Crossing the Rubicon

Feature in Issue 14-3 | Autumn 2002

Company members of Skinning the Cat, Circus of the Sky, reflect on the process of creating their heralded new production Rubicon.

Rubicon premiered in Bradford, was performed at this year’s Glastonbury Festival in June 2002 and was then presented at the Circus Space in London in July. The show is a luxuriant and abundant melee of ideas and images, referencing traditional circus and music hall but with a contemporary buzz. Many of the elements are familiar from previous Skinning the Cat productions – the exploration of the decadent pleasures of domination and submission and the creation of colourful characters such as the spooky ringmistress, exotic creatures and valkyrie-like women – but here brought together in a fuller exploration of these favourite themes and metaphors.

In the Beginning… Jacky Crosher – Assistant Artistic Director and Performer

Rubicon is an aerial drama that takes place on and around a 10m high by 10m wide beautiful golden arched trapeze structure. The whole structure, costumes, story and trapeze rig was conceived and designed by Becky Truman and then the company fleshed the story out in rehearsal. Working with an aerial company on a new show is an experience unlike any other. Those of you that have worked with a touring trapeze company or a touring circus will know that it is hard work, most of which is very unglamorous and involves enormous amounts of driving, loading, unloading and the setting up of the tent or trapeze rig. The actual performance is only a tiny piece of the whole shebang.

For Skinning the Cat’s last big touring show, Enchantress, we had a rigging time of ten hours and we already knew that Rubicon would be bigger and more complicated. So our first week began with loading everything into our big 7.5 tonne truck, known as Gloria, driving from our office and storage space in Bradford to a disused Gothic church, which was to be our creative space for three months. The church was amazing, with a large central area, with pulpit on one side and altar at the far end. On either side were six large pillars and three Gothic arches. Above the arches was a balcony walkway high in the air overlooking the central area. Pillars and balconies are always useful for aerial companies as they can be put to use for tying off. The church is a fantastic space, but the temperature is almost unbearable. It’s March, and the space heater and six gas heaters don’t even dent the cold. We rehearse looking ridiculously like Michelin men in padded boiler suits and hats, and crowd round the fires like little match girls in the bitter cold…

Easing into Shape - Becky Truman, Artistic Director and Performer, takes up the tale…

Having spent a year dreaming and scheming about a show, it is wonderful when it finally takes shape: the scenes I had envisaged now before my eyes, the new props designed, the soundtrack imagined… In a way the music is the most exciting as it pulls together all the parts and emotions in a show: it takes a certain skill to explain the feeling and tempo of a piece to a composer when he hasn’t a clue what a bungee/silks/corde lisse act is. Possibly the funniest session was persuading a trumpet player to play badly!

Personally, as a rigging anorak, my happiest moments are when the aerial props arrive. The flying bicycle, long dreamt of and subsequently the technical bane of my life, looked every bit as stunning as it had in my head; and the giant birdcage, in which I was to do my silks act, was finally winched up in the air. Equally as magical but on the subtler front was the first time we managed to get a rather nervous Gisele into a giant bubble; an orange hammock suspended from the golden arch revealing two giant green eyes moving in unison; the first moment the collapsing flower actually collapsed…

There was the terrifying day when we realised that the top section of the rig was tearing due to repeated swinging. Some heated discussion with the structural engineer revealed a manufacturing fault that resulted in taking the rig down at the eleventh hour of rehearsals, causing us to lose a vital few days and acquire the new name ‘Skin of their Teeth’!

And finally – the show on the road – Chris Barltrop, the company’s Marketing Consultant reflects…

When those weeks of labour and rethinking and slog led us to be standing in the Combustion Chamber at the Circus Space, looking at the rig set up overnight by the same people who would perform on it that evening, we wished all in one thought that it was all over but also that it could never end, because like it or not at that second we were all there because we were lucky and privileged and part of something unique – the first independent performing company to present a circus-based show on that scale and in that style. You think of the quotes about first nights (and in spite of the show’s success at Bradford and Glastonbury, this was a first night – the first time in London!) and you know how right they all are. No matter how ready it all is, it’s never ready for that night…

If only there was only just one more day!

Rubicon is now touring. For further information see the website: www.skinningthecat.com

This article in the magazine

Issue 14-3
p. 2 - 3