Cultural/social/political/economic climate which allowed/encourages Skinning the Cat to emerge. A special time in the artistic community in Bradford, certain groups, artists, events coming together. A historic period in the history of circus as contemporary circus emerges and Skinning the Cat leads the way for aerial shows with a narrative.
Technical/practical explanations for circus – explaining circus terms, equipment and skills.
Emotional and mental health journey of artist – Specifically around the dangerous life of an aerialist and the falls that happened in Skinning the Cat. Trying to explain the background to the development of mental health problems, how it subtly develops and how it takes effect.
Circus industry/community/performers reaction – inclusion of interviews with relevant artists, audience and members of the circus community; remembering, discussing and reacting to the themes that I write about.
Skinning the Cat
Aerialist – in a circus context means someone who works in the air using a variety of techniques which includes the trapeze.
I was a trapeze artist. Technically, I was an aerialist: I flew in the air on a variety of ropes and trapezes, on which I swung, twisted and balanced. When I was twenty-one I started an all-women trapeze company. We took our name from the traditional trapeze move ‘Skinning the Cat’.
Waiting in the wings, I pace up and down. I wear my voluminous black velvet cloak with its red sparkly lining. It is edged with purple and red cockerel feathers and trails along the ground behind me. I discard it at the bottom of the rope like an unnecessary skin.
As I wait, I work through my routine in my mind, feeling it in my body at the same time; I constantly pat my resin sock into my already sticky and sweating palms. It is a wonderful feeling of fear and excitement – this time before a show, crucial for changing headspace from chatting in the green room to becoming Firebird.
My years as an aerialist are divided into before and after the falls. These accidents changed everything; they made me more determined to continue the trapeze, but I was a different person, no longer carefree enough to enjoy the touring lifestyle as a free spirit. Before the falls, I was running wild and fulfilling my fantasies. Afterwards, it all became too real: the near loss of life, and the shock and adjustment that followed changed me.
I didn’t think about anything but the trapeze: talking trapeze, doing trapeze and dreaming trapeze. It is an all-or-nothing profession. The skin on the palms of my hands was thick with calluses, which I habitually picked at, and my body was shaped by the trapeze: wide shoulders and athletic legs, with a deep indentation on my thigh muscles where the bar pressed into them when I hung in catcher’s position. On show days, the day revolved around the show. And when we had no show, the day revolved around training and preparing for the next round of shows.
The trapeze was only one part of my aerial repertoire, there are many other shaped and configured pieces of equipment that the aerialist can work on. One of these is a single vertical rope or corde lisse. My corde lisse routine began with a toe climb, with a back balance as the first move. Being on a rope without bar or attachments, it is necessary to develop the strength to hold the rope out horizontally in order that the body can lie across it. Many of my moves involved wrapping the rope around a leg, knee or foot in a lock-off position, so that I could reach back, pull up the rest of the rope, and wrap it around some other part of the body to create a shape. The drops that can be done on a rope are dramatic because you can climb to the top, wrap the rope around you, and roll or slide all the way to the bottom, stopping only at the very last second before hitting the ground. It is really very hard to retain the balance of the body during a roll: either side of the wrapped rope must be kept at equal weight, which isn’t easy when travelling down it at full tilt.
Complete focus on the rope;
feel it is a part of me.
I grasp it between my toes and,
as I lift myself off the ground, my second foot takes hold.
Keeping my hands close together,
I pull them towards my chest and flip upside down in one smooth pull.
With a small bounce, my body is momentarily weightless,
I bring one leg to join the rope so close that it is like an extra strand.
I strike my first pose and acknowledge the audience.
Staring out into the spotlight,
I gesture dramatically with my free hand then suddenly dive forward.
As I catch the rope the relief from the audience is palpable.
The relationship between the aerialist and the audience is both distant and intimate. The audience sees the performer who is at the same time powerful and vulnerable. The act can go wrong in a heartbeat – we hide behind grand gestures and confident expressions. We allow the audience a brief glimpse into our private world; we need the audience and we also shun them; we are above them.
Sometimes I have felt the audience to be nervous of me, looking up to me, and other times I am looked down on, an outsider, a traveller with a suspect lifestyle. It is a relationship of extremes.
We never inhabit the same space. The boundaries are clearly marked, but the feeling that we exchange controls the show. The pace of the routines is punctuated by their reactions, which dictate whether to hold a pose, repeat something, slow it down or speed it up.
There are of course different types of audience, just as there are different types of performers; I have ongoing banter with my street performer friends about our values. The street performer must attract an audience, gather them together, keep them there and then extract money from them. There is a direct correlation between the show quality and the cash in the hat.
In contrast to this, our show is always pre-booked: we are planned for and paid for, however well or badly we perform, although of course there will be no repeat bookings for a bad show. There are posters and programmes advertising our show and, even if people have missed the advertising, we are so high up and big and visual that we attract people without having to work at it consciously.
