Circus, commedia dell’arte and performance art collide in this masterwork from Australian circus company, Acrobat.
It’s Not for Everyone, the latest work from Acrobat currently showing in the Sydney Festival, is a boundary-crossing, genre-defying work that marks out this Australian circus company as a unique and important voice in physical performance. This show serves as a reminder that Acrobat’s two performers and co-creators, Jo-Ann Lancaster and Simon Yates, have been pushing the boundaries and creating innovative circus work for over 20 years.
It’s Not for Everyone brings the extreme physicality of these highly skilled circus artists together with an uncompromising approach to artistic risk-taking to create a work of ground-breaking originality.
‘Old acrobats become clowns’ is the starting point of the work. We see two performers enter in character as aging clowns dressed in brightly coloured costumes with Lancaster sporting a curly red clown wig and pushing a shopping trolley. Strings of brightly coloured lights pick out the shape of the traditional small family circus tent and the two artists perform a traditional trick-cycling act together.
As the show progresses, however, the sense of circus tradition begins to unravel. Banners and props disintegrate during the acts, and the skills of the acrobats are shown to be failing and disintegrating. The clown costumes are gradually removed and we are presented with the performers’ almost naked bodies. The colour palette of the show turns to black and white with the colours of the artists’ flesh and of clay interspersed with the blackness of the space. Traditional circus acts while still referenced become less recognisable and coherent. An aerial act referencing a traditional rope act becomes increasingly macabre as Lancaster’s apparently inert body is suspended and turned by her partner – becoming a bizarre take on the obsessive, driven focus necessary to continue to perform circus.
It’s Not for Everyone actively rejects linear narrative. The show jumps between different images that in turn disintegrate, break apart, and then lurch into other sections. Traditional notions of seamless staging are rejected, and a stuttering rhythm of darkness and light, and of sound and silence, emerges as a major visual and aural dynamic as the performers walk to the front or the side of the stage to operate the lights or change the sound. Darkness and silence on stage become metaphors for ‘not-knowing’ – opening up space in the performance structure for thought and questioning.
A meta-structure however moves through the performance as an arc from birth through to death. At the beginning of the show, in a clowning routine featuring a balloon, the male performer Yates gives birth aided by the clown midwife Lancaster. The show moves from this birth at the beginning, to a middle section which engages with strong critiques of societal gender norms; the fetishisation of self-commodification through selfies; and then explores the sex drive and the shared rhythmic patterning of daily life experienced in long-term relationships.
It’s Not for Everyone is an uncompromising look at the human condition. The work confronts the mutability of the flesh, alongside disintegration and death. Yet this show is also darkly funny and, at times, mesmerisingly beautiful, in particular when Lancaster and Yates perform a slow motion adagio sequence – a kind of wrestling in clay – that references both Butoh and performance art.
The consummate skill of these two circus performers allows them to approach taboo areas through a form of physical clowning reminiscent of the best commedia dell’arte, bringing to mind some of the most wildly taboo-breaking, hilarious, obscene and profoundly moving performances of commedia dell’arte performers such as Dario Fo and Daniele Finzi Pasca.
This show becomes an extended meditation on the gradual disintegration of everything including the body (also on the human condition of being aware of this disintegration) and the progression towards death. If that sounds dark and even bleak, it is, but at the same time – like the best clowning and commedia dell’arte – it is obscene, funny, visceral, shocking, and moving.
In It’s Not for Everyone little text is used and when it is used it consists of fragmented phrases for the most part spoken by Yates which interact to create layers of sound within the strong and evocative sound score from Tim Barrass.
It is the bodies of Acrobat’s extraordinary performers that bypass words to communicate directly a potent physical poetry.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Circus gets a radical rethink in this clowning show by Australian pioneers.
This is not the big top of your childhood. Oh sure, the colourful lights form the shape of a circus tent, and there are absolutely two clowns onstage, but if you're expecting wholesome -or, a little ribald or retroactively creepy but still family-friendly -clowning, It's Not For Everyone is here to tell you that clowns are not what you remember them to be.
