Luke Wilson – My Jedi Master

You may have noticed that this blog has been updated a little sparsely over the last few months, namely because over the summer most circus artists are (hopefully) manic with work and lack a little of the time and energy needed to concentrate on a blog. Unfortunately this is not the sole reason.

Luke Wilson, known online as Cubecheat (referring to his love of the Rubik’s Cube and cheating/magic) was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus at the start of the summer. Throughout the summer he underwent treatment but ultimately lost his battle with cancer and past away today.

Luke was a close friend and I have many fond memories of time spent with him but I think I’ll save them for another place and time. In this post I’d like to remember his amazing teaching.

In 2003 at the British Juggling Convention in Brighton I watched a workshop on modern club juggling. There were many great jugglers sitting and watching a skinny, charismatic, excited man explain juggling detail and variation in his already slightly odd british-german accent. He explained ideas and processes in such a brilliantly logical way that it was both beautiful and clear. I asked Guy Heathcote who the man was and he informed me it was a gentleman by the name of Luke Wilson.

Years later, when on the degree at Circus Space I was lucky enough to experience Luke’s teaching first hand. Everything about his approach to teaching and learning was perfect. He had lessons planned down to the minute, almost second. He would literally give you a task for 6 minutes and 45 seconds and then onto the next with 1 minute and 35 of thinking time. Always in a tight fitting t-shirt, watch around the right front belt loop of his jeans (he claimed it was because he didn’t like to juggle with a watch on his wrist but I suspect it was because his wrists were to thin to keep a watch on! Always in jeans because he found them best for kickups, an area of juggling which Luke excelled at. You can view a tutorial we made together on the triplex kickup here, it gives a great insight into the effort and detail Luke went to in anything he did).

Luke had tried and tested methods and tasks but also experimented with new ideas and exercises in class. His classes had a brilliant combination of building up confidence in technique, as well as pushing creativity using defined parameters and matrixes. Overall pushing your understanding of what juggling is and could be.

I’ll never forget having to do 3 ball penguins whilst being asked what the capital of capital of Chile is, what’s six times seven and being poked in the back all at the same time. Or the sequence 1,12,123,23,3,31,312,12,2,23,231,31,1

Lukes thoughts on juggling, circus and art in general massively influenced the way I think and approach work, when I shared a flat with him for 3 months we would often stay up till early morning discussing and debating our views on circus and juggling. He had very clear thoughts on what circus and juggling are and how to define them. Not believing in the relevance of the ‘contemporary vs traditional’ debate which seemed to be so important to some in the 80s and 90s and even today. Luke viewed and defined work as good or bad, original or ripoff, ethical or not.

His views on progressive steps forward for the art form were clear, using the internet to share work and ideas (which included some magnificent posts on this very blog), constantly creating new aesthetics, drama, performance and ultimately tricks.

Constantly pushing himself, seeking out new inspiration and ideas, Luke taught at juggling conventions and circus school all over the world, inspiring 1000s of jugglers. Competing in international circus competitions, performing in sold-out theaters, sharing his art with the world. Living the dream.

Despite Luke coming from Portsmouth and myself coming from Southampton, we always had a great rapport which turned into a close friendship over the years, we shared many of the same interests and passions. When I was in school we would often joke that I was his Padawan learner. I suppose it would only be fitting to include…

There’s so much more I could say about his teaching, never mind his performing or his friendship but it can wait.

For now I need to be still and sad, a friend is gone forever.

Luke Wilson Memorial Donations

Changing Direction

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.

Valentin Gneushev
Valentin Gneushev, Russian artistic director, choreographer. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev.

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 [1] 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.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentin_Gneushev

Things Jugglers Say

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?

Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette: Simon Drake vs. Derren Brown.Russian Roulette

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.

Teachers Week

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.
www.cwtchcabaret.co.uk

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.
www.fedec.eu

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.

MaMux, Paris

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.

A particularly elegant state map, and a particularly geeky jumper: both modelled by Jean-Christophe Novelli of the Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée.

