Rebecca Truman is the Grande Dame of aerial. “Cut me in half and I will have aerialist written all the way through,” she writes in this engrossing memoir.
In 1988, Truman founded Skinning the Cat, a pioneering all-woman trapeze troupe that performed principally at outdoor events throughout Britain and Europe, but also in circus tents and theatres. Truman was star, costumer, artistic director, rigger, truck driver... in fact, she did pretty much everything. Her reluctance or inability to delegate responsibility led to an punishing schedule that eventually brought her to the point of breakdown.
“My years as an aerialist are divided into before and after the falls,” she writes on the first page. “Those accidents changed everything. Before the falls I was running wild and fulfilling my fantasies. Afterwards, it became all too real.”
|The Silver Tree rig|
Those are the questions that haunt her as company leader. But the show always goes on. Forced to hobble on stage on crutches, Truman creates a character that makes the crutch part of her act. In the air, the trapeze frees her from her disability.
Everyone in the circus has a colourful story to tell, but few can tell their own tale as well as Truman. In this gripping journey into the life and mind of a trapeze artist, Truman writes with all the evocative colour and underlying precision of the shows she describes
With a novelist’s eye for detail, she brilliantly evokes the glitter and grit of her surroundings at art school, in training gyms, in lorries and caravans, and freezing cold offices in derelict former woollen mills.
For students of the trapeze, Aerialist is essential reading. There’s an insider’s manual worth of detail on every aspect of how to run and rig a show, down to how to remove a cobblestone from a town square in order to drive in a stake to anchor the rig - or, if that doesn’t work, anchor it from a builder’s skip.
But this is also the story of a life. From a bohemian childhood scarred by sexual abuse by her grandfather, and the death of her father when she was young, to the nervous breakdown when all those unresolved issues eventually caught up with her, Truman reveals how her career on the trapeze was driven by the desire to escape.
Her narrative is broken up and enriched by the accounts of her mother, company members and, memorably, Zippos founder Martin Burton who recalls asking the Arts Council for funding in the days when circus wasn’t recognised as an art form. Sitting in opulent offices full of furniture he reckoned was worth more than his entire circus, he was told, “If we had any money we’d give it to you.”
Since they claimed not to have the money, he decided to steal the reception desk - a plan that failed when he couldn’t get it through the revolving doors.
Many years later, when Burton was appointed chairman of the Arts Council's Circus Advisory Committee, he told them, “You obviously don’t remember the last time I was here.” “Yes we do,” they said, “which is why the desk is screwed down.”
The text is also peppered with information boxes that provide a glossary of trapeze moves and equipment - Skinning the Cat takes its name from an aerial manoeuvre - plus some poems by Truman that offer insights into an aerialist’s connection to her work that mere prose couldn’t quite capture.
It all adds up to a thrilling read that sits with the best circus memoirs, such as Nell Gifford’s Gifford’s Circus - The First Ten Years (and Josser, written as Nell Stroud) and Gerry Cottle’s Confessions of a Showman.
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See also: 10 Books for Circus250!