The following short, somewhat disjointed, essay is culled from my notes for a lecture I presented at a Duo-Acrobatics Symposium in Stockholm a couple of years ago. I was delighted to find that almost all that I spoke about turned out to be at least as applicable to that field as it was in my own experience within juggling. And of course many new and duo-acro specific concepts and ideas arose and were discussed. Special thanks to Celso and Francesca for organising that meeting: the circus world needs more geeks like them!
Special thanks also to Jay Gilligan, Ben Richter and Erik Åberg. It was the several-year spanning Manipulation Research Laboratories that helped me clarify my own thoughts somewhat on all these themes.
And the process is ongoing, and the research continues and changes each day anew.
Luke Wilson: Cologne, 23.06.2012
“There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”
Richard Buckminster Fuller.
Jugglers tend to think a lot about juggling.
Why is that? For one thing, it is simply a huge scene, consisting in large part of many hobbyists with time on their hands. There were over 6000 jugglers in attendance at the 31st European Juggling Convention in 2008 (Karlsruhe, Germany). Many people in this scene are of a mathematical or scientific bent, which has led to the fast development of that particular side of juggling. In addition, we jugglers have less physical responsibility than other disciplines. We can train longer. We don’t need to spend so much time warming up, building muscle, or at the physio. So we have more time and energy to invest in other aspects of the work.
Our theme now is research. And there are two things that we can research in circus (be it within juggling, acro, aerial, lion taming, etc…). We can research tricks (easy and fun), and we can research what the tricks are good for (hard and fun).
In other words, we can make new tricks, and we can make new applications for tricks.
Application is always and only to create an emotional reaction in the audience. Whether that reaction is amazement and applause, or tenderness and tears. Aesthetic or awkward.
This process feeds back in on itself. We can make tricks that are better for specific things, thus improving our success rate at conjuring applause or tears. Or, coming from the other direction, we can first find out what the trick is good for and exploit that knowledge. This may also help define what the discipline as a whole in itself is good for.
There are three aspects to the work, and once we have defined them we can begin to plan the research. This often leads to many questions, but perhaps not to many answers. Which is just how I like my work (or any creative work) to be.
1. PHYSICAL: inc. new tricks and performance / theatrical aspects (“theatre” being used in its loosest possible sense).
2. MENTAL: inc. what the trick is good for, the actual internal moment of execution, and also the “why?” of what we are doing.
3. SCIENTIFIC: inc. the research aspects of our work (and most of the questions that we will find!).
All the work we do is research: every hour in the gym and every minute on the stage. But often we either see it as long term and unfocused, or we do not even notice it as research, simply viewing it as part of the organic training process. So a target we can set ourselves is to be more efficient with this ongoing and ever-present research. We do all the work anyway, but perhaps we can compress and clarify it.
To break down the three aspects more clearly:
What are the physical elements of the work?
At least (but maybe not exclusively) the following:
What are the mental elements of the work?
In training / on stage? Differences and similarities?
What is special about the skill (props, people, space etc)?
Why that particular discipline?
What is the discipline itself particularly good for?
WDYDWYD? A very zeitgeisty concept: Why Do You Do What You Do?
Why circus? Originally perhaps it was to show what could be. Maybe now it serves to show what is? Almost the exact opposite development of most (visual) arts!
What can we do about these factors?
1. Identify the question
2. Define the elements
3. Design the experiment
1. Perform the experiment
2. Explore/define the findings
I believe in fast creation: set the experiment, and take no more than 5-15 minutes to execute it / explore the identified concepts.
We must learn to trust our opinion of what is “good”. By taking fast decisions of artistic content or technique, we practice and reinforce trust in ourselves.
A common question in the contemporary circus world right now seems to be “where are all the circus directors?”
People are researching and writing, looking within and without for an answer. But the answer is actually pretty simple if you think about it. They are all in Russia, telling people what to do.
That seems to be the major issue at the heart of the “modern” circus director. If circus now is all about the individual, their personal desires and motivations, then what role is the “director” meant to fulfil? Heaven forbid that the director should tell the artist what they should actually be doing!