Australian circus company acrobat (Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates) traces the ageing process of physical performers from high-flyers to circus clowns and beyond (so far beyond that they are reclaimed by the dirt). High-concept and both intellectually and physically nimble, the show begins with bicycle stunts and descends into anarchy.
Is circus about seeking audience cheers and gasps? At first, that’s what Lancaster and Yates do, performing tricks on command; at one point, they even measure audience applause on a giant thermometer. But it’s really all a veneer, suggesting that nothing is ever what it appears on the surface. The backdrop peels away, the gags become more self-referential and bracingly honest, and suddenly we’re in the middle of surprisingly affecting performance art.
The show begins with an abundance of props, audio-sting-cued pedals and costumed layers, but all are stripped away as Lancaster and Yates interrogate audience gaze, gender stereotypes in physical performance, and the life-cycle of performers, performance art and performance expectations.
It’s Not For Everyone is a journey, and within a 65 minute running-time it feels like we’ve experienced a life cycle – every moment important, welcome, and, crucially, a stepping-stone towards the next. There is no wasted time onstage, and Lancaster and Yates are rigorous in their practice: every gag has a purpose.
There’s a refreshing archness to this work. Call it circus for an audience hungry for radical re-imagining, call it physical theatre using the framework of circus to explore bigger ideas, call it an abstract interrogation of the human facade, and all would be correct. The greatest pleasure you can have with this as an audience member is to accept its exploration without fear, allowing it to speak, giving its ideas your clear and open mind. It’s Not For Everyone is for everyone, as long as you’re willing to listen.
February 25, 2017
IT’S NOT FOR EVERYONE, MENAGERIE, ROYAL CROQUET CLUB – FIVE STARS
“Old acrobats become clowns. So be it.” So say Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates (pictured above), founding members and movers and shakers in a 22 year circus theatre project that has broken rules and redefined almost every convention of physical entertainment. Back at the Adelaide Fringe for the first time in nine years with a new show, It’s Not for Everyone, Acrobat are still bending hearts and minds and flipping them back to us, to make of …what we will.
Arriving at the edge of the Menagerie tent stage, are two codgers in clown costume. He’s on his trick cycle, with a pink button nose and wearing an ancient bike helmet and a floral shirt. She’s in a helmet too, on top of a red fright wig and is sporting a particoloured mishmash of florals and stripes as she hauls a supermarket trolley full of stuff and tries unsuccessfully to hoist it on to the stage.
This is bitter clowning and the meanings are sinister and unflinching. But the shifts of focus are fast and fascinating.
From there the show – animated by sound designer Tim Barrass’ splendid fizzling, squelching, klaxon honking, music and effects tape – takes off. The two performers break out into bike stunts, pratfalls, Punch and Judy squabbling and other irresistibly funny clowning routines. Yates struts self importantly, Lancaster has a fixed expression of puzzlement and covert resistance. He sits in a chair while she pours improbable objects down his throat, his stomach inflates and he gives birth to a balloon amidst a cacophony of wheezing and farting.
The pace is brilliantly managed with split-second sound cues and blackouts. There are buzzers, pedals and gizmos all around the stage ready to be release looney tunes, chook noises and other aural and visual ambushes.
And, as the clown costumes are taken off, the show spreads out into a series of unpredictable tangents – beauty pageants, satirising body image with cardboard cut-outs and slogans : “Get less ugly”. The physicality becomes more menacing as tensions emerge. While a record plays with a cheesy crooner singing “You and Me Together”, Yates is hauling Lancaster upside down with an aerial strap on one ankle, like a carcass ready for filleting. This is bitter clowning and the meanings are sinister and unflinching.
But the shifts of focus are fast and fascinating. With a series of nano- second blackouts, Lancaster presents herself as a slideshow series of snapshot images – “This is me – objectified, this is me- commodified; matching top knickers in a knot; transparent; out of focus.” It is so simple, and wonderfully smart.
Calling their show It’s Not for Everyone suggests a challenge to the audience but with its theatrical flair and invention, it is one easily taken up. Even as they morph from daffy entertainers on a bike to wrestling bodies smeared in mud, there is a sense that we are being presented with a series of very understandable yet absurdist propositions. Lancaster and Yates are like Estragon and Vladimir in Godot, or maybe Hamm and Clov in their dustbins in Endgame. No wonder Samuel Beckett loved clowns so much. He would have loved Acrobat.
