Chris ‘Zeke’ Hand’s Comprehensive and Thought Provoking Review of Propaganda By acrobat
My name is Zeke and I’d like to think that I am as funky as Jo-Ann Lancaster and Simon Yates, but I’m not. Mr. Yates and Ms. Lancaster are also known by their extremely original and evocative circus company name “acrobat.” As is the norm with any generically named circus company or circus show information is difficult to come by. Combined with the fact that Montréal Complètement Cirque doesn’t give out press kits it does not make it easy to elaborate on the performance.
I was given tickets to their show called “Propaganda” at Usine C. If after reading or hearing this you want to go see it for yourself, you have to move quickly because they are only performing tonight and tomorrow. I mention this because a friend of mine made me laugh when he told me that he wasn’t going to read my review of a show until after her had seen it. The publicist for the festival is under the 20th century impression that people will decide to go see a show based on my review. For her and anyone else interested I write these reviews for the performers and as means to let the general public know what they missed. So that the next time they don’t. I do not harbor any illusions that someone is going to choose what they go see because of what I wrote. While publicists might wish that I was as influential as John Rockwell, Clement Greenberg, Mimi Sheraton or Helen Rochester. I’m thankful that I am not. It means that I can continue to go against the grain and publish what and how I want. But I digress.
I should talk more about the show. Propaganda by acrobat is one of the rare circus shows that I think can be seen more than once. It’s a show that has a message but despite the fanaticism of the performers in transmitting the message, it gets a tad muddled by the fact that Jo-Ann Lancaster and Simon Yates are absolutely amazing and smashingly stunning circus performers. It’s kind of like if Alessi wrote a novel. Which would you consider first? The way the book looked? Or the plot? Thankfully there is a video on YouTube that synopsizes the show and after seeing it I realized that not only were the stunts performed by Jo-Ann Lancaster and Simon Yates absolutely amazing but that they in fact had a point that they wanted to hammer home.
I don’t know if there is an Australian straight edge scene, but if there is I’d venture a guess that Ms. Lancaster and Mr. Yates are hugely influential in it. While they don’t come out and say it explicitly during the show, in the rider that they give to producers they do state explicitly that they are macrobiotic raw food vegans. Straight edge is a walk in the park in comparison to being a macrobiotic raw food vegan. For those who are confused, straight edge is the term for a punk rock lifestyle that abstains from alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs and casual sex. Most straight edgers are also vegans, which means that they do not consume any animal products (as opposed to vegetarians who just don’t eat animals, but will eat butter, honey, drink milk and consume other animal products). A macrobiotic diet is one that is heavy on grains and avoids highly processed and/or refined foods.
Or in other words, Ms. Lancaster and Mr. Yates are intense. And it shows in their show. As has been the case for pretty much the entire Montréal Complètement Cirque festival there were empty seats. In this case there were enough that for the first time I can remember just as the doors to the theatre closed we switched seats to some that we thought (and were) significantly better and on the aisle. The stage itself was fairly sparse. There was a drum kits, some megaphone style loudspeakers, a flag of sorts in the back all arranged around a Chinese pole that was about fifteen feet high supported by guy wires.
Ms. Lancaster and Mr. Yates come on stage accompanied by Ryan Taplin and Simon McLure who were technician and drummer respectively as well as both being stage hands. Mr. Yates sung a song while Ms. Lancaster played bass about how he was going to “tell us what to do.” After all this is Propaganda and propaganda is “the organized dissemination of information to assist the cause of a movement.” They then proceeded to do a hilarious gymnastic routine where each movement was just slightly off while Mr. McLure added accents and embellishments to each punchline on his drum kit.
Now while tumbling, gymnastics, acrobatics or whatever you want to call it is exceedingly hard enough to do well. Doing it so that each movement is just a beat off is exponentially tougher. Doing those movements with someone else just raises the ante even higher. Needless to say Ms. Lancaster and Mr. Yates nailed it. It ends on a high note with Ms. Lancaster being thrown around, over and through Mr. Yates’ body at something like 65 miles an hour until he unceremoniously drops her. He drags her stage right and undresses her.
While there are costumes a large part of the show is done with both of them prancing about the stage half naked. Fortunately both Ms. Lancaster and Mr. Yates have bodies that are not difficult to look at. Mr. Yates does a Chinese pole routine which is merely very good. Especially in comparison to Ms. Lancaster’s single-point trapeze routine that is spectacular. She is lifted by the back of her head, catches herself on the bar by her heels and just generally does spectacular move after spectacular move. Which is then completely overshadowed by Mr. Yates’ backflip where he catches a rope with his feet and ends up suspended about a foot off the floor. I’m not sure I can envision how to go about even just practicing that move.
He then does a very good tumbling routine with real 100% genuine-no-hands-headstands that impressed me mightily. Ms. Lancaster’s corde lisse routine as a mermaid was also impressive. Impressive pales as a means explain how I felt about Mr. Yates’ very slackline routine. Not only was it technically astonishing it was also side splittingly hilarious. Recreating a typical morning routine of waking up, having breakfast, taking a shower, getting dressed and then going to work all on the very slackline.
There’s a brief interlude while they clean up the stage before a brief and poetic Korean plank routine of cause and effect. They then suspend Simon McLure (or at least I think it was Mr. McLure) in an angel wing suit and he spouts platitudes at the audience a la Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Once he descends Ms. Lancaster and Mr. Yates do a trick bike routine and after about an hour the show is over.
It wasn’t until long after I saw the show that I realized that they were making some very political statements. Yes they repeated “be nice,” “eat your veggies,” “ride your bike,” “garden nude” and other similar statements many times during the performance. But the quality and technique of their acrobatics and comedy were so spectacular that it constantly left me slack-jawed and amazed while busting a gut laughing. As a consequence I did not even clue in to what they were talking about until seeing it on video, where as I had an idea of what was going to be done I was able to concentrate on secondary things.
Things like Ms. Lancaster’s mermaid swimming among the Pacific trash vortex and suffocating because of a plastic bag. Or her playing the bass in a bunny costume. Or the money salad. Or the commentary on being management after the very slackline routine and his subsequent re-education during the Korean plank routine. Or the pro-car epithets shouted at them while they were doing the trick biking.
As such, I am not entirely convinced that Propaganda is an effective means of propaganda. Or it might just be that since I consider most of what they were talking about to be second nature, I kind of glossed over it. Sort of like preaching to the choir. After the fact, I found it interesting that some people who have a much larger carbon footprint than I do weren’t as enamored of the show as I was. I haven’t had a chance to ask them if it was because of all the political statements or if it was due to something else.
Then finally, I was also surprised that some of the props they use (the breakfast cereal, milk and the bunny costume) seem to contradict their personal convictions. Nothing major but after spending a fair bit of time thinking about the show it crossed my mind that they would use animal skins, animal products and processed food that is made from genetically modified corn.
I don’t see any reason to modify the show, as it is a spectacular and amazing show. But it is food for thought after you leave the theatre.