I do describe one part of my work as “director”: but it very rarely takes the form of the kind of work that we expect from a film or theatre director. And indeed, strange new job descriptions have emerged as the circus community tries to define the role of circus director. “Outside eye” being one of my personal favourites… Or we try to avoid the issue altogether by bringing in dramaturgists or choreographers rather than directors.
The most successful contemporary circus directors seem to be those who create shows that they claim to be based around honesty and realism and individuality: made with and for the specific artists involved. Yet strangely, most of those shows also seem to carry on working well with replacement casts and new disciplines. Is it possible that these contemporary circus directors are more about spin than content?
Some of the most successful modern circus shows in our brief history have been the product of the French school system. Shows where a theatre director or dance choreographer were brought in to create a show with the students. Here perhaps the director’s role is more real than in many productions, but even here the artists were already “booked”, the skills already fixed. So even in these cases, the director’s role was to mould the material given to him, rather than to start with his own pure artistic desires.
This is not to say that the power of the artists personal values should be entirely discounted. Looking to the East, Moscow’s Valentin Gneushev  was incredibly successful in the late-80s to mid-90s with his modern circus act productions. He started with a concept, often inspired by paintings or other artworks, and then sought out the artist that he wanted to make the act with. Having worked in Variety shows with many of “his” acts, I feel strongly that the most convincing of these acts are those where the artistic concept meets the personality of the performer. In other words, those cases where Gneushev found exactly the right artist to personify his concept. Obvious of course, just as a film director also looks for the right leading man for his movie: but in both cases, the original concept comes from the director, NOT from the performer.
So where does that leave us today? We do need circus directors who can listen to the sensibilities of the circus artist: directors who can find the core within the individual and help to bring it out. But at the same time, we need directors who can take responsibility for the content: to make artistic decisions, and to use the artists themselves to communicate the directors intentions.
We need circus directors who, when neccesary, aren’t afraid to tell circus artists what to do.
I have always liked kick-up tricks with clubs, and have over the years somewhat specialised in them to a greater or lesser degree, including teaching workshops at juggling conventions specifically about that particular trick, and releasing a couple of videos onto the internets based around some of the variations possible. This has lead to me being perhaps somewhat known in the juggling community for this particular trick.
Yesterday I performed my club juggling act at an event held at a circus institution: a press conference type show with circus students and teachers, and various city officials in attendance.
It wasn’t my best show, but I did my job reasonably well, and was, as far as I could tell, well received by all. After the show, one of the jugglers (who had mentioned already that he had done one of my above mentioned workshops some years ago, and was also very interested in kick-ups himself) complimented me on my act, and then followed that up with: “but you don’t do many kick-ups in your act.”
I agreed with him, and talked a little about how I have been doing less kick-ups in general in recent years, due to the wear that they put on the knees and ankles, and the worsening injuries that that in turn entails.
Whilst this is true, and there are specific kick-up variations that I no longer practice for that reason, I have now thought a little more about his statement, and what it could mean.
For the fact of the matter is, that in the act I performed, which lead directly to the comment of “you don’t do many kick-ups in your act”, I do 5 different kick-up variations, for a total of 43 individual kick-ups in a 6 minute act.
That actually seems like quite a lot of kick-ups!
Is it me? Do I think I’m doing a lot and I’m not really? Perhaps, but no-one has ever said to me before that “it’s not very many kick-ups.” Quite the opposite, in fact: audience members commenting specifically on the kick-ups (rather than the absence thereof) is a rather common occurrence. But to be clear now, I refer now to non-juggler audience members.
I don’t know how possible it ever is for us to put ourselves truly in the position of the audience, to overcome our preconceptions of technique, to enter into the mindset of the outsider. And as I have surely written before, the responsibility to mould that mindset rests strongly with us as performers. But we have to first be clear ourselves as to what we are communicating.
A lot of modern/contemporary/new-school/creative/manipulation-based juggling is based around non-repeating patterns. About short sequences, single throws and rapid changes. And in some ways, I find that to be a shame. Only variation and repetition can lead to images and recognition, and I consider such things to be important aspects of our juggling reality.
Perhaps my 5 kick-up variations are too few? Or the repeating patterns too many? But too few for who, and too many based on what criteria, exactly?
