News & Reviews
The Melba Spiegeltent - Melbourne. Arts. Fashion.; Circus Oz and Acrobat are cutting things Close To The Bone
8th December 2014
Circus Oz is a rock-n-roll, animal free circus. Celebrating breathtaking stunts, irreverent humour, cracking live music and an all human ensemble, Circus Oz promotes the best of the Australian spirit: generosity, diversity, death-defying bravery, and a fair go for all. Circus Oz returns to Melbourne this December, disembodying the ensemble from their large-scale touring production, to present an intimate two-week season of a new work Close to the Bone.
Close to the Bone is directed by Associate Director Debra Batton in collaboration with Simon Yates and Jo-Ann Lancaster from the inventive company Acrobat. Debra Batton appeared with Circus Oz from 1993 – 1995 and from 1996 – 2009, and was a performer and Artistic Director of Legs on the Wall, where she created and featured in over 30 productions including the Helpmann award-winning production On the Case.
Simon Yates and Jo-Ann Lancaster founded Acrobat in the mid 1990s and created a blend of astonishing acrobat techniques with a highly personal vision of modern society. Yates and Lancaster's shared desire to go against the tide of contemporary escalation can be seen in the anti-aesthetic of their productions. They are raw, without compromise, focused on the personality of the acrobat and mix of acrobatic perfection with a ferocious, dry sense of humour.
Close to the Bone will feature a new mixture of collaboration between the Circus Oz ensemble as they conceal and reveal the complexities of being close to the bone through an acrobatic lens, complimented by the effusive musical virtuosity of Ania Reynolds and Ben Hendry. I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with Debra Batton and Jo-Ann Lancaster about this exciting new venture.
SD: Debra, you were a performer with Circus Oz many years ago and then spent several years working as Artistic Director with Legs On The Wall. How has your time with Legs On The Wall influenced your work with Circus Oz in your new role as Associate Director?
DB: When I was with Circus Oz I was an acrobat performer and when I first joined Legs On The Wall I was a performer, but I kind of journeyed through Legs to end up as the Artistic Director for nearly ten years. During that time I directed several performances. I guess my experience at Circus Oz informed the way I became a director, or my sense of what a director was.
I think what happens a lot with performers is you become a director because you feel like directors don’t get it. Don’t get what you can do, what’s possible and so it is your own frustration that leads you to do it. I did have a dance and choreography background before I joined the circus. So I was always interested in structure, how performance got made, and very interested in the body as a really strong communicating tool. It wasn’t just about skills, but I also have a deep love and respect for skills. I was really interested in the body as a form and the body as content – the body as text. This is very familiar language in dance, and less familiar language in circus. I have always had this sense that dance language and acrobatic language have a lot in common but the two cultures are worlds apart. I am somehow interested in something in between. I think over the years my love of circus has perhaps grown stronger than my love of dance. I often say now I have no loyalty to genre.
SD: How did the idea for Close To The Bone come about and the collaboration between Acrobat and Circus Oz? Where is the synergy?
JL: We’ve [Lancaster and Yates] maintained a friendship with Mike Finch [Artistic Director] for many years. We’ve known him in this position and we have a pretty good rapport. Simon and he are very talkative people. When they meet it is very hard to stop them from talking and that’s their connection, and I get along with Mike too – but I don’t talk as much as Simon...
Then what happened was, about a year ago, I got a call from Antonella [Senior Artistic Associate]. She said “We’ve got this idea. We’ve got an invitation to put in a grant to have some Artists in Residence and we thought you guys would be good candidates.” We went “Sounds alright” and then the grant came through which was good because we were in dire straits. Simon’s got a back injury and it’s creating a bit of havoc with work. We are already on the edge in a lot of ways. We’re not like a formalised big, secure company. We just live off the show we do and if we’re not doing a show it’s a little bit of a concern. We weren’t working and we went "that’ll be good" and then the grant came off which was great. We are Artists in Residence for three months over the year and this is our last stint.