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

The event:
http://repmus.ircam.fr/mamux/saisons/saison11-2011-2012/2012-01-06

IRCAM on wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IRCAM

Tom Johnson:
http://www.editions75.com/EnglishPortal/

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):

Fidelity

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.

www.variete-am-seepark.de
www.renegadejuggling.com

20111103-083346.jpg

Personal Pt. II: Reunion

I emerge from the cavernous depths that have been the last miles of my journey: a journey that has taken me from the frozen steppes of the northern frontier to this, the very edge of this sprawling continent. I blink uneasily in the harsh early light, and allow the warm rain to embrace my face as I turn to the east and the winding unkept path that marks the route I must take. As I step forward, my bag heavy on my back, filled only with the essentials I dare not leave alone, I espie it in the distance. My final destination can be glimpsed between the heavy and fortified walls that punctuate this barren and detail-less realm.

The behemoth.

It rises menacingly from the water. Even from this distance, it dwarves the figures and temple-like constructions around it. It’s scale causes me to freeze for one long moment. It is still a good forty-eighth of a days hike from me, but already it dominates the skyline. In that moment I know that my destination is, despite all adversity, now close at hand, and that it will be watching me as I approach: teasing me with cul-de-sacs and detours.

A long moment of hesitation. And then I stride on to meet the creature. For I know that in it’s hidden depths, deep in its hideous belly, is the woman I seek. Swept away nearly one half year ago from her home and her country, cursed to be hoisted thrice-weekly above the thousands strong throng that choose to live their cursed lives within the creatures belly. Lifted high into the air, to be tossed and pulled this way and that by ropes and other cunning devices, clad only in the thinnest of garbs imaginable, swept this way and that for the voyeuristic pleasures of the heaving multitude.

It is for her that I have made this journey. Knowing that the hardships I have endured are meaningless compared to those she must have faced. As I strode the world freely, she was pulled hither and thither upon it. Spat up upon foreign shores, to be allowed but the barest glimpse of the world outside the great creature, a glimpse that brought with it the illusion, the promise even, of freedom and choice, before being dragged remorselessfully back into its depths.

I hurry along the path. I ignore the lashing of the downfall. I am already soaked, a heady mingling of sweat and rain in this humid place. I haven’t washed for days, the floods and the acid-spitting wildlife precluded it.

As I move purposefully forward, a sudden vibration seems to enter my body. She has bent agents to her will, and sometimes she can use these minions to pass messages. I know how to decode these missives, arriving as they do not in the claws of ravens, nor on the flights of arrows, but as carefully typed words on the front of my journal and map.

She writes of The Drill. A cruel ritual that the creature seems to find a heady delight in. The most delight seems to be gained by springing it most unexpectedly upon it’s victims, and it seems that The Drill may be starting very soon. My beloved is required (or rather, is enforced, as the scent of punishment for the most minor of sins hangs heavy in that place) to spend hours in some display of penitence to her masters, to be paraded before them once more, in a cruel parody of power and hierarchy. She fears that The Drill may be starting very soon, a fact which would reduce the scant hours our reunion has been favoured with to substantially fewer. What cruel Gods or Demons are these, that toy with me even now, so close to my goal after so many months?

I walk faster. Picking my way through the detritus.

The behemoth grows larger, and my anticipation with it.

————

(I managed to visit Petra in Lisbon for a few hours during her cruiseship contract. The drill was cancelled, and the quest was successful.)

Creative Technique

Tap Portugal flight 511, en route from Stockholm, Sweden, to Lisbon, Portugal. I am travelling to my sisters home in the north of Portugal, with the intention of catching my last sun of the year before heading back to Germany and shows through ’til January.

The last four weeks have been spent teaching full time. A week at the circus school in Rotterdam, a week in Tilburg, and then the last two weeks in Stockholm. I wrote the first draft of this essay back at the start of that tour, and now I have tried to clarify some things that became more clear to me over the following weeks. Much is still unclear, and although I can now state a solid intention, it may not be clear if it is a good one, or indeed a possible one!

It all started when I was sitting in the teachers room at the circus department of Codarts, the University for the Arts in Rotterdam.

Alongside me at the large table, eating their sandwiches and drinking tea, were four teachers from Russia, one from China, and one from Bulgaria.

Three of the four Russians came purely from traditional circus, the Bulgarian from Sport Acrobatics. I am not sure of the Chinese gentleman, but I believe him to be traditionally based (he was teaching Chinese pole and hoop diving, so I feel quite safe to make that blatant assumption). Classical circus backgrounds. In contrast, the theatre teacher was German, the dance teacher American. I was the only circus discipline teacher there with a non-classical background.