Kate Uren -The Advertiser
February 24, 2017 9:40pm
It’s Not For Everyone
Royal Croquet Club - Menagerie, until March 5
IT does what is says on the label — this confronting, highly-skilled and complex show is most certainly not for everyone. If your idea of the Fringe is a fun night out with a mainstream comedian, it’s definitely not for you.
This risky offering from powerful Albury duo Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates occupies a unique — and often uncomfortable — place on art’s outer fringes. If that’s your bag at this time of year, It’s Not For Everyone is a triumph that continues to challenge and provoke long after the curtain falls.
It’s an absurd, macabre and shocking study of relationships — from the schlock force-fed to us by glossy magazines to the roles entrenched by society and the loop that grips us in our daily grind.
It begins with two kooky clowns and finishes with the performers stripped bare and drenched in mud. Prepare for a primal assault on the senses — emotional and physical — with a take-home message that we cannot suppress our animal instincts.
James Murphy -Scenestr.
Tuesday, 07 March 2017 09:54
Published in Arts News
Every year when the Fringe Guide is unveiled, you can quickly ascertain with a few page flicks which shows will have mass appeal; the glitzy, big budget arena circus spectaculars that will offer one hundred and twenty minutes of choreographed wonderment.
This show, presented by Acrobat, is the antithesis of the people-pleasing mega-circus. The two performers, Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates, arrived on stage in makeshift clown garb, impressing with an array of bicycle stunts.
They then proceeded to feign appreciation of the audience’s affection; they were not there to be adulated. Events would incrementally descend into anarchy; male child birth, singing off key, gruesome suicide simulation, gender politics and a Cossack dance scene that reduced me to snivelling fits of tearful laughter.
From moment to moment, it was impossible to predict what you would see and subsequently how you would feel. It is the kind of show that typifies what Fringe once meant, ending as it does with two mud caked semi-nude artists.
It is a show that rebels against the easy laugh or the spoon feeding of comprehension. It is a show where some will walk out, some will seek refunds but then others will stand and cheer.
Populism, in art or politics, necessarily involves a dilution of substance. This show is so substantial that it is as thick as mud.
Alana Trezise -This Is Radelaide
IT'S NOT FOR EVERYONE @ THE ROYAL CROQUET CLUB
February 20, 2017 ·
Last night we headed down to the Royal Croquet Club's Menagerie tent to experience It's Not For Everyone, a show that really does live up to its name.
Presented by stalwarts of the circus performer scene, Acrobat have been performing to crowds for the last 20 years, finessing their shows into what they have produced for this year's Fringe Festival.
As the lights dimmed, two clown characters appeared, beginning the show immediately with a range of gags that you would typically imagine a cheesy clown to perform. Falling over their clumsy selves, running around doing fart gags and showing off their acrobat skills on a bicycle was entertaining, but to be honest, I was wondering 'is this show for me'?
It slowly progressed to become more and more obscure, drawing the audience in and capturing our attention with skits that made you really think about the deeper meaning. Using their incredible acrobatic skills, the clowns quickly transformed into a man wearing a suit, and a women 'carrying' him around the stage. The man made a low-brow comedic speech about 'men being men, and women being women', drawing on the traditional roles that society has placed on gender for hundreds of years. It was interesting to see how quickly the show had transformed into a deeper, insightful and meaningful comment on society.
As the show unfolded, ideologies and themes surrounding societal issues were portrayed with far more expression through the use of their body, using very minimal talking. Eventually, the clown personas were completely gone, instead replaced with fundamental, uncomplicated forms of the human self. It was captivating to watch these two bodies move across the stage, using something as simple as dirt against their bare bodies, and words such as I AM, YOU ARE and SHE IS to portray how one 'should act' in society; it was both thought provoking and mesmerising.
Acrobat creatively comment on society having control over what we do, the social and cultural constructs ruling our lives and the idea of baring all sometimes to just fall over in a heap - because that's how life is. A relevant and well thought out performance that left me feeling slightly confused, entertained and emotive all at once.
