News & Reviews

The Melba Spiegeltent - The Age; Collaboration makes circus experience close-up and intimate

12th December 2014

Australian circus outfit Acrobat came to prominence in the mid-1990s with an "anti-aesthetic" that stripped circus back to a raw form free from decoration and embellishment. The company is among our most sought-after on the international touring circuit, but co-founder Jo-Ann Lancaster sounds surprised when we begin our conversation. "You've actually heard of us?"

By contrast, there are probably few Australians who haven't heard of Circus Oz. The two companies seem worlds apart – Circus Oz is a theatrical juggernaut known for its big-top extravaganzas, while Acrobat is an austere response to the spectacle of entertainment and the emptiness of consumer society.

However, a new collaboration between the two promises to marry these distinct sensibilities in the intimacy of a Spiegeltent show. Titled Close to the Bone, it's one of several intimate shows that Circus Oz has produced over the years, and each has been more "adult" in a certain sense. The intimacy allows its makers to play with ideas that might be too complex for the big-top outings.

"Just the premise that it's not being marketed as a family show, that in itself allows a certain freedom," director and Circus Oz regular Debra Batton says. "Particularly in the sophistication, rather than in regards to adult themes."

Close to the Bone is in part an exploration of what it means when the gap between us narrows. "There are 10 performers, two musicians on stage the whole time," Batton says. "There's a lot of intensity, just having that many people in a small space. What does it mean to be close? What does it mean to be close to the audience? What does it mean to be so close to each other? And of course there's the bigger question of humanity, about what it means to be close."

Such closeness can be thrilling, seductive, revealing. It can also be hair-raising. Consider the brute fact of high-velocity hula hoops mere inches from the audience. "With all of us breathing down each others' necks, the hula hoop is almost more like a weapon than a decoration or a circus apparatus," Batton says.

Lancaster and Acrobat co-founder Simon Yates are directing Close to the Bone alongside Batton, and it helps that the three have developed great professional respect for each other's practices over the past few decades.

"There's not such a sense of having to be careful or not treading on each other's toes or nurse egos," Lancaster says. Experiment has always been crucial to Acrobat's method. "That there's no guarantee that what we're going to do is going to work," she says. "That's fun for me. I'm not really excited going to shows where I know something is going to work before it even goes on stage."

That thirst for experiment is partly why collaborations of this sort are vital for companies in Circus Oz's position. Circus Oz reinvented the form in the 1970s and early 80s, while Acrobat reinvented it again for the 1990s and early 2000s.

But success can often mean that innovators and misfits become the new establishment. While Circus Oz still has much of the maverick spirit with which it was formed, today it is also one of the major performing arts institutions in the country.

Acrobat's small scale, conversely, affords great artistic freedom but limits the company's reach. "Big companies often suffer from the bureaucracy that begins to govern," Batton says. "As soon as you get more money there's a lot more responsibility in your reporting back and all of those things. It's almost like the work is being made to the business plan. I don't think anyone intends that to happen. Artists resist that as much as possible but the artists often become the minority in the bureaucracy of a big company. It's a struggle to be the artistic voice."

The Acrobat team has been a way to shortcircuit those bureaucratic demands, then. As Lancaster notes, "we actually don't have anything at stake. The money they're paying us is its own little sum, and it's not like we have to make everybody happy to get that money. So Simon and I can sort of do whatever we please and not feel like there's anything at stake."

The Age
John Bailey

Photographer: Wayne Taylor

The Melba Spiegeltent - The Age; Collaboration makes circus experience close-up and intimate -