This situation highlights one of the longest running discussions of modern circus education. Technique vs. creation. Skill vs. art. Old vs. new. Who teaches what? Is it better to have strict old-school technique teachers (circus artists, gymnasts), and have the “art” come from external sources (theatre class, dance class), or should the combination be more fluid and involve more overlap? It’s an old issue, but being there reminded me that it is still not completely solved in a practical way.

Jugglers have historically had more of a combined technique/creation education than other disciplines. I don’t think it’s pure (or at least, not only) juggler arrogance on my part if I say that jugglers have tended to be slightly ahead on the “modern circus” curve. Partly because we can take more risks without actually dying, and perhaps partly, in an ironic twist, because of this lack of full-time juggling teachers compared to acrobatics or aerial coaches.

There is a continually refreshed pool of retired circus acrobats, of professional gymnastic coaches. Potential circus teachers. Jugglers have a longer performing shelf life: we can keep going ’till we drop, literally, dead on stage of natural causes, which means less full-time juggling teachers in the world.

Having a changing pool of guest teachers at a school, rather than or in addition to one full-time teacher, has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantages I will ignore for now, perhaps for a later post. One of the advantages of the situation is receiving many different approaches and beliefs towards juggling, and thus being forced to search for ones own opinions and artistic feelings.

So, these guest juggling teachers tend to be active performing jugglers, and thus have a current understanding of that world, and most of them are of a generation where they are concerned with “new juggling”: with creation and choreography within the technique.

When I have but a scant week to spend with some students, I don’t wish to use all our precious class time doing pure technique classes. If I am only there for a brief time I see more value in sharing what I care about within juggling and beyond pure technique, to talk about the stuff that excites and inspires me, and to hope to give some of that energy to my students. If it seems necessary to spend some hours standing around talking about body position and making fine corrections to arm movements, then fine. But that is not my normal priority. I have to assume that they get that from other sources (that assumption is, of course, one of the disadvantages of the situation!).

Yes, it is absolutely vital to learn good technique. To learn it in a safe and clear manner, from first principles and onwards. But can we teach it in a creative manner from those first principles? If we learn the proper technique to climb a rope, then obviously we should learn leading with the other foot, with the other hand. But maybe rather than doing that because it is “good technique”, we could do it because it is an exploration of all the possibilities offered by that technique. So that already in those first steps we are dissecting tricks not only for technical reasons, but for creative ones. You’ve learnt your rope climb? OK, show me the variations, and tell me what they change internally as well as externally. Show me a rope climb I’ve never seen before, and build me a sequence that highlights each element within it. Good technique doesn’t need to be at the cost of creativity, or of exploration and play. And that play could be introduced at the same time as the technique, rather than as a separate factor, in a separate class, with a separate teacher.

I experienced an example of this technique/creation separation recently when I found myself in the slightly surreal situation of working for 45 minutes on someone’s finished act: a graduation piece after a four year circus education, which was already six months old and oft-performed. Despite it’s “finished” status I was expected to bring something new to it, and was being watched by two performance teachers. The act was a solo using the Chinese pole, and before the session I was asked “Have you worked with someone on Chinese pole before?”. My answer was “no.” If I had been more brutal and honest, then after the session I should have added “and I still haven’t.”

There was a major disconnect between the technique and the theatrical setting. It was to me a clear example of the wrong way to make modern circus. It was “I do this technique set, what theatrical story can I drop on top of that to make it more interesting?” Rather than making some kind of statement using circus technique, here was someone using the circus technique purely as punctuation. It was something in parentheses, something which was referred to rather than being the main event.

I believe this to be the direct result of separating technique from creation. Of learning the words, rather than coining new ones for the required intention. Of theatre teachers dropping circus into theatrical situations, rather than delving into the situation that is the circus discipline itself. And if the students say “yes”, if that is their final statement after a long and intense education? I find that to be a shame.

I don’t believe that there are no more tricks to find on the Chinese pole. Or on the Corde Lisse or the cradle or any other apparatus. Why don’t we see as much new technique from those disciplines as we do from the jugglers? Yes, the risk is a factor, but so is the psychology of the teachers and the students, and that is something we can take responsibility for. If there really are no more tricks to find, then let’s give up all those other disciplines and all be jugglers together!

But in the mean time, and after so many years of talking about how to create creative circus performers, let’s start by being creative circus teachers: teachers who can kick their students to learn pure technique, but who can also communicate the need for new technique. For technique that tells it’s own story, that is specific and personal and high level. Technique that contains it’s own theatricality, in addition to risk and spectacle and difficulty.

