Hemingway wrote of courage as grace under pressure. In Private Acts: The Acrobat Sublime, Harriet Heyman writes of grace under the pressure of gravity and the courage demonstrated by those who commit themselves to that art. Accompanying the amazingly lyrical photography of Acey Harper, Heyman’s writing strikes to the soul of the acrobat, while allowing us to discover the acrobat (or at least the sublime spark of that art) within. “They are ambiguous,” Heyman explains, “both like us and unlike us. As magnificent as superheroes, acrobats are objects of desire. We want to be them, as free as they appear to be—a thought that is at once tempting and terrifying… We are thrilled to be going along for the ride—from a safe distance.” Reading Private Acts allows us to watch from a safe distance while still feeling that we’re up there on the trapeze, too, sharing in the daring intimacy of self-propelled flight.
Heyman, a San Francisco-based journalist and novelist, first discovered the world of acrobats when she signed her sons up for a trapeze class. Watching her sons enjoy the experience, Heyman, then in her mid 40s, got in on the act, beginning a love affair with the acrobatic arts that has lasted for 15 years. “[T]his quirky activity still holds me in thrall,” the author says of her obsession, “with all the thrills and chills of a love affair and none of the letdown.” In an essay titled, “What It Feels Like,” Heyman gives you a full account of what it really does feel like, down to the chalk powder on her hands and the deadened nerves that no longer transmit pain to her brain after conditioning her body to hang from a trapeze for years. “However magnificent they appear,” Heyman writes of the professional acrobats captured in action in Private Acts, “every one of these people has endured injuries and wear and tear that comes with the territory. The life of the body is a way of life.”
Acey Harper’s photography captures both how magnificently superhuman these people appear as well as the painfully body-based lifestyle Heyman describes. In his own essay, Harper claims that his previous career as a photojournalist is over after being “transformed by the experience of working with these exceptional muses” who have “liberated [his] vision and imagination.” “Now, I tell stories without limits from dreams and the imagination,” Harper believes. In photos such as Andrew Adams and Erica Gilfether Adams, Bolinas, California (shown above, from 2008), Harper places the acrobats of the circus out into the open, here a wide-open green space in which they can commune and frolic with nature, boundless in their great leaps and bounds in space. (A gallery of additional acrobatic photos by Harper can be found here.)
The combination of black and white photography and complexly arranged human nudity reminded me of Edward Weston’s photographs of Charis Wilson, especially the iconic 1936 photograph titled Nude (Charis, Santa Monica). Whereas the nude in Weston’s photos of Wilson clings and almost becomes one with the Earth, the nude in Harper’s photos of acrobats springs free of the earth and tries to climb to heaven, as if gravity were merely an inconvenience. Picturesque locations such as Central Park in New York City, the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, and Brooklyn Bridge provide the standard, epic backgrounds, but construction scaffolding, a Piscataway, New Jersey warehouse, a column-lined subway platform, and even a traffic light also provide the raw material against which these amazing athlete-performers can twist, stretch, and delight. The juxtaposition of circus performance in an everyday setting magnifies both the dreamlike quality of the images as well as the reality that these are ordinary people who have dedicated themselves to making their bodies do extraordinary things. For a moment we feel as if we, too, are hanging from that traffic light, no longer bound by the car, road, or any other physical or mental limitation.
Acrobatics “dances on the thin edge of possibility,” Heyman enthuses of her sport, “It’s all about aspiration—the leap from what we can do to what we desire to do.” In his Fifth Duino Elegy, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke used circus acrobats as embodiments of the human futility to rise above the despair and tragedy of the human condition—a view itself conditioned by the Rilke’s post-World War I experience. In Private Acts: The Acrobat Sublime, Harriet Heyman and Acey Harper, as well as their distinguished cast of subjects (given their due in biographies in the back of the book), acknowledge that even though modernity may no longer view the circus as glamorous, the desire to aspire to greater things—to fly both figuratively and symbolically—remains a timeless human trait. Abandoning yourself to that impulse while reading Private Acts will help you rediscover your inner acrobat and the sense of grace and freedom that comes with it.
[Image:Acey Harper. Andrew Adams and Erica Gilfether Adams, Bolinas, California, 2008.]