City in 2013, netting $30 million in ticket sales over the course of its two-year run. “When I started that project, I had no idea we would hit a nerve with so many people,” she said, “but looking back, I see it’s a direct response to our virtual world. Seeing a live show is a palpable experience, and breaking that barrier between audience and performer is a powerful tool toward empathy.” —Ninette Paloma
The 7 Fingers of the Hand will perform Cuisine & Confessions Monday, February 6, 7 p.m., at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State Street. Call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.