Theatre should deepen and clarify reality: so let’s start with our reality, circus techniques, and see if we can tell some new stories using that language.

Good Design

I’ve had this on standby for a while: the death of Steve Jobs seems to make now a good moment to post it.

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Feel free to imagine this is about choreography rather than design. And I know I can trust you to replace phrases like “use the iPad” with phrases like “watch the performance”, and so on.

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Stephen Fry TIME article
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1977113-1,00.html

What Ive and his team understand is that if you have an object in your pocket or hand for hours every day, then your relationship with it is profound, human and emotional. Apple’s success has been founded on consumer products that address this side of us: their products make users smile as they reach forward to manipulate, touch, fondle, slide, tweak, pinch, prod and stroke.

“It’s not for us to predict what others will do,” Ive says. “We have to concentrate on what we think is right and offer it up.” Ive’s focus and perfectionism are legendary. Any conversation with him is about hours of work, about refusing to be satisfied until the tiniest things are absolutely right. He’s most pleased with what consumers will never notice. He wants them to use the iPad without considering the thousands of decisions and innovations that have gone into what seems a natural and unmediated interaction.

20111006-130457.jpg

Waiting for Godot

Marilyn waits too...

My name is Luke. I am a professional waiter.

I arrived at the venue at 3.30pm for my 4pm rehearsal. At 4.30pm I was finished.

Now it’s 6.30pm. The show starts at 8pm. My act is at the start of the second half.

I should start my make-up when the show starts.

Right now, there are thousands of performers all around the world doing exactly what I am doing now.

Together, in our own way and in our own places, we wait.

Does this connect us all on some level? The juggler in Berlin with the snake-charmer in Mumbai? The trapeze artist in Moscow with the preacher in New Guinea?

Breathing, sleeping, reading, stretching – thousands of us, spread across the globe in whatever passes in that particular locale for a “backstage”.

How exhilarating that realisation is! I am not alone! As I type these words, I can imagine a shared consciousness, a body of experience shared between performers of all races, faiths, and skills. Connected by the act, by the art, of waiting. But not mere everyday, amateur passive waiting – waiting not for a bus, not for a train or in a queue, but waiting for the moment of stepping onto the stage, of stepping into a more “real” reality. Waiting for the moment of transformation!

I am sorry. I think I have too much time on my hands…

Luke Wilson, in a backstage in Berlin. Waiting.

Why Circus?

I was required to write this short piece some weeks ago for a residency application. Originally, I was planning to take some time and really try to be as honest and clear as possible. But, as these things so often transpire, I ended up writing it in pretty much one draft just before the deadline…

So, I reckon it’s a slightly odd mix of honesty and keyword hitting, but re-reading it now, I am quite happy to share it here, and I stand behind it. And it got me to the interview, so it’s original purpose was fulfilled…

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Why circus?

Circus imagery is some of the strongest cultural imagery that we have. The clown, the candyfloss, the laughing child, the strong man and the beautiful ballerina, the horses and the lions. To say it is timeless would be a crass naivety, but the shared emotions that circus is still tied to are still alive, and are felt by peoples of almost all ages and cultures.

But beyond the imagery, circus should not remain a “timeless” art. Its core concepts – including physicality, strength and risk – stay ever fresh, but over time the reasons for its necessity change. We have a responsibility to keep our art form relevant and fresh. Circus is a “time art”: one that happens anew each time in real time, as opposed to the snapshots offered by painting or engraving or sketching, or the set in stone offerings of ballet or cinema, and as such it has the opportunity to develop and evolve over time, and at a quicker pace (how short our history is compared to that of music, or dance, or even cinema!).

Circus’ roots are in spectacle, fantasy and exoticism. In showing that which it was not possible to see anywhere else. Now that we can see almost anything we want, at almost any time we want to, we must look deeper into the purpose of the circus arts. Circus arts, the techniques that belong to the circus, speak their own language and carry their own emotional baggage and weight. To me, the biggest step that circus has taken in it’s recent development is that of opening it’s doors to people from outside it’s traditional families and dynasties. It is obvious to say that many circus practitioners today chose of their own free will to study the skills of the circus, rather than being born into it, and one hopes that that means that not only do they have the physical abilities to say something, but also that they have something they wish to say.