How many variations on a theme are too much? When does repetition cross the line from boring pattern to strong image (and back again)? As a juggler, can I ever truly “see” my juggling from the outside?
And how do I know how many kick-ups is enough?
Both of the above performers produced versions of the Russian Roulette game/trick for British television. Drake’s was a 70 second routine for a closing act of an episode during the second series of The Secret Cabaret in 1992. Brown’s was built up with the actual stunt performed live as the closing 10 minute segment of an hour long special.
I find both of these performances to be masterly and beautiful pieces of theatre. These are magic acts made specifically for TV, and choreographed and directed perfectly for that medium. And I find that the massively differing decisions taken in each case in terms of that staging allow a (possibly) useful study. Well, they might. Let’s find out!
Simon Drake – The Secret Cabaret (1992)
Derren Brown – Plays Russian Roulette Live (2003)
(15 minute edit, with the complete live segment)
Despite the long length of Brown’s final presentation, both versions are staged in a minimal manner: so what differences come over when we compare the minute long piece to the hour long presentation?
Let’s start with “believability”. Which of the pieces is more real? Drake’s is certainly more of a “theatre” piece, allowing us the distance to simply watch and draw our own conclusions. Do we really believe he is in any real danger? Perhaps not, but I don’t find that this diminishes from the effect in any way (the same way as I know that Juliet doesn’t really die, yet I can still feel the emotional content of the play as if she did). Brown’s version on the other hand is set up to make it more “real”. He goes out of his way to convince us of how real it is. To convince us at every opportunity of the tricks fairness and danger.
It is far easier to dismiss Drake’s as “just a trick”, but is that an issue? Can we enjoy it more because we are given less information? Does Brown’s insistence on the fairness and truth of the situation actually give us more inclination to search for a method?
Both the performers act (and react) as if it were a genuine stunt, with a genuine risk of death (check their pre- and post-gunshot reactions!). But we accept the danger in Drake’s staging without having to have it explained to us. The music, sound effects, imagery etc communicate the danger. Brown tells us (literally) exactly what the dangers and risks are.
Brown’s presentation also led to a gentle backlash when it became clear that all wasn’t exactly as it seemed. A police statement claimed that despite the script, “there was no live ammunition involved and at no time was anyone at risk.” Was Brown’s insistence on “fairness” and “real danger” too much?
How much information do we need to give the viewer? And perhaps more to the point in terms of circus, how much of that information is already there? There in the technique, or in the cultural history, or in the audience’s own experiences?
When the “story” of the act is as clear as in Russian Roulette, how much extra information do we need to put on to make the act even stronger? I can imagine that Brown’s version lives on stronger in the collective cultural memory: but this is also related to general popularity and famousness, of course. Is it stronger as a piece of theatre than Drake’s 70 second telling?
I find both these pieces to be incredibly strong works of art – and the massive divide between them in terms of running time simply shows the two extremes of staging. The actual trick, the act of Russian Roulette, loading a single bullet into a revolver chamber and guessing (with death being the result of failure) where the bullet lies, is a stark and reduced piece of magic. Simon Drake chose to highlight the feat by cutting it to the bare minimum, whilst Derren Brown took the opposite route – making each step as open and clear as possible.
When the effect (the trick, the act) is clear and strong, then the staging needs to be at least as lucid and direct. How we create that clarity is down to our own artistic needs and choices. And in these two extreme examples we see that staggeringly different presentations can create a similar emotional impact. What they share is clarity, directness, and simplicity in their final execution.
Right now I am sitting in the backseat of a small van / large car: sandwiched comfortably between a yoga teacher and an aerialist. In the front seats are a burlesque performer and, driving, one of our two producers. We are en route to our second venue as part of the Cwtch Cabaret tour in Wales.
But I want to write now not about touring in the UK (which is a great and wonderful novelty for me!), but about a project which shows once more that jugglers are the geekiest of the circus community.
Earlier this month I was in Berlin for a week, participating in the first Juggling Teachers Meeting, held at the Berlin Juggling Center. Arranged by the centres owner, Alan Blim (the original founder of Berlin’s Juggling Katakomben), this five day workshop was supported by a European initiative for teaching, and had participants from Hungary, the Czech Republic, the UK, Italy, Spain, and of course Germany.