As aerialists, we never speak directly to our audience; we treat them as guests watching something magical. We also have a secret that stops us speaking: most aerialists cannot act. We are gymnasts, acrobats, dancers in the air: we perform through exaggerating our own personalities and becoming part of a magnificent, gravity-defying world outside everyday experience.
As I prepare to perform, I must begin to change my focus. Sometimes this does not happen, if there are problems or distractions, rigging tangles or sound or lighting glitches – the show feels flat. Equally, if the audience feels dead and we must work really hard to get a reaction, it can become a vicious circle: the performance is forced and unnatural and the audience will not warm up. This is when it is hard to engage with the music, the trapeze, the audience, hard to act up to the lighting, other performers or the kids. This is when I believe shows become dangerous, as you don’t quite care enough, can’t quite concentrate enough, just want it to be over.
Sometimes we needed to set up an audience-free show for a video or photo run, as the show lighting is set to be atmospheric and the routines are too fast moving for the camera. Photos or video taken during a live show are often murky, dark and blurred. So, we would blast the costumes with white light and hold positions until we were fit to bust for the camera. It was very hard to perform properly with no audience: we would just go through the motions, no adrenaline, no feedback, weird and flat.
But when a performance goes well you just can’t beat it. It is as if you carry the audience along on a wave. You can do nothing wrong; every twitch of your hand or smile gets a reaction.
On the trapeze, I rule the world.
I am in the ring, in the air, in the spotlight,
you are outside the barrier in the darkness.
I can feel you,
a warm, breathing, reacting mass that gasps, applauds, shouts and cheers.
I do not exist without your appreciation,
you are everything to me and nothing.
After a good show, we were on an adrenaline high. Sometimes friends or brave fans would come and talk to us. I was always disappointed if a friend said they came to the show but didn’t come and say hello afterwards. We could feel cut off from the outside world and needed feedback for our egos. People see the backstage area as hallowed ground where performers need their space and respect: this is true before a show, but afterwards, we wanted to glow and socialize.
I found that I subtly changed my performance character depending on the occasion: upbeat and smiley for variety shows, dramatic and exaggerated for circus, more dark and brooding for theatre and festivals. Depending on where, how and why we were working, the audiences changed and we adapted. There is the unexpected audience: this happened when we were booked for something like a dockland regeneration event or a city centre celebration. People walking around the corner to the shops, or out on their daily dog walk, would happen across us doing a trapeze show right where they usually walked. Sometimes people would stop and watch or sometimes just pass by, but either way we shared a moment of each other’s lives. My favourite passing audience moment was when double-decker buses went by and the top deck was on the same level as the trapeze, with rows of surprised faces gazing back at us on their way home from work.
There is the hard-core, tough weather, determined audience: normally already circus fans. When we were booked for an outdoor event, people would start arriving before the show to get the best spot at the front. If the weather was dubious, they would stand around with umbrellas while we scuttled up and down taking tarps on and off the rigging. The atmosphere would build as the crowd grew. If the weather worsened and the show was pulled, you could hear the buzz of disappointment and we would feel low and de-energised.
Then there’s the open-to-enjoyment festival crowd: possibly drunk or off their heads on something, and certain to experience something other-worldly when they watch the show. A happy and relaxed vibe emanates from them: with this lot, it is hard to go wrong.
There is the weekend afternoon festival audience: families with parents who are just happy to sit down for a bit while the kids are entertained, eating ice creams and drinking cups of tea. The children are open-mouthed and amazed, the adults appreciative but often distracted by the environment, which can be busy and noisy with sounds from surrounding events and passers-by.
The variety show audience: all adult and often seasoned variety theatre addicts, who know their acts and can rate them accordingly. Sometimes these people are almost part of the show, dressing up in old-fashioned finery and singing along with the music hall numbers. In the case of a German variety show, people are more serious and expect a quality evening of entertainment for their money. Either way, these people are focused on what they want from the evening, and you get a measured, well-behaved reaction from them.
One of my favourite audiences is the tented circus audience: theoretically a family audience, but if you look at the ratio of adults to children there are always a lot more adults than have shares in the children, so you can only assume that adults enjoy circus too.
I love this audience because it is so comfortable with itself. There is no need to restrain reactions or discipline children’s behaviour. The Big Top, and the activity within it, contains the guests in its own world. Each act brings a different atmosphere and the viewers are swept along with it. People move around, children jump out of their seats, there is laughter and exchange of banter with the clowns. I watch children dancing in the aisles, mimicking the movements in the ring in their excitement, then falling into silent awe during the darkness of a dangerous act. Even the simplest performance holds magic. Children fall around with laughter at a clown that I do not find funny at all: it is enough that a funnily dressed man falls over.
If I had to explain why being an aerialist was so good, despite being difficult, dangerous and financially unrewarding, so good that I couldn’t stop even after my falls, I struggle. Because it is just inside of me, a feeling, like falling in love. There is no explanation that really makes sense, except that it is just something that I had to do. Once I discovered the trapeze, it was what I had been waiting for all my life. It meant everything to me.