Circus as it is performed today really shouldn’t need (30 years after the birth of nouveau cirque) to justify itself as “circus with theatre”, or “circus with dance”, or “circus with value added art”. Circus should be proud enough to accept that it is an art, and then to look once more within itself to find what it wishes to communicate. I believe that not only different practitioners, but the different disciplines themselves, have personal and important things to say. Things that can be said better with circus than with any other medium.

Otherwise, what would be the point of practicing circus?

To answer the question “why circus” is to me exactly this process. Why did I become infected by juggling at the age of 14? Why did magic capture me three years before that? And why did those obsessions develop into the love for circus that I have now? What is it about juggling that speaks to me, and how can I be more honest to my artform in my interpretation and performance of it?

And what about all those other disciplines? Why do I “know” (or even have an opinion) about what a “good” handstand act is? Or trapeze or teeter-board or or or? The more the technique can speak to us, the closer we can get to the real meaning and purpose of circus.

This excites me.

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Repetition

True story.

Some years back I met with a friend, a clown and juggler, who was educated in the French new circus system of the 1980/90s. We talked of a mutual friend from the same background. I asked if this friend was still performing a specific act (in my opinion, one of the greatest and most important pieces of “modern” juggling (or even circus)). “Well”, came the reply, “he doesn’t really do it anymore. I mean, he did it a hundred times or so!”

Just a few days later I visited a magician friend, who was performing his manipulation act in the Apollo Varieté in Düsseldorf, Germany. I told him how much tighter his act was looking compared to when I had seen it last. “Well”, came the reply, “I have done it a hundred times now, so I start to understand it.”

Last night I performed my “new” club juggling act for the 97th time.

Player vs. Character Knowledge

Much as I would love to preface this blog with a declaration of my long love for Dungeons & Dragons, with a nostalgic description of the hours spent painting tiny figurines in my parent’s basement, of the creative and social skills I learnt through the fine crafting of stories and situations as Dungeon Master: I can’t.

I did have a short phase of building models from the Warhammer series, but frankly, I was busy practicing my Centre Deal at the time that I would have (should have?) been getting into role-playing.

Like many other geek-centric activites however, it fascinates me deeply and I try on occasion to peer into the rabbit-hole that is it’s home. Just recently I spent over an hour watching Youtube videos of a Dungeons & Dragons game being played. Yes, I did that. And it was fucking fantastic!

Penny Arcade “is a webcomic focused on video games and video game culture, written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik”. They “also created… PAX, an annual gaming convention”, where (amongst many other activities) they sometimes play (and film) celebrity D&D sessions.

Anyway…

An interesting aspect to me of D&D culture is the crossover between play and performance, and one specific thing that makes me very excited to think about is the concept of “player vs. character knowledge”. This concept basically establishes that the character you are playing does not share the same knowledge as you yourself in reality. This is a two-way street: although she probably knows far less than you do about eg motor vehicles and the internet, her understanding of eg magic and fighting probably eclipses your own.

This seems so basic and obvious as a fact when sitting around a table-top role-playing game, but surely the same applies to any moment we step onto a stage? Let’s assume for the moment that at any point that we find ourselves on stage we are assuming a “character”, accepting that that character may be EXTREMELY close to our normal “player” self (and perhaps indistinguishable in some cases).

The amount of knowledge shared between our two identities depends on the style and technique of our performance. It is something which is accepted (but maybe not always clearly stated) by the actor and the magician, but less so by circus artists. The usual way that this aspect is explored in the circus arts is by the juggler “discovering” that she can throw and catch the ball. By the aerialist “accidently” getting onto the trapeze whilst trying to change a lightbulb. I think (hope?) we can discount such examples for now.

If I am playing the part of an actual mindreader on stage, then obviously that character (let’s switch at this point to use the word “persona” instead, it has less connotations of fantastical oddness (and let’s use “performer” instead of “player” from here on in!)) has no knowledge of the magical technique that I am actually using to accomplish the apparent feats of ESP. The persona believes himself that he is reading minds, and I as performer must be able to use the magic technique so imperceptibly that perhaps I too can forget it is there. But what of presenting myself in the persona of “a juggler”?

How much of my performer (real life) knowledge is neccesary or desirable? Obvious things can be cast aside: the sad death of my hamster that morning, the shockingly high fee I am receiving, not knowing if the technician will hit my cues at the right moment. But more related to the performance itself: if I am about to juggle dangerous objects, then perhaps the persona should not know that he has done it 500 times before, or that the knife blades are dull and harmless. If one prepares for a drop on corde lisse, perhaps the persona should only be in that moment, not in anticipation of an (to them) unknown future?