Berlin Juggling Center
So in all we had around a dozen students, and four teachers completed the group: myself, Alan Blim, Marco Paoletti, and Tim Roberts (long-time juggling teacher at the Chalôns school, now head of Higher Education at the Circus Space in London, and president of FEDEC).
Each of us was to teach a day (and to participate as students in the other days), and a target of the week was not only to teach our usual workshops or themes, but also to go deeper into the actual teaching theory behind our work. Each teacher had their own style and manner of course, which also meant that different teachers went at different levels, and in differing depths, into the theoretical aspects behind their teaching.
It became clear by the third day that teaching juggling in general can be divided into two large and different themes: long-term teaching (such as at a professional circus school, with the same students over a period of years), and short-term (like an hour workshop at a juggling convention). Knowing the context that the teaching is happening in informs the content and the detail of the work that is appropriate. Long-term teaching allows more personal research, and the teacher-student relationship can be more equal, with the teacher taking on something of a professor or mentor-like role. In short-term teaching, quicker results are usually desired by the students, and it can be more important to place focus on quick results – cool tricks or simple sequences.
Each of the four teachers material and teaching styles were very different from each other, but common themes showed themselves each days: suggesting that there is some common or shared vocabulary amongst us all. Building a strong foundation of technique and content, creating neutral space for new creation, exploring existing elements as deeply as possible, and noticing (and then breaking) habits we have formed.
Another major topic of discussion was a theme which I have talked about in previous blogs here: the reasons for, and the consequences of, the lack of permanent juggling teachers in comparison to those of other disciplines. As I have also postulated, I believe this is part of the reason for jugglers, historically speaking, pushing further creatively than other artists. But that has always seemed to be an accident of the situation (caused by students having a multitude of visiting, performing teachers), rather than the schools explicitly choosing to provide teaching in that manner.
The desire was always to create something more tangible from the weeks research, and through Tim’s involvement came the decision to write a juggling teachers manual for FEDEC. FEDEC has an ongoing project to create training manuals (free to download from the FEDEC website) for the circus disciplines, to promote exchange between the schools and a good level of teaching across all subjects. There are ten “chapters” so far, and two further (single wheel and straps) already in production. They start with the most basic of technique and preparatory work, before moving onto more advanced material. It became clear that the juggling manual doesn’t need low-level teaching material (the juggling students at the professional circus schools already enter with a high technique level), and so the focus shall be more directly centred on the artistic and theoretical aspects of the work.
Perhaps that approach can then feed back into the other disciplines, just as we jugglers can learn from them. It is also hoped that the work that was begun over the week can be continued and added to: to arrange another meeting, perhaps in London, with a greater mix of teachers with a greater range of experience and styles. Although the week was inspiring and felt very important, it also felt very much like a first step – a step towards a bigger and clearer project.
It’s been almost two months since my last post, and for that my humblest apologies (hmmmm, going a bit Stephen Fry there!). In that time I have collected many notes of subjects and themes, for essays and other writings, but it seemed appropriate to make my first post after my hiatus, and my first in 2012, as Circus Geeky as possible, and thus I shall devote this entry to the recent “Séminaire MaMux: Mathématiques, musique et relations avec d’autres disciplines”, which took place in Paris last Friday, January 6th, with the subject “Théories du jonglage et applications musicales”.
To go into detail about any single facet of the day would demand much more than a single blog post, and so I shall content myself with giving an overview of the day, rather than a detailed study of the lectures and demonstrations.
Quick background: IRCAM, in their own words, “carries out research and development into the symbolic representation of musical structures, languages and computer paradigms adapted to music.” They are a Paris based organisation, with their own (Piano and Rogers designed!) building adjacent to the Pompidou Centre. For some ten years they have organised and hosted a monthly meeting “MaMux” – which explores the relationships between music, mathematics and other disciplines.
This month the theme was “Juggling Theory and it’s Musical Applications”, which came to life thanks to the work of the minimalist composer Tom Johnson (who has been based in Paris for some years). I began an exchange with Tom in 2008, and he has since been involved in collaborations with various jugglers: including teaching for a week on the Juggling and Music research course in Stockholm, and composing pieces for the Gandini Juggling group.