Overall, this is one show that you need to be prepared to use your thinking cap, to extract meaning from some very interpretative skits. It's definitely not for everyone, but I certainly enjoyed it.
Kate Rotherham -Real Time:
acrobat, It’s Not For Everyone.
Jo Lancaster carries Simon Yates around the stage on her shoulders while somehow simultaneously dressing him in a suit. She then deposits him atop a podium. Before speaking he looks at her askance then says, equally dismissive and disgusted, “God, you’ve really let yourself go.” This is acrobat at its best, where feats of remarkable, almost impossible physicality combine with minimal dialogue to shine a small beam of truth onto the dark side of the status quo.
Lancaster and Yates are acrobat, who have performed their raw, idiosyncratic take on physical theatre around the world for 20 years. The title of the show, It’s Not for Everyone, reflects their unapologetic honesty and gritty approach to theatre. They reject outright the notion of providing passive entertainment and instead want their audience to be “sucked into their universe and spat out the other side.” It’s quite a ride through this highly expressionistic, at times Dada-esque, exploration of gender, identity and ageing.
The show opens with an outlandish clowning sequence where Yates and Lancaster do the most extraordinary things on a humble bicycle. We glimpse their intense acrobatic skill and gnarly discipline, but from here on there’s a gradual shedding of all things circus as the performers, and their performance, are gradually stripped back. There’s the rather bleak experience of watching Yates hoist a lifeless Lancaster upwards by an arm, a leg and then by her neck beneath a single bulb of light. There is a clever, rapid-fire sequence where Lancaster presents ‘this is me’ aspects of herself with props and actions frozen in flashes of light, like a series of photographs illuminating her multifaceted life. Mud is flung and smeared. The performers run in muddy circles slipping hard on the stage again and again, an exhausting metaphor of failing, skilfully executed. A finely choreographed tangling of bodies follows, complex yet deeply primal, completing the final erosion of superficial clowns into the earth itself. The show is both bold and abstract with a collection of powerful messages delivered in this patchwork-style.
In the traditional circus journey, old acrobats become clowns. Yates and Lancaster, now 42 and 48 respectively, are navigating a new trajectory from highly acrobatic performers to middle-aged performance artists. This show was particularly devised not to rely on impressive acrobatic feats alone (Yates has been recovering from a back injury) but rather to bring other theatrical and musical skills, previously used in secondary roles, into focus. The set design is very much in keeping with their anti-aesthetic approach, with a single strand of coloured light bulbs forming a pyramid. The quirky sound works (composed by Tim Barrass) include everything from zany circus music to chickens clucking and a beautifully crisp Australian bush soundscape in the closing scene.
Watching scenes of fiercely original, unpredictably abstract theatre, an Oscar Wilde aphorism came to mind: “A true artist takes no notice whatever of the public. The public to him are non-existent.” From the cartoonish opening through to primal mud wrestling, Yates and Lancaster are staunchly true to their anti-cliché selves. Expressionistic, narrative-free theatre runs the risk of being more confusing than coherent, but as acrobat themselves clearly warn right from the outset, brazen physical theatre is not for everyone.
Claire Killeen, Border Mail, March 2015
IT’S Not For Everyone — but it might be for you.
In a show that is one of the most original and intriguing I have witnessed, physical theatre duo Acrobat live up to their reputation.
I had no idea what to expect from this performance, which opens the 2015 HotHouse Theatre season, but I left scratching my head, wondering what it was I had just witnessed.
It’s not hard to follow, yet incredibly hard to predict and Acrobat’s It’s Not For Everyone had me hypnotised and mesmerised with their construct on age, gender and identity.
acrobat, who had the successful show Propaganda in 2010 at HotHouse, re-introduce audiences to their remarkable physicality as ageing circus clowns.
Gradually the duo then takes the audience on a wild ride as the “clown” personas are eroded and they end up covered in mud.
Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates, who founded acrobat 20 years ago, bring something strangely intriguing to the stage. For those who have seen Propaganda, you will know what not to expect from these internationally renowned artists.
It’s a brave show, brilliantly produced that gives you just enough to make the links and leaves you wanting more.
It’s Not For Everyone lives up to its title, that’s true, but if you take it all in there’s much to gain from the show.