Ruby Rowat ’93 in the place she feels most at home: on a trapeze. As a freelance trapezista, she travels the world to perform in a wide range of venues, from circuses to casinos.
Ruby in the Sky
By Samuel Masinter ’04
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If you find her Website—“the only place she stands still”—you’re told that you have only caught a glimpse of Ruby Rowat ’93. She is, in fact, an incredibly hard woman to catch. Over the course of two weeks, I played phone tag with her as she moved from a West Coast theater to a job rigging Alegria, a Cirque du Soleil show, in Philadelphia. When I finally caught her, she told me her life story through an airport payphone between flights. Being up in the air, though, is her life and love: Rowat is a freelance trapeze artist, a trapezista, with a portable rig, three passports and a penchant for going anywhere in the world that offers an audience and 18 feet to swing.
Her aerial work has taken her all over the world, hopping from circus to circus to work on everything from rigging to performances that bring out her edgy, powerful grace. She is not, she would caution, a “circus princess.” In fact, she’s among the first aerialists to fight against that image, creating characters that range from an airborne matador to an unbound aviatrix. Rowat has fought hard to get where she is, confronting unemployment, family members who questioned her decision to fly and an injury she was told would end her career. Amelia Earhart, one of Rowat’s inspirations and a model for her Aviatrix act, said, “Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.” Rowat would agree.
Ruby Rowat ’93
You can find Rowat flying in any number of places; limiting her to a circus would verge on criminal. She has performed in raves and nightclubs, folk festivals, Amherst’s Holden Theater, acrobatic competitions and even, as one of her first professional aerial performances, the 1996 Cycle Messenger World Championships. In the latter, she performed two acts in return for airfare and a chance to race with the bicyclists. Rowat, hired as a performer, took second place in the championship race. “Circus princess” is hardly an apt description.
It started when she was 7 years old, growing up in Canada in a family of hikers, skiers and mountain climbers. She saw the Moscow Circus in Vancouver, where the Flying Cranes performed one of the first aerial acts to incorporate theater and story with higher-level circus technique. After seeing the Flying Cranes, Rowat wanted to fly, too.
“Lots of people want to be in the circus,” she sys, “but my parents were adventurous, so they went looking for a trapeze coach.” There was no trapeze coach to be found in Vancouver, so Rowat’s parents enrolled her in a gymnastics program. It was a short-lived plan: “When I got a bit too good, my parents took me out [of the program] because they were very strict about going to bed on time, [and] training started being past bedtime.”
Rowat did gymnastics for two years before switching her focus to competitive ski racing. When she was 14, she went to a high school with a “superachiever” program that was developed for skiers. She began skiing four days a week and going to school the other three, but a 7-year-old itch to fly was just begging to be scratched. Rowat tried out for—and got into—a Vancouver children’s circus modeled after an Australian program. “I ended up cheating on my ski training and doing circus training,” she jokes. For most of high school, she did both. And then she had to choose one.
“I figured I could ski until I’m 100 years old, but I can’t always do trapeze,” she says. Rowat devoted herself to circus training, studying all the disciplines—cycle, tumbling, juggling, tight wire and an aerial specialty in trapeze. She figured she would be a trapeze artist until she turned 30, then go to medical school. Even with this plan, Rowat didn’t have to look far from home to find her critics.
Rowat’s parents were supportive, but it took a long time for her grandparents to come around. “They were terrified that I wasn’t going to go to a university,” she says. When she started training professionally, her grandmother sent her “a really nice letter that said ‘You’ll be sleeping in elephant turd with roustabouts.’ They were business-class lawyers,” Rowat explains, “and their viewpoint of circus was how it was perceived publicly: three rings and some animals.” Rowat laughs it off, saying that once “they realized they never had to pay for my trapeze and circus education, they decided it was legitimate and accepted me.”
Photos: Top right: Robert Shaer; Bottom left: Ezec le Floch