Almost any act should appear to be fresh and new and never done before: is performer vs. persona knowledge a key part of that illusion? When discussing learning lines, we often talk about learning the text, and then “forgetting” it, so that when we speak it is as if spontaneous. Can we apply that to all our skills, at every moment?

Perhaps there is a finer distinction too? What about “audience vs. persona knowledge”? We can expect the persona to know more about the actual performance (the actual moment) than the audience does, and they should trust us with that. But perhaps the audience knows more about performance in general? If the persona is telling some story, then perhaps they don’t even know that they are on a stage, or in a theatre? If they are fourth wall up, then clearly the knowledge of the audience is at some odds with their own knowledge! But if the audience trusts the persona, then they too will play the game, and allow themselves to succomb as well to their role in the performance.

So it all comes down to that? Establishing that we all have roles to fulfil, that the performance is a game, and that each participant has a responsibility to play by the rules. Maybe if I’d spent more time playing Dungeons & Dragons it would all be much easier…


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_Arcade_(webcomic)

http://dndnerd.com/dd-for-beginners-player-vs-character-knowledge

IJA Judging – A Manifesto

Notes from a discussion between Lana Bolin (IJA competitor (2001/2002) and judge (2004/2005), Françoise Rochais (IJA Individual gold medallist (1995) and performer and judge at international circus festivals), and Luke Wilson (IJA competitor (1999) and judge (2011) and performer at international circus festivals).

We believe the current judging system in use by the IJA (International Jugglers’ Association) for the purposes of deciding the Juniors, Teams and Individuals Championships to be over-complicated and flawed. We believe it to be overly focused on delivering fast and non-debatable results, at the expense of not allowing the opinions and experiences of the invited judges to contribute to the results.

We understand that it is the result of past issues with the judging systems used, but we fail to see its strengths and advantages over previous systems.

Until recently, the judging criteria was divided into two broad categories (technique and performance), weighted at sixty and forty percent respectively. The system now in use has split these categories further, into a total of seven wide aspects to be considered by each judge. Each category is ranked from 1 to 5 points, with a multiplication factor then taken into account. This has coincided with a move away from weighting the technique over the performance side, with the results now reflecting a percentage of 45/55, technique vs. performance.

Execution (x4)
Entertainment Level (x4)
Degree of Difficulty (x3)
Theatrical Framing (x3)
Creativity (x3)
Element of Risk (x2)
Stage Presence (x1)

A separate tally of Deductible Drops is also added in, with a deduction of 0.5 points per drop. This number may be any value up to and including the actual number of drops, at the judge’s individual discretion.

Although it may appear useful to define so many categories, we feel it detracts from a judge’s ability to rank the acts as she sees fit, and brings in a number of ambiguous factors.

Why separate Execution from Degree of Difficulty (how well you do the trick from what trick you do)? This can have the affect of rewarding poorly executed hard tricks, as a calculated risk against loosing some points in Execution.

How can one usefully define “Element of Risk”? As it stands now, five people standing on stage juggling three balls each should earn more points than two people doing the same three ball cascade. Or juggling three new and potentially slippery clubs earns more points than juggling worn-in ones. Juggling is, by definition, a series of risks. Any discussion of risk is simply a discussion of technique. At best this category is unnecessary, at worst, we find here again the possibility to reward poor technique (more points for a five club cascade if it looks like it is about to drop at any moment!).

We find these three categories to be unnecessary breakdowns of the “technique” aspects of a juggling act, just as we find the four remaining categories to be unnecessary breakdowns of the “performance” aspects.

In addition, we fail to understand the use of a drop count left to each judge’s discretion. Coming from the viewpoint of juggling performers, a drop is a very clear violation of the performer’s intentions, impacting both the technical and performance aspects of good technique. The impact or otherwise of drop events should be judged on the overall effect that it has on the performance.

The judges are invited due to their knowledge and experience of juggling as a performing art, and should not need such hand holding.

We understand that an argument for this system of judging is to avoid lengthy discussions and arguments between the judges, so as to speed up the decision process. Why is this necessary? Events this year (2011) in the calculation of the Teams scores show that errors can still occur.

