Becky Truman was a pioneer of the flying trapeze and helped to get the circus recognised as an art form. As the circus celebrates its 250th anniversary, she talks to Catherine Scott about her extraordinary life.
There is a trapeze swing in Becky Truman’s Hebden Bridge kitchen.
She says it is not to perform her aerial acrobatics, but to stretch her muscles which are used to the traction of the trapeze - normally hanging upside down.
It may only be a few feet above her kitchen table rather than hundreds of feet above a cheering audience, but Truman still looks at home on the trapeze swing.
It is 30 years since Truman launched Skinning the Cat, taken from the name of an aerial move - the UK’s first all-female outdoor aerial company, producing narrative and character-based shows which toured Europe and beyond.
The Bradford-based company toured until 2012, establishing a unique style - a precursor to the world famous Cirque du Soleil – which brought together Truman’s skills as a performer, costumier, rig designer and artistic director. She has just written her memoirs, which will be launched at Bradford Literary Festival on July 1 to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the circus.
“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,” says Truman in her book, Aerialist: the Colourful Life of a Trapeze Artist. “Because it is just inside me, a feeling, like falling in love.
It seems that Truman was always destined to be a trapeze artist. Growing up she recalls money was tight, especially after the death of her beloved father from a brain haemorrhage when she was just nine. So she made her own trapeze, hanging upside down at every opportunity from road signs, trees and climbing frames.
She was always very creative, making things from odds and ends, the more ornate and colourful the better, from whatever fabrics, paints and other bits and bobs that came to hand. Her circus dreams were fired by her favourite childhood book, Noel Streatfeild’s The Circus Is Coming.
Truman’s interests came together at Bradford College, where she studied art and fashion.
“It was a time when you could go to college and just study something you enjoyed without thinking about getting a job at the end of if, or how you were going to pay your mobile phone bill or student debt. I was lucky in that way I suppose. I do feel for the students of today.”
It was while at Bradford that she met Jimmy Iqbal who taught her the art of trapeze.
“Discovering trapeze was like finding a part of me that had been missing, it was my soulmate.”
She decided that for her final degree show she would create an aerial performance featuring costumes she had designed and made herself. The only problem was convincing some of her fellow students to learn trapeze.
“I managed to get some girls to agree and that was really the start of Skinning the Cat. Once we got together we just kept going.”
After graduating she was commissioned by the Bradford Festival to organise a fashion cabaret and perform a trapeze show with Skinning the Cat.
“That was our first professional job and I will always be grateful to the Bradford Festival for supporting us and giving us our break.”
Although ‘circus’ wasn’t then recognised as an art form, so received no Arts Council funding, Truman did receive the backing of the Prince’s Trust. “I received funding to buy a van and I was set,” says Truman who was subsequently named the Prince’s Youth Business Trust’s Young Achiever of the Year, in 1993.
“It was the initial support of Bradford Festival and the Manningham Circus Workshop that encouraged the company to develop. In an era when circus was undervalued in the UK, Skinning the Cat had the good fortune to be based in Bradford, where the council had the vision to support the company, providing a variety of venues for aerial rehearsal and performance - such as the Turkish baths, the historic Wool Exchange and regular use of the Manningham Sports Centre.”
Tours were chiefly in the UK and mainland Europe, including regular appearances at Glastonbury festival, the opening of the Channel Tunnel and residency at the Millennium Dome, the London International Mime Festival, Circus of the Streets, Manchester’s Commonwealth Games, Covent Garden Piazza, Leeds City Varieties.
Thirty years on and although Skinning the Cat is no more, its inclusion in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s permanent collection and in the National Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield, recognises as it a forerunner of the contemporary circus movement. And Truman is proud for the part she and Skinning the Cat played in changing people’s attitude to circus, when they gained their first Arts Council funding in 2002.
“We had always felt a bit like second class citizens, so it was gratifying to at last get some recognition for circus as an art form.”
The company survived some major accidents and disasters, recalls Truman, the most memorable being the night in 1998 when arsonists destroyed the entire Enchantress show, including equipment, rig and the company’s accommodation.
However, injury took more of a toll on Truman personally. When Skinning the Cat member and Truman’s best friend Lou Sammy suffered a serious head injury after falling from a rig it affected the aerialist deeply. And when that was followed by Truman herself having a fall and suffering a badly broken ankle which would never properly heal, it started to change the way she felt about her profession. A back injury in her 20s, again from a fall, impacted her spine, which would worsen with time.
With no safety net or lunges to slow their fall, being a trapeze artist was a very dangerous profession. “I wouldn’t be allowed today,” she says. “And in some ways that is a good thing, as it is safe, but when you are in your early 20s you think you are invincible and that it will never happen to you."
Before the accidents, she says she never dwelt on the dangers of trapeze and outwardly, the accidents had no effect on her attitude to the risks. Inwardly, however, the psychological damage took its toll. “It crept in and showed in other ways, through insomnia and panic attacks,” she recalls. The toll on her mental health is one of the reasons Truman decided to write the book.
“I got some Arts Council funding to write an archive of Skinning the Cat but people who read it wanted to know more about that time and how I felt. To leave out the mental health side would have just been a book about a group of girls going on tour and having a jolly time and that wouldn’t have been true.”
As manager, artistic director, costumier and performer, Truman says she eventually ran herself into the ground by trying to do too many jobs at once. “The main problem I encountered was trying to run the company while still trying to be artistic and a performer. I would have loved to hand the running of it over to someone else, but I could never find someone who had my drive.”
Truman wound up the company in 2002, the same year that she was artistic director of the opening and closing ceremonies in the Sponsor’s Village of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Immediately afterwards, she suffered a mental breakdown that left her unable to leave the sanctuary of Lou Sammy’s attic. She eventually felt well enough to seek some help through EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing).
Sixteen years on, she is still making costumes, specialising in special effects for circus projects.
She may have put down roots in Hebden Bridge, and now has an 11-year-old daughter, but her work is still nomadic. She lectures at Bradford College a couple of days a week and helps run a company making rope for trapeze artists.
“I don’t miss the performing so much as I miss the practising. I have always loved trapeze but it got to the point where I resented having to do it rather than just when I wanted,” she says.
“It has taken its toll on my body but I wouldn’t change anything.”
Aerialist: The Colourful Life of a Trapeze Artist by Rebecca Truman will be launched at the Bradford Literary Festival on July 1 at Bradford Library at 11am. Truman will join an all-female panel of experts to talk about circus. This is the 250th anniversary year of the first circus, being celebrated across the world under the umbrella of @Circus250.