Hands down, Les 7 Doigts de la Main is my favorite circus group, and they have been ever since their first show in San Francisco almost a decade ago. What appealed to me then was not their terrifyingly brilliant acrobatics but rather their personal and intimate approach to their art and audience. That intimacy continues to be a hallmark of their performance, presented this time, here in Berkeley, by Cal Performances.

The first appearance was marked, startlingly, by speech. And talking, directly to the audience, continues to typify their work. How many shows built on physical prowess are characterized by the performers talking to the audience – about their lives, their pasts, their desires and the subterfuges of performance? There is an intimacy to the performers’ stories, a kind of confessional bearing of themselves that reveals who they are and why they became performers. This is served up alongside jaw-dropping physical pyrotechnics, and routines based on formidable gymnastic strength, exquisite timing, pin-point balance and the kinetic fluidity hat is born out of incessant and devoted practice.

Further, there continues to be something refreshingly honest about these self-descriptions. No self-conscious or narcissistic manipulation, none of the cloying affectations of daily talk shows appears. A kind of wry humour has become the essence of their conversation.

Today none of the original performers are on stage. Rather, two of the company’s original founders, Shanna Carroll and Sébastien Soldevila, are the artistic directors of this programme, titled Sequence 8, which was originally choreographed in 2012 with a team of eight young circus performers. Although several of the first performers were from farther parts afield, everyone met in Montreal at the circus school and through Cirque du Soleil. Carroll is from Berkeley, California, training first of all at the Pickle Family Circus school in San Francisco. French-born Soldevila worked first as a choreographer in Holland before being recruited to perform in Cirque du Soleil’s Saltimbanco.

Each time I type out the word circus I’m taken aback. Is that the correct word for Le 7 Doigts de la Main? Circus in the US implies a kind of grandness decked with glitter and greasepaint and the impresario gesticulations of a Barnum & Bailey. Even today’s most sophisticated circuses (such as Cirque du Soleil), emphasize large and glittery innovation – production, production, production is front and center, gilding and mystifying the talents of the performers. 

The production of Les 7 Doigts is decidedly low-key; sets (Anne Séguin Poirier), lighting (Nol Van Genuchten), costuming (Manon Demarais) are all minimalist and subtle. Sequence 8 begins with Colin Davis in suit and tie giving the audience the standard “turn off your cellphones and be aware of the emergency exits” spiel. He starts to walk off and then returns; quickly, he repositions us in the lives of the performers. Here they are again, he points out, “in a dark and windowless room”. And soon after the audience is made aware of its own presence in relationship to the performers: the performance we are about to see, he adds, is “a dance of our actions and your reactions”.

Indeed. Their actions brought gasps and a long standing ovation. Davis is the son of the founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and partners with Devin Henderson in Chinese hoops, an acrobatic feat that requires leaping through small hoops set at various heights. Henderson had the phenomenal ability to run up a vertical pole that must have been some 20 feet high. All that sounds oddly bland when written out, but performed on stage it’s breathtaking.

Camille Legris and Tristan Nielsen perform the acrobatic balancing act of hand-to-hand, an acrobatic form of ballet’s pas de deux. And Maxim Laurin and Ugo Dario rocked the teeterboard, which you may remember from childhood as a seesaw but is a springboard used for catapulting one acrobat sky high to perform multiple twists, turns, rolls and somersaults by their partner’s weight landing on the board’s opposite springy end.

Alexandra Royer took to the air on several occasions, first on the Russian bar and then on the trapeze.

The Russian bar is like a flexible balance beam: two porters, with each end of the narrow bar resting on a shoulder, fling the flyer into the air to perform triple saults, and twisting double somersaults, only to land on the bouncing bar with exact control.

What becomes increasingly clear in these mind-boggling acrobatics is the total need for each performer's complete awareness and understanding of the other performers’ bodies. It’s an alertness that cannot diminish for a millisecond without endangering someone’s life. This need breeds a form of intimacy that is total in its concentration. It is transparent and totally experiential, even to – or perhaps especially to – the observing audience, and it saturates every move with a thrilling quality.

This concentration infiltrates even those acts that hold no threat of injury. Eric Bates is an amazing juggler, working with boxes about the size and dimensions of cigar boxes; he is considered one of the best in the world. The boxes are held side by side in a line as he weaves them back and forth. They seem to defy gravity and are always on the edge of being dropped. In a short interlude Davis interviews Eric. Holding a box as if it were a book, he exhorts the juggler to tell every one about his latest book “How to Live with the Boxes You Think Outside of”.

“We all have pieces of ourselves we have to drop,” he comments. Yep, and pieces we strive to keep suspended in air.