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heroes in the theatre of adversity

anni davey gathers responses to acrobat's new show

Anni Davey has performed with Circus Oz and Crying in Public Places and recently directed the latest show from the Women's Circus; Mike Finch is artistic director of Circus Oz; Teresa Blake is a core member of desoxy; and Karen Hadfield was director of the 2004 and 2006 Adelaide Fringe festivals.

Jo Lancaster, Acrobat Jo Lancaster, Acrobat
photo John Sones

It was during this season that Jo Lancaster, co artistic director with Simon Yates was struck down with such violent morning sickness that she was virtually unable to perform, leaving the show only 40 minutes long. It was still celebrated, despite obvious and glaring holes—the tumbling routine at the end in which Simon Yates heroically performed line after line with no respite for example.

Acrobat announced during that season that they were folding. So it was ironic that next May the company was awarded $30,000 by the Sidney Myer Foundation. Since then we have only seen Circus Ole, a fabulous collaboration with The Snuff Puppets.

So we were very much looking forward to seeing Smaller, Poorer, Cheaper, Acrobat’s latest offering at The Melbourne Fringe Festival. To write this article I’ve interviewed Mike Finch, Teresa Blake and Karen Hadfield.

Smaller, Poorer, Cheaper is essentially three solo pieces: Jo Lancaster on difficulty and motherhood; Mozes in an extended exploration of disease and toxicity; and Simon Yates finishing. As with all Acrobat shows, the skills are primary and performed at a very high level. I began by asking if the show had an underlying theme or cohesiveness.

Blake says of the show, “All of the pieces have a simplicity and an artlessness. It’s a very essential show. It feels like each of the performers doesn’t actually have to do as much as they do. There seems to be hardly any attention to transitions. It isn’t very sophisticated theatrically.”

Simon’s slack wire routine really sticks out. It has a Flying Fruit Fly or Circus Oz aesthetic (Simon has performed in both, and the act was created during a stint at Circus Oz), a sort of goofy, full scenario. It’s been performed a lot so it has a polish that the rest of the show doesn’t have. People have commented that Acrobat would benefit from using a director. But maybe it is this ‘artlessness’ that is their appeal. Maybe a director or a more sophisticated dramaturgical approach would lose something.

I ask Finch what the performers wear. “Not much”, he says. Acrobat’s aesthetic has always been functional. It could be described as a non-aesthetic. They don’t dress up the tricks, they strip their routines back to essentials. Costuming in this show is virtually non existent. Jo begins naked, sniffing through a pile of undies until she finds a pair to wear that smell the least (we assume, and hope). Mozes is also nude for a lot of the time. Apparently the roller skating brings to mind Helpmann’s comment about male nudes in ballet: that you can’t get some bits to stop when the rest does. Simon begins in undies and dresses himself in a suit on the slack wire, his much loved routine, which while largely unchanged manages to convey something new in this context.

So a lot of the visual information of the show is about the body. Jo’s body shows us the results of having two children and constant, demanding training. It is sinewy and hard, like a farm worker’s body, says Teresa.

Mozes finishes his solo with his Blood Rope act. The rope begins to drip and then pour blood down his body as he contorts and entwines himself in it. This is about the inside of the body coming out, the way disease can become primary, can hold a body hostage.

Simon uses a repetitive handspring drill as a study of limits and endurance. He handsprings onto a table, then raises the surface by a centimetre and does it again, and again, and again until the height defeats him.

Both Jo and Mozes do a swinging trapeze act. The same skill, fairly similar acts. This doesn’t seem to worry or tire the audience, who are instead interested in the different executions of the same skill. Jo strips it of performativity, preferring to let the moves speak for themselves. Mozes is a consummate showman complete with compliments and flourishes. And then Simon brings the trapeze down too. But instead of a trapeze act he sets a rope loop and, surprisingly, does a back ‘sault to toe hang in the loop. This is a trick you don’t see often. Well, it’s quite difficult and is over so quickly...I suspect that the “bang for buck” quotient seems too low for a lot of performers. But then this is Acrobat and they’ve never been very interested in the “bang” anyway.

I asked Karen for her favourite moment in the show: “Jo holding a vacuum cleaner to her breast to show how it feels sometimes to be a mother. All the information came together. The look of her body, the difficulty of the tumbling (she does a tumbling routine wearing heavy boots).”

Teresa mentions that “Simon does Jo’s hair for her before she goes onto the swinging trapeze. This simple act is incredibly moving. It gives us a glimpse into their relationship. It speaks of a couple even though they perform solo. It speaks of interdependence and loyalty and, I suppose, love!”

Mike describes Simon “desperately struggling to do circus by himself. He drags on a large boxer’s punching bag. It looks almost heavier than he is. He hangs it from a snapshackle and drops a plumb bob underneath it. He painstakingly sets up the teeter board underneath that. When he is satisfied that everything is correct, he stands on the other end of the teeter board and pulls the snapshackle open, dropping the bag and pitching himself into the air.”

I ask, “Was it sad?” Mike says, “No! It was funny! And heroic!” Teresa agrees, “Heroic is a good word.” I suspect that it was sad though, underneath. Sad because the performers don’t work together. Sad because it’s so tough. Sad because even though they seem to conquer adversity, to triumph through sheer physical prowess, the adversity is always there.

Apparently Acrobat already have some European work lined up for this show. I hope that luck goes with them this time.

Acrobat, Smaller, Poorer, Cheaper, Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, Sept 21-Oct 1

Anni Davey has performed with Circus Oz and Crying in Public Places and recently directed the latest show from the Women's Circus; Mike Finch is artistic director of Circus Oz; Teresa Blake is a core member of desoxy; and Karen Hadfield was director of the 2004 and 2006 Adelaide Fringe festivals.

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 42

© Anni Davey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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