Is there any strong reason to announce the championships results directly after the championships show? Most other serious circus competitions allow the judges ample time to discuss and come to their conclusions, and announce the winners in a separate ceremony AFTER the completion of the final competitions. Sometimes the winners are notified beforehand, sometimes not. But the artificial, and unnecessary, pressure to have speedy results is not there.

With no time pressure on the judges to reach their verdict, isn’t the chance higher of reaching more informed and accurate decisions? An exchange between judges allows individual expertise and experience to come to the fore, and so can avoid the possible issue of any one judge lacking specific technical or historical knowledge that should be taken into account when judging competitors against one another.

If it is felt that the sub-categorisation of technique and performance into these seven aspects is useful as a guide to judging, then it is necessary to define each element in a far more precise way than is now done, and to consider whether said categories are really the correct ones to be focussing on!

In conclusion, we fail to see the advantages of the current system, and propose a return to the older system of judging, based on two criteria. For clarity, we suggest the two categories “technique” and “artistic”. We believe “artistic” to be a better and more specific term than “performance”, as the latter could include both technical and artistic considerations. The relative split should be either 50/50, or slightly favouring the technical side, eg 55/45. Discussion between the judges should be endured and encouraged, with ample time allowed for them to reach a decision. The winners should be announced the day following the competition show, which not only allows a more complete discussion of the acts, but which can also give the competitions more importance and weight at the festival.

The IJA Stage Championships have nurtured, produced and showcased some of the best juggling acts in the world today. We feel that the judging system in its current form is in best case ill-defined, and in worst case detrimental to the art of juggling.

Lana Bolin
Françoise Rochais
Luke Wilson

July 2011

Housekeeping Pt II

Time I think for another personal update, sharing some of the more usual things that have been going on in my life recently.

I am in my home office, the Café “Jaely’s Coffee” near my home in Cologne. My nine week run in the GOP Varieté in Hannover finished exactly two weeks ago, and I have had “time off” (meaning no shows) since then.

Did do quite a lot though! I made a YouTube video, having been inspired by some discussion on the juggling newsgroup about some tricks I was trying 15 odd years ago, had a very short trip to Berlin to pick up some props to deliver to Petra, who I then visited for a couple of nights during her cruiseship rehearsals in Holland, wrote some new material with Ken Bardowicks, and finally I fixed the wrongly saved data (incorrect fields since switching from Palm Desktop to Apples Address Book) in my address book. The last success also enabled me to actually create a clean and current mailing list (divided into German and English, hooray!).

My first use of said mailing list will be the official announcement of my all new website, which I built whilst I was in Hannover.

Phew. Also, I suppose I can officially say now that Bob Bramson’s book “An Artist’s Luggage” is at the publishers, and is “coming soon”!

Today I packed a suitcase, for tomorrow I fly to the good old US of A to attend the International Jugglers’ Association Annual Festival. I shall teach three workshops, perform in the main show, and have the hono(u)r (?) of being a judge for their stage competitions. I assume I can talk about that. I shall ask more about that when I am there, I feel I would like to write something about that. I have very mixed feelings about it. But as a friend told me, “you get free water and the best seats in the house”.

And the week after next? Three days in Stockholm for show meeting for 2012, and then two weeks or so in London! I plan to catch shows at the Gandini Juggling Week, get some new photos done, and see friends and family. Then shows in Berlin from mid-August and so on and so on…

Oh yeah, and Google+

And Mad Men: Season 3 and Spirit HD.

OK, at least I feel now that all is up to date: again, also some inspiration for some more serious writings soon.

Now, back to my coffee…

Untidy list of reference links!

Tricks in the gym: http://youtu.be/4CwFq_hmT00
Petra’s boat (maiden voyage!): http://www.celebritycruises.com/plancruise/ships/ship.do?shipCode=SI
Ken’s website: http://www.kenbardowicks.de/
My new website: http://www.lukewilson.de/en/
IJA Fest: http://www.juggle.org/festival/
IJA competition rules: http://www.juggle.org/champrules/champsrules.php
Gandini Juggling Week: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/?lid=66097
Spirit HD (iPad game): http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/spirit-hd/id376986534?mt=8

Popcorn Circus

A good friend once offered the assertion that traditional circus is “a machine to sell popcorn”. I smiled, nodded and changed the subject. But thinking about it: is it true? And if it is, is it a bad thing? And what is the machinery of modern circus set up to sell?