DB: This show in the Spiegeltent actually came in to replace an international tour that dropped out. The idea of doing a Spiegeltent show with the cast came in partly to fill that. I worked with Mike on the last show But Wait...There’s More, directing it with him and then he said do you want to direct it [Close To The Bone] with Jo and Simon? You guys work out how you think it will work.
SD: Have the three of you worked together before?
JL: Yeah. We were in Circus Oz together years ago. It was a briefer period for Simon and I. We left after about a year I suppose. Then there was a period where we didn’t see each other. We saw your [Batton’s] shows.
DB: I always followed Acrobat. I think Acrobat have been one of the major influences in Australian circus. They’re one of the few companies that came out and boldly did their own work their own way. It doesn’t look like anyone else’s work. It really challenged – in Australia and in Europe – what circus might be. I have watched them and been in awe of their ability to be so true to what it was that they wanted to do without influence of managers and producers and other people like that. For me it was just like – how exciting!
SD: Have their been any constraints in the process in terms of how you guys work and working within Circus Oz?
JL: It’s been pretty organic between the three of us. It’s been great. There’s that mutual respect there and an understanding that we’ve got a pretty common sort of idea about how to approach things. It’s worked quite organically and there hasn’t been much need for negotiating.
In terms of the bigger picture, I get quite claustrophobic because there is sort of this extra structure which is around you and I don’t understand just not being able to do your own thing whenever you want, however you want, in your own time. When there are people saying you can’t have this, you must do that, we’re worried about this I just go “who are these...” I’m not used to that! I’m not accustomed to it. Basically, Simon and I just do things for ourselves. We make the stuff – the costumes, the set, the rigging – and so it’s only "no" if we don’t want to do it. It’s just a different situation. I’m just not accustomed and so I can get quite Bolshy at times. I try to keep it internal, but...
DB: I think one of the things I’ve noticed in that is that I have been working in the company for longer and when I left Legs I spent four years only doing work that I felt I needed to do. It didn’t matter if it paid me or if one person in the audience saw it. I just felt the need, after being in a company, to just completely commit to myself as an artist because I felt like I just became better at strategy than I did about making art. That’s not to say I didn’t also learn an enormous amount, and I feel incredibly privileged to have been an Artistic Director and to have a salary and to have resources. Oh my God, what a privilege that was! In leaving it I had to work out who am I again as an artist.
JL: I would like to point out a couple of years ago – I hadn’t seen Deb do anything for years and years – Deb did this great thing I saw, Tuxedo Cat. It was an improvised performance and I was just really blown away by the guts that she displayed. Just getting out there and making it up as she went and it was incredibly compelling. Then suddenly we come together not long after, doing something together which is nice.
DB: Jo and Simon were around while we were doing rehearsals for But Wait...There’s More. There was this lovely informal relationship. We had lots of discussion about art and circus and what was important and what was aesthetic and what is personal taste and the difference between personal taste and good and bad structure. We had a bit more time to do that informal stuff. I think that is one of the things that in funded structures you don’t always get, but this particular structure allowed it.
JL: It’s been quite a luxury. This grant that we’ve got sort of makes us independent in a way. It’s not like anyone can argue with the money that we’re getting. I can sort of be fairly liberal. I can say what I think because I am just going to be walking away after this. That is just a little bit exaggerated because I do try to be a little bit diplomatic...
SD: Is Close To The Bone a completely original work? What is the artistic exploration you are undertaking here?
DB: The thing with Close To The Bone is, you know, what is close to the bone for some people isn’t for others. Before we stepped into the room we had to have a title and a concept. I just thought about the thing I loved most about a Spiegeltent show is the proximity - the proximity of the performer to the performer, the performer to the band, the performer to the audience. That was my beginning point. From there I explored ideas of closeness. Closeness can be breathing down someone’s neck. It can be nasty and mean and threatening. Closeness can also be intimacy that has a depth of love like no other. All of this is close, and then there are all sorts of false closeness. You can be physically close and emotionally remote. Rather than try to tell a story or anything we just use these ideas to help push the performers to think about circus and the act that they do. You have to approach it in a slightly different way.