His own compositions are usually mathematically based, and it happens that he has been particularly interested in recent years with the mathematical phenomena of tiling, which relates very directly to juggling’s siteswap notation. This is what drew him into the world of juggling.
On this occasion, the seminar moved from it’s usual (low-ceilinged!) room to the Petite Saal of the Pompidou Centre, to accomodate the juggling patterns that would be demonstrated. In the course of the day people came and went, but around 30-60 people were always present in the audience (a big audience for MaMux, largely made up in this case of the Parisian juggling scene).
The seminar (whose usual themes include “Systèmes évolutifs à mémoire”, or “Langages synchrones”) began at 2.30pm with a lecture from Jean-Christophe Novelli and Florent Hivert, of the Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée and the Université Paris-Sud. After a general introduction to juggling theory they jumped quite quickly into the deeper mathematics lurking behind, in the form of combinatorics. This was clearly a lecture by mathematicians with an interest in juggling, rather than the other way round, and that was to be the feel of most of the rest of the day.
Following their presentation, Tom Johnson took the podium, accompanied by the mathematician Franck Jedrzejewski, the juggler Jonathan Lardillier (a recent graduate of the Fratellini circus school in Paris), and myself.
Tom spoke about the mathematics behind his work, and showed how the maths could become juggling, and the juggling could become music. He described the compositional processes behind some pieces he had worked on, and some current projects, before Jonathan demonstrated his solo version of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” (2 balls in each hand, phase shifting with one hand), and I spoke briefly about the piece “Dropping Balls” that Tom composed for me, and which I would perform later in the evening.
Franck Jedrzejewski went even deeper into the mathematics behind music, especially the “well-formed scales”, which form the basis of Tom’s current compositions for jugglers.
After a brief interval, the day finished with a showing of the video from the Premiere last September of Tom’s piece “Three Notes for Three Jugglers”, written for Gandini Juggling (and played on electronically triggered sound emitting balls), and my own performance of “Dropping Balls” (a spoken word / singing piece).
It is hard to know how much importance to place on an event of this kind – a subculture of a subculture colliding with another, specialists of such precise subjects meeting others. But that an organisation of such prestige as IRCAM, with the support of the Pompidou Centre, could host such an event, and bring together such people, is, in my opinion, something extremely valuable and important in the continuing story of juggling, of circus and of art. I am proud to have been part of this event, and feel that we have taken another small step forward in blurring the fake distinctions between art and science, between mainstream and intellectual art, and find ourselves moving ever onwards to greater things in our work.
Luke Wilson, Jan. 10th 2012, Cologne
IRCAM on wikipedia:
Clip of “Three Notes for Three Jugglers”, written for Gandini Juggling:
The STEIM sound balls in progress:
Clip of “Dropping Balls”, written for Luke Wilson (the piece starts at 9mins 35 secs):
Some thoughts that I thought whilst training today…
Technique is mutable.
It’s great to have specially composed music: but if you do, you will never have Bach.
Theatre can be a dirty window to reality, but it can also be the lens that focuses reality.
I write most of my blog posts in trains, many in cafes, and some in aeroplanes. I am in the train now, travelling from home in Cologne to work in Freiburg. I was there yesterday already, and did my rehearsals and so on, but then decided to travel home for the night, to return today for our first two shows (at 4pm and 8pm). That means I got home last night at 10pm, and left again this morning at 6am. Why would I do that?
My first juggling clubs were Spotlight European classic-long, with oil slick European style decoration. This particular model of club was pretty much the standard in the UK at the time (1990 or thereabouts), and so they were easily available and well suited to buying in case you wanted to pass with someone else. I chose the decoration because one of my heroes at my local juggling club had them too.
One of my major inspirations in my early juggling life was the Dutch juggler Michiel Hesseling. The company Oddballs had released a video of his club juggling, and I fell in love: with his Converse high-top shoes, his smart button-down shirt, his juggling, and his clubs. Red metallic Die Jonglerie Stage clubs with white handles. Beautiful creatures they were. Resplendent, slim and elegant. A trip to the juggling wholesalers Butterfingers in Bath took place, but alas, these clubs were not to be found. But, the American manufacturer Todd Smith had just released his Satellite club! This was a gorgeous creation, well proportioned, solidly built, and clad in a never before seen deep purple metallic decoration. Also, the Russian juggler Sergei Ignatov had apparently given them his blessing. I bought a set.