I like popcorn. I eat it brainlessly, extract what wanton energy from it that I can, and discard what I don’t need. I leave at least ten percent on my clothes and on my seat. It makes me feel slightly sick when I have too much of it, but it is none the less an organic and tactile experience, bringing joy to all of my senses. I don’t eat it often, and I don’t miss it when I don’t have any, but I always look forward to and enjoy it.

In my video library is a long row of Cirque du Soleil DVDs. I like to own things. They sit there and remind me that I am a loyal consumer. I haven’t watched them all, and the ones I have watched I have watched just once. Each box and disc is identical in it’s dimensions, just as the acts encapusulated within them are identical each time I watch them (or would be, if I were to watch them).

I do like perfection: but I also like honesty. Honesty and humanity and humility. I am a fan of science and of precision, but am happy to depart from them for some occasional one-off sticky gratification.

Popcorn makes me happy.

Understanding

I am not sure how useful this little essay will be. I have a feeling it should be a Vlog, but that seems like too much effort, in case it simply turns out to be another rant about juggling…

I want to talk about tricks. “Tricks” has almost become a dirty word amongst certain levels of the “modern” circus world. But I am shameless, and am happy to admit that tricks make me happy. If technique defines an emotional state, so can tricks define technique. On a slight sidetrack now, I was thinking earlier of the Christian Slater skateboarding movie from 1989, Gleaming The Cube. Which I loved. What I remember most was being impressed at all the different skating styles he showed (street, vert, freestyle), and how they were shown as being tied to his emotional state (OK, I may not have explicitly thought that at the time). When he was angry, he went out to his backyard and shredded the half-pipe. When he was sad and lonely, out came the freestyle deck. Pretty cool.

Anyway, I want to write about juggling tricks. My example shall be a trick which has become somewhat of a standard over the last ten years or so, although when I started doing it I hadn’t seen it done before. The basic concept is of catching a club by the wrong end, and making a small half-spin throw to the same hand to get it back to the handle (commonly known as an Oh-shit). The small step I made was to have that throw and catch happen blind, behind the back.

Not a ground-breaking idea, but it made me happy. It developed thusly, in 1999 or 2000:

First trick: throw a club behind the back with a single spin, having it remain behind the body. Make the next catch and throw with the hand you just used, then catch the “behind the back” club back in that same hand. The club in question is thrown and caught at the same point in space. Quite easy.

Second trick: make that same “behind the back throw and catch”, but have it happen with no intermediate catches from the hand in question. No peeking, the club should remain unseen by the juggler at all times. Rather hard.

Third trick: the easier version! Change the “behind the back throw and catch” from a single spin to a half spin (an Oh-shit!). This means it barely has to leave the hand, and is therefore very easy to do. As a bonus, it also, I think, looks better. (I later saw Maksim Komaro’s solution to this same problem. He changed the pattern he was using to add time to quickly spot the club, making the single spin variation quite doable. But I still wanted the blind version!)

So, there was the trick. A behind the back thrown and caught Oh-shit. Without getting too much into overly technical details, there are several possibilities of patterns (another dirty word!) for doing this trick. The obvious ones (to a juggler) are called 423 and 522. I chose a hybrid pattern, 52242, to be my default for this trick. The reasons for this I shall get to soon.

I started to perform this trick in my act, and did it at juggling conventions and showed it at workshops. The process to find the trick was very easy and obvious, and no doubt others found it to. It is now a very common “new juggling” trick.

And everyone else I have seen do it does it in one of the obvious patterns: 423 or 522.

I might be overly cynical about it, but I get the impression that most people think of the “trick” being the little half-spin throw, and the pattern that it is done within as a necessary evil: an afterthought, perhaps. Simply a shortcut to get to the “trick”.

As I wrote before, tricks make me happy. And so I want my juggling to show each trick in it’s best possible light. I chose my odd little hybrid pattern because (I believe) it is constructed in a way that brings attention and focus to the (very small) trick that it makes possible. The throwing order of the hands, the relative heights of the throws, the planes the clubs move in, the way that my body and head have to move to allow the pattern: these things bring the focus to the place I want it to be, and so, I hope (and believe) make the tiny little “throw and catch” moment clear, interesting and IMPORTANT to my audience.

The moment we stand on a stage and show our juggling, we must have a complete understanding of what it is we are showing. It is not enough to do some tricks, no matter how happy they make us. Each trick must be understood, selected and, if necessary, added to or pruned in order to give our audience the show we want them to have.

We should understand our tricks, so we can present them in the best way possible.