Acrobat and the Power of Authenticity
Written by Mitch Jones
As part of my Artistic Fellowship at Circus Oz, I’ve been researching shows and artists that I find inspirational. For the first of my blog posts, I thought I would talk about the Albury-Wodonga based artists, Acrobat – one of my all-time favourite circus companies, and one of Australia’s most significant cultural exports.
The first of their shows I saw was Smaller, Poorer, Cheaper (2006) at the Meat Market in North Melbourne – an appropriately titled venue for such a raw display of artistic vitality. I remember Jo Lancaster cradling a vacuum cleaner that she suckled at her teat like an infant, Mozes climbing and falling on a rope that rained blood red, and Simon Yates literally lifting me out of my seat with excitement as he tumbled with brutal precision.
I wonder if the current trend away from facial expression in contemporary Australian circus was at least in part derived from Acrobat’s keenly honed style of dramaturgy. They never needed to show you what the thoughts and feelings behind their acts were with acting – because you could see it powerfully in how the show was composed, in its rhythm, its scenarios, and above all in the simplicity of its thrilling skills and satirical clowning.
Behind these blank expressions it was clear that there was a well-developed creative rationale relating to core themes which gave the work a powerful purpose (which cannot always be said about many other ‘non expressive’ circus acts).
These ideas were drawn out in the second Acrobat work that I saw, called Propaganda (2010). I remember feeling that this work was somehow less engaging than Smaller Poorer Cheaper, partly because it wore its themes on its sleeve so literally. Thinking about it now however, I appreciate the self-aware irony of making a sincere moral statement about anti-capitalism packaged in the aesthetics of USSR communism. There is a symbolic interplay between content (message) and form (Didacticism) that points to a deeper awareness of how difficult it is to communicate strong beliefs effectively.
One scene (and message) from that show in particular has stayed with me. Grover, Simon and Jo’s son, was sitting on a trapeze that rose slowly from the floor into the roof. As it did, he held up a small sign saying ‘DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU ARE GOING TO’. Other signs said things like ‘GARDEN NUDE’ and ‘BE KIND’. It was a blatant and yet endearing advertisement of values, just like it said on the box. This ability to speak (their) truth with conviction (i.e. doing what they say they are going to) is one of the key reasons Acrobat’s work is so powerful.
Authenticity is a prized quality in a time when much of what we know about the world is mediated through screens, technology, marketing and commercial media. We consume representations of reality (simulacra) that offer an idealized version of their subjects, yet which are often disappointing when seen in real life – e.g. online shopping, or tinder profiles.
Representations lack the depth of truth/real life, so they try to copy it in a poor facsimile. Corporate virtue signalling is a prime example of this, where companies market themselves and their products as supporters of climate action, racial justice, or LGBTIQ+ issues primarily to attract customers, but without real commitment to substantial change.
It’s easy to say that you care about social justice, but the words have to be consistent with your actions, which is why Propaganda was actually a very stirring piece of political circus-theatre. After the show I walked over to talk to Simon and asked about the strange wooden consoles on stage. He explained that the whole show had been designed to be battery powered, with a low voltage sound system and custom-made lights included in their touring set design, and that their plan in the future was to make shows that could pack down into a bike trailer. Acrobat knows the power of authenticity, and of value statements grounded in real action.
Perhaps this helps explain the ‘post-truth’ delirium of It’s Not For Everyone (2017). Here the audience is confronted and provoked by a cavalcade of deliberately absurd imagery. Strong value statements have given way to a kind of existential despair at the shallowness of modern life, satirically expressed in colourful scenes that border on nihilistic. Dressed as clowns, Jo and Simon struggle to push a shopping trolley onto the stage, bashing it again and again in vain into the raised edge of the floor and mumbling ‘can’t park it here – doesn’t fit’ repetitively. Nothing works, the world is broken.
There is anger here too, a seething rage that sees circus bodies strung up before the audience like sacrificial meat. I felt a kind of helpless pain for the plight of the entertainer with something important to say, dreading that it will be forgotten once the audience leaves (or dismisses the work entirely, as is prefaced in the title). But within this intriguing, difficult and slippery show there is also the babble of wisdom. A scene where Jo and Simon play music together feels like a brief escape from the madness of the world, and in a fitting climax, while naked in a pile of dirt, the performers wordlessly smear mud across the walls of the theatre and each other – again expressing that powerful urge to make a statement, even if the content is unclear.
It’s Not For Everyone now seems like a frightening precursor to an age of fake news, the shallowness of social media, and the ideological warfare on the arts industry from the federal government – stripping away funding for work with ideas, and rerouting money to commercial businesses (like the Guns n Roses tour being funded with the so called Arts bail out money). Acrobat keenly satirises this interest in marketable form over content, by provoking the audience with an uneasy meditation on the ugliness of having nothing to say – an idea which reoccurs in their most recent work Federal Arts Response Team (2018).
Yet despite provoking discomfort, great shows like these – with striking imagery that is grounded in powerful ideas and authentic beliefs, can remain inspiring long after the print on the ticket itself has faded away. Living in Melbourne during the past two years has been torturous at times, but I am hopeful that within our Circus communities there is a stoic certainty that art and artists can and will respond to this ongoing crisis with passion, wit and bravery. I can’t wait to be in an audience watching something new and brilliant with all of you again.
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