They were great clubs! They had a couple of idiosyncrasies that needed to be adjusted to, but otherwise, mighty fine! I juggled them for a couple of years, until I finally took the step to special order the Die Jonglerie Stage clubs after which I had always pined. The decoration I chose was more subdued: two simple bands of silver wrapped around the pure white bodies.
At this time (1995ish) I was heavily influenced by the video tapes being released by the International Jugglers’ Association (IJA) of their festival held in America each year. Many of the jugglers I respected and attempted to emulate were using clubs from the American manufacturer Renegade. In the UK, a very small group of people used these clubs, but they too were people I looked up to. Almost impossible to find in any UK juggling shop, I ordered a set directly from Renegade, and waited with anticipation for the package to make it’s way through customs and into my eager hands.
Finally, they arrived. As I was expecting, they were heavy, they were solid. This was the first time that I understood that props are tools. Built for a purpose, built to last, by craftsmen, for artists. Add to that the romance of Californian built clubs, assembled in a small workshop by the founder of the company, rather than mass produced playthings constructed in an anonymous factory.
They were heavy, and soon I removed the silver decoration I had ordered, and let them fly naked through the air.
A heavy club has always been good for me. I am naturally a fast juggler, and heavier props help to keep me grounded and calm. Especially on stage, I find a heavier club incredibly beneficial. My experience with passing with Renegades has also been great: it’s like throwing a small, laser-guided missile. Where you throw, they arrive. Other clubs always seem to include a slight vibration, an uncertainty of their exact position or speed. Renegade clubs for me have always contradicted Heisenberg’s famous principle.
Over the next years, I tended to use standard Renegade clubs for passing, and the slimmer variety for my solo juggling. I also occasionally switched to other clubs (Henrys’ Pirouettes or Delphins), but after a few weeks (or after my first show with the new clubs) I would always return to the standard, undecorated Renegade club. I could trust them.
On my recent trip to Stockholm and Portugal, I happened to juggle briefly with Delphins, from German manufacturer Henrys, and PX3s from Italy’s Play. My issues with each of these clubs would take a whole extra post or two, but I did notice how little effort I needed to juggle them, due to their slimness and light weight, and I began to doubt again my commitment to Renegade.
I had three days at home before starting rehearsals in Freiburg, a contract where I will be performing around thirty shows. The perfect opportunity to try some new clubs! I ran around in Cologne from juggling store to juggling store warehouse, and put together a set of six brand new clubs: Henrys Circus Classic, with red metallic decoration and silver handles. Beautiful, beautiful creations. My training with them was great, and I made sure to bring only those clubs with me to Freiburg.
Yesterday was my lighting rehearsal, and, for the first time I can recall, I had major problems getting the lights how I needed them. I have always considered myself to be extremely flexible and easy with my lighting requirements (something that jugglers are normally famous for not being). I have even turned up at rehearsals where the technicians have told me that they had heard I can juggle in any light, but yesterday it was basically impossible to build something that allowed me to see my own juggling patterns on stage.
My new clubs looked glorious from the audience, but I tend to prefer it when I can see them myself too. Was it the decoration? Was one reason I have always been easy with lights the white clubs I have used for so many years? Perhaps yes, and, given the choice between seeing and not seeing, I would take seeing every time.
But how to know for sure?
And so when rehearsals were over yesterday (in addition to my juggling act I am performing three magic pieces with the MC, Ken Bardowicks), I more or less ran to the train station to jump in a train back to Cologne. I packed my Renegades, fell into bed, and woke to my alarm clock.
And now I find myself in a train again, travelling back to Freiburg, annoyed with myself, but mostly just shaking my head at my own stupidity. I will try my Renegades in my light, and see if there is any difference. But I think I know how this affair ends. Every couple of years I try a fling with some new club, but I always go back to Renegade…
Thank you Tom, thank you Iman.