Culture & Conversation

Cirque du darkness


A man and a woman putter on a dark stage dressed like Mad Max at Gallipoli. Two spots aimed at the audience means we don’t so much watch them as squint and look away. A guy in front of me tries to mask the spot with his hands. He moves about and sighs loudly and I think he’s going to walk out of the show only five minutes in. But the music shifts from period tinkling to industrial scraping, the man strips the woman naked, and they chant a raw duo of shouted slogans. It never gets easier to watch, but the guy in front of me stays.

Simon Yates and Jo-Anne Lancaster, the acrobat duo, are a married Australian couple who have been performing circus for over 25 years, much of it together. When not touring, their two children take on the lesser stage roles. The duo apparently live and breathe physical performance: “Everyday life is made of extreme training sessions from dawn til dusk, and a specific diet to keep up with the punishing pace (raw food, macro-biotic, vegetarian).”

I mention this because it is all visible on stage. The focus, the coherence, the mastery, the – dare I say it – fanaticism.

Propaganda is an intriguing, thought-provoking, belly clenching show. While the press release and the company’s own little pamphlet touts a world “inhabited by colourful, eccentric and loveable characters,” what I saw was something entirely different and much more unsettling.

Accompanied by Simon McClure on drums and Ryan Taplin on synths, with a repertoire that runs from cowbell to lawnmower to ragtime, Lancaster and Yates move like feral cats through set pieces that show off their mastery, strength and intense creativity. Yates is particularly impressive during a routine as he wakes up, eats breakfast and gets ready for work, all on a slack rope that makes a mockery of his attempts. While Lancaster, grinning first in green tights that, with the coy placement of a picture transforms her into a mermaid, travels up a hanging rope (which I’ve since discovered is called a single point trapeze) to defy gravity, physics and the limitations of a 45 year old body. Simply stunning.

Throughout, a disquieting space opens up between the benign sloganeering (Be kind, eat your vegetables, ride a bike, aime ton prochain, joue avec tes enfants) and the devastating starkness of everything else. From the minimally lit stage, to the uncompromising hardness of their bodies, to the utilitarian boots and underwear (their main costume throughout), the brutality with which they touch or hold each other, and the occasional smile that is really a grimace, this is propaganda used to cover up a deeper malaise.

Mostly, it made be think of Buster Keaton alone and sad on the train, or Harold Lloyd hanging off the clock 30 stories up. Silent comic masters for whom the world was always more threatening than they expected, yet who responded with a shrug and a resigned acceptance. But that was a long time ago. Today is a different time altogether and Lancaster and Yates are neither hapless nor easy going. The world hurts and they’re going to hurt right back. Pow!

Propaganda, Usine C, through to July 14.
Go here for more details and tickets, or call 514-285-9175


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