JL: When you’re rehearsing, you do get close to the bone, don’t you? The line between personal and professional can get really paper thin. You don’t want to hurt people but people can feel hurt. It’s hard to see that difference between not taking it personally and taking whatever feedback that you give as just notes – just information.
SD: Did you have to sit down with the cast and have a conversation about how exposing this show would be for everybody?
DB: We were on tour together and we had a couple of meetings about it. I basically said working with closeness you’ve still got choices. You can be the person who is just not going to come close and you create the antagonism, if you like, in the space. We also had the conversation that if we really want to make something that the audience engages with and feels something from it’s really about how far people are prepared to go. I can’t make anybody go anywhere that they’re not prepared to go. In the end, when you devise work with a performer and their body is as much the text as anything we do, we can only go as far as they’re prepared to go. Other than that, we are either constantly asking for more or we’re rearranging our ideas to fit where the performer is prepared to go. If they don’t go where we need them to go we kind of have to circle back.
SD: What do you want the audience to experience, or go away thinking?
JL: I hope it’s not entirely easy. I’d be disappointed if everyone loved everything.
DB: I tend to think that the best work is when there is a divided response as opposed to a unanimous response. I guess when you’re making an original piece of work one of the things it lacks is familiarity. People often love things that are familiar. It’s very hard to like something when it’s unfamiliar even when it’s very, very good. It takes some training to be prepared to watch something and like it when it’s unfamiliar.
We have not gone for a familiar, typical Spiegeltent show. We have tried to make a unique show that is unique to this situation - us three working together with this cast at this moment in time. We haven’t tried to be getting anywhere. We’ve tried to be unfolding what this show might be. When we identify something that’s emerging we sort of try to name it and then try to keep it.
JL: It is very tempting for people when they go "oh, we’re going into the Spiegeltent, we better bring out the burlesque, the sexiness, the bling, the sauciness, the cheap tricks" and all those clichés. It’s just like this automatic thing and it’s a bit difficult. People just kind of sit back and say “entertain me”. I really didn’t want to pander to that. I just go “you’ve just gotta work harder than that.” We are all trying to approach it by sort of trying to avoid cliché.
DB: Trying to be really honest with what’s emerging.
JL: Trying to get confidence in the performers that there is more actually in them than they believe. Sometimes they only believe that they are like decorations, that they have to fall back on these things in order to get a response. You try to get in their minds and say “you know what, you might not actually need a response to get a worthy moment on stage.” It may not need a response to actually justify it.
DB: Sometimes feeling stumped, unable to respond, is a wonderful feeling in the audience.
JL: Simon and I are really accustomed to that kind of performing and it’s actually very liberating. Suddenly you feel like you can just do what you like. I don’t care if you’re gonna give a response, this is what you’re gonna get, and I’m testing it out on you. I am personally not fussed by not getting applause or approval or anything like that. It’s a trap. It’s actually limiting. It’s a bit of a process for us to encourage the performers to enter that territory. Then they’ll be free.
DB: The interesting thing – which brings me right back to Circus Oz – is that Circus Oz, in its roots, was doing the same thing in reaction to theatre. Good theatre was when all of these sorts of things happened in. They kind of went “Doesn’t have to. That doesn’t have to be what good theatre is. What if we worked with circus and we did all of this other stuff.” They really kind of created a new idea of what theatre could be by bringing the circus in and then developing the circus. In a way do you have to keep on doing that because a company starts to understand almost too well what it does. Then you lose the sense of experimentation. I think that is part of what Circus Oz is trying to achieve in bringing Acrobat in and offering the Spiegeltent show to the performers. It offers them, and myself, an opportunity to experiment again. Begin like we don’t know anything about making circus, and let’s find out what we make. Forget what we already know.
Melbourne. Arts. Fashion.
Photographer: Sam Tabone