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RT PROFILER 9, 25 MARCH 2015


The perfection of silliness and stupidity

Keith Gallasch, Interview: Jo Lancaster, acrobat


Jo Lancaster, Simon Yates, acrobat Jo Lancaster, Simon Yates, acrobat
photo Karen Donnelly
ACROBAT HAVE A NEW SHOW, TITLED IT’S NOT FOR EVERYONE. THE COMPANY OCCUPY A SPECIAL IF UNUSUAL PLACE IN THE HISTORY OF CIRCUS IN AUSTRALIA. ON THE ONE HAND, THEY ARE GREATLY ADMIRED WITHIN THE PERFORMING ARTS COMMUNITY FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL RIGOUR OF THEIR PERFORMANCES AND A SPARE, BARELY ADORNED, EVEN FERAL AESTHETIC. ON THE OTHER, NOT MANY AUSTRALIANS HAVE HAD THE PLEASURE OF BEING THRILLED BY THEM. THEIR SUCCESSFUL CAREER HAS LARGELY PLAYED OUT, WITH EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD REVIEWS, IN EUROPE.

In an insightful article for RealTime in 2006 about acrobat’s Smaller. Cheaper, Poorer, erstwhile Circus Oz performer Anni Davey interviewed observers Mike Finch, Teresa Blake and Karen Hadfield about their responses to the skills on show, the unsophisticated theatricality and apparent ‘artlessness’ side by side with calculatedly potent imagery. I saw the show in 2007—at times it looked like circus mutating into performance art given the singular attention each of the three solo performers dedicated to image making.

Excerpts from various performances by acrobat scattered across YouTube reveal spectacular acrobatic and aerial work, while a short film of moments from Propaganda (2010) indicates a playful theatricality, mocking everyday life in the West as if it has been Stalinised and then gone wildly out of control. It’s funny, but can turn dark: a woman with a mermaid’s tail is suffocated by a large plastic bag as she struggles to scale a rope—a distressing image of drowning in a polluted ocean.

Simon Yates and Jo Lancaster are acrobat. They’ve worked with various collaborators over the years, but their latest show, It’s Not for Everyone, premiering for Albury Wodonga’s HotHouse Theatre in March, is a two-hander. I talked with Lancaster, by phone, about the show’s title and the company’s move towards a greater theatricality.

A potential audience member might regard the title with some suspicion. Why did you go there?

I suppose some people might look at it and think this show is too weird or that it’s not proper theatre and not want to come because they might not have a good time. Others might have their curiosity piqued and wonder, “Is it for me?” If someone comes with that sort of curiosity, I think that’s a perfect attitude to see this performance.

I gather this time because of Simon Yates’ back injury that you’ve left behind some of the acrobatics and you’re moving in a more theatrical direction.

I’d like to think we’re going further into the ‘physical theatre’ direction—though that’s a dicey term—rather than less. We’re dialling up on the theatrical element, which has always been in our shows but in the past it’s been scaffolded with impressive circus feats and beautiful acts. So we’ve been able to be quite experimental, cheeky and subversive in what we present on stage. We’ve been able to get away with it because we’ve had that kind of impressive stuff in the background so people can go, “Ooh it’s a bit weird but isn’t it great how they can do that.” That’s becoming the meat of the show. Simon does have a sore back but he’s a very pointy-end physical performer. He can still do silly physical things. We’re deliberately trying not to do really difficult stuff because we’re trying to move away from circus to become more [performance] artists, I guess.

In what I’ve seen of Propaganda there’s a strong element of physical clowning and quite a bit of business. The publicity for the new show suggests it’s about clowning. In another interview you mentioned that sometimes old acrobats become clowns. How does this relationship between acrobatics and clowning manifest in the new work?

It doesn’t feel like so much an ageing thing as clowning being one of our acrobat things. And as for getting old, well, we’re still full of energy. Simon has fragility in his back but I’ve seen teenagers in shin splints. You can get an injury at any age and it slows you down. So we’re both energised and excited about this new show. It feels like a new direction that’s going to bring out new things in us. We’ve been so dedicated to our craft of acrobatics that it really hasn’t left much space for other things to develop.

Jo Lancaster, acrobat Jo Lancaster, acrobat
photo Karen Donnelly
Has there always been an element of clowning in acrobat’s work?

I think so. An acrobat is at their best when they’re the most stupid. It’s important for an acrobat not to think too much. It gets in the way. That sort of stupidity has bled into the theatrics of our shows. We have a bit of a preference for stupidity in our theatricality. Silliness and stupidity—it’s a style I’d like to think we’ve perfected.

In Propaganda there are some marvellous moments where routines seem to go wrong and there are terrible falls and crashes, people landing crotch to shoulder.

Tragedy is one of our favourite elements.

The promotion for the show suggests that you want to push clowning into a surreal dimension. Clowning is already surreal but you want to make it even stranger?

Well, I would put it a bit differently. The clowning is very much the accessible end of the show. The opening is highly accessible, which, again, is “not for everyone.” Some people prefer inaccessible art. But generally speaking, people love clowns and a classic circus act and happy, fun times. That’s where the show opens. But quite quickly we lose the clowns and the show unravels. It becomes darker and darker. There’s some dark clowning that goes on but really what happens is that we’re trying to pull the audience into a more alien world, to bring them with us and connect with them along the way. More and more we become aliens but hopefully we do it in such a way that we don’t ‘alienate’ people.

Into what kind of alien world are you taking the audience? Is it a reflection of the uncertain world we currently live in?

I don’t want to give away too much—though I’m sure the secret will come out soon—but at the end, we’re quite foreign, alien beings.

Are you human beings?

Oh yes, we’re human beings.

What’s driving this vision?

I think we just want to see how far we can bring the audience with us, have people test themselves to see how far they’re willing to go to appreciate something.

Is this a dark vision of reality?

I hope not. It’s just that the things that Simon and I perceive as funny start out being very obvious and predictable, but over time things are less obvious and less predictable. So, there’s some darkness to it but it’s not harsh or dystopian.

It’s just strange?

It’s strange.

Is there a sense that you believe the world had gotten out of hand and you’re trying to represent it in some way that’s kind of amusingly surreal?

We’re definitely pointing at things along the way but in a more abstract sense and hopefully with humour. I am personally quite optimistic about things. I feel like we can rise above these difficulties. It’s entirely possible. I don’t want to bring everybody down. I prefer to have a laugh at the less pleasant things that happen.


HotHouse Theatre, acrobat, It’s Not for Everyone, Wodonga, March 19-29.

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. online

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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