Juggling vs. Magic

Luke_Wilson_By_Matt_Hennem

The first section of this essay (the actual Juggling vs. Magic part) is basically an expansion of a post from the internet newsgroup rec.juggling (if you can’t plagiarise yourself, then who can you?): the original thread is here: http://www.jugglingdb.com/news/thread.php?id=185651&group=1&highlight=juggling%2Cmagic . I feel I am further with my understanding of my viewpoint now, and with my reasons for keeping these elements separate in my own work, and thus it seemed like the right time to revisit this theme.

I will be making use of the phrase “hobby” magician or juggler, and I mean no offense with that. It is simply a useful definition (at least for me) of non-performer. I loved it back in the day when I was a hobby juggler and magician…
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When I was 11 I bought my first magic book.

When I was 14 a juggling book followed.

I recently spent time (Mid-March 2011) in Rotterdam working with a juggler who is creating a new act combining magic and juggling. And this is something which I have worked on with a couple of different people, and at a couple of different times.

Yet all this time, I have refused to create myself an act which combines these 2 artforms.

I am often asked about the idea of juggling vs. magic, and to begin with, I wonder why this question is so often asked. Why juggling vs. magic? Why not juggling vs. trapeze? Or magic vs. opera? Of course, the connection has always been there historically, starting from the jongleurs of the middle ages; but the fact that this question is often asked I think implies some other things. Firstly, that the “magic” in question is in the direction of manipulation and skill-based magic, and also, that there is perhaps some crossover in the kind of person who appreciates practicing these skills. What I mean is, we are basing this topic on skill-based magic, rather than illusions.

A starting point to me seems to be the question I occasionally hear of “why are there more famous magicians than jugglers?”. Well, the famous magicians of old were famous because of their stage shows. And later, for their TV specials (and television of course enabled magic shows to move away from the big old illusion shows, because even small effects can be shown clearly). Add to this the pure strength of the emotional impact of magic, and that generally one can quickly create more material in a shorter time, and we have a pretty simple answer as to why jugglers are less famous than magicians. And also as to why trapeze artists or dog-trainers are less famous than magicians…

I mentioned emotional impact, and although I love juggling more than magic, I have to say that the emotional content which is possible with magic is something that makes it far stronger and more accessible to an audience. I do believe that the strength of genuine emotional contact through magical bafflement can not be reached by juggling. I would go so far as to say that even acrobats and trapeze artists can reach that better than us jugglers can. All a pretty girl has to do is to fall halfway down a rope for the whole of the audience to gasp and miss a breath. It is incredibly difficult to reach that level with juggling, and I can think of no single act that can consistantly get that kind of reaction with any audience. With magic it is the same: some effects can create that gasp, and others simply leave such a large hole in the audiences senses that they are speechless.

The statement “magicians need an audience, jugglers don’t” has been put forward as a key difference between these arts. But there are many hobby magicians who practice just for themselves, and many performing jugglers who don’t neccesarily enjoy juggling in of itself. Whether you need an audience or not depends on the person and what they want, not on the field. Personally speaking: I was a magician before I was a juggler, but I hated performing magic until more recently. I had fun practicing for myself, not in performing. Juggling, on the other hand, I was performing (and enjoying!) 6 months after learning a 3 ball cascade.

What is certainly true, is that the hobby magician learns about performance, whilst the hobby juggler does not. Good performance skills (even if only in theory) are part of magical learning. And good performance in this case simply means precision and clarity. Even if they never perform, a (good) hobby magician is aware of every detail of his skills. Jugglers are often not. I learnt so much good stagecraft from magic. Basic theatre theory and practice, which one doesn’t learn from reading juggling books or going to juggling meetings. Which leads to misdirection…

I find the whole misdirection arguments (“magicians misdirect, jugglers direct”) misleading. Misdirection is a misnomer. It is historically badly named. It should be called direction. And direction is simply good theatre. When I make my Erdnase top-palm in my Poker act, I am not MISDIRECTING attention from my hands. I am DIRECTING attention to somewhere else. And I am (trying to!) direct attention to one single specific point every moment that I am standing on stage. Whether I am juggling, performing magic, or clapping in the finale, I am trying to get the audience to react to me in a certain way, and to shift their focus because of that. To repeat myself, (hobby) magicians learn this as a matter of course: (hobby) jugglers do not.

So are there any similarities? Apparently yes, if only because of all the people (myself included) who enjoy both fields. The biggest part is probably the skills involved. It is a reasonably special set of people who get off on practicing juggling, close-up magic or stage manipulation (or Rubik’s Cube, dice-stacking, Sport Stacking, yo-yo, kendama etc etc). So there is presumably a mental set-up which is required to do these things well (and which also, presumably, aids in an interest in writing (and reading) boring essays on the subject…).

So, given these differences and similarities: WHY DO I HAVE SUCH A STRONG IMPULSE AGAINST COMBINING THEM IN MY OWN WORK???

My performance work consists basically of my “straight” (non-funny) 6 minute juggling act, to music. And then of about 30 minutes total “funny” speaking material, of which around 20 minutes is magic acts. I have always had that distinction: magic is speaking, juggling is not. Which makes sense for my magic history (close-up was my first love, classically always performed speaking), but not for my juggling (my first performing was comedy street shows). But at some point in my development, it was important for me to make that distinction, perhaps to push myself stronger in the Varieté direction that I love so much.

But still, why not then make a music based act on juggling and magic? Well, firstly, I don’t “need” a second act to music with juggling. If anything, then I should work on my magic act to music (I have had a semi-finished manipulation act for quite some time now). But there must be a more fundamental reason.

I love simplicity. Simple images, simple props, simple statements of intent. Perhaps I am scared that having TWO (oh my God, think of it!) skills on display would be too complicated or confusing. Is he a juggler? Or a magician? Again, not such a strong reason…

Actually, my work in Rotterdam was the first time that I began to understand and imagine a way to combine these two arts. The student managed to make some magic material which was ONLY POSSIBLE because of his juggling technique. So simple, but a breakthrough, at least for me. My problem was revealed to be the logic that was always missing to me. Why juggle three balls, and then have them vanish and reappear? Well, who cares “why”, AS LONG AS THE TECHNIQUE IS RELEVANT!

I feel so stupid that that simple link has for so long eluded me: especially as that thesis is one of the fundamental statements within my performing. I still don’t know why I have put up those walls between my juggling world and my magic world, but slowly I start to tunnel through.

(Cologne, December 2007 / Seattle, March 2011)

One thought on “Juggling vs. Magic

  1. Thank you for reminding me of what is probably one of my favourite threads ever, I find the subject fascinating. I’m intrigued by the notion of using juggling skill to enable a magic effect (and am now itching to see the result!) but it makes perfect sense now that you’ve mentioned it.

    I can’t remember who said it but creating magic is about working out where you’re starting from and where you want to get to – then using whatever means is necessary to get you (and the audience) there. If the most direct route between those two points is a sleight, use a sleight. If it’s a gimmick, use a gimmick. It makes sense that if juggling skills get you there, then they can (should!) be used too.

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