Blog post about pants.

It is clear there are circus memes which travel around from company to company, show to show, artist to artist. This is of course expected and unavoidable – and in some cases, a positive trait.

Acrobats performing in underwear is a good exapmle. It may be beautiful, funny or shocking to some. But I have seen it so many times in the last few years that I don’t even notice it as an artistic choice. It’s become the default.

Perhaps this is the point? Perhap the idea is to show off the human body, for the costume to get out of the way and simplicity to come through? The choice and awarness of choice probably vary from company to company but on some level the circus underwear meme is playing its part.

I am surley slave to circus memes as anyone is, justifying decisions after the choice is already made. I’m striving to be aware of such memes and choices in my work but we are all susceptible to culture and trends. It’s where ideas are grown from.

The key then must be to seek influences from a wider pool of knowledge than just circus. While at the same time being aware of developments in our art form. Taking advantage these developments and being aware and clear in our intention and choices.

Luke Wilson – Moisture Festival – April 2011

I’m currently sat in a hotel lobby in a foreign country typing on a MacbookPro Retina, which Luke would have particularly have approved of. Not only for my superior choice of technology, but also the pretend rock star status of living on the road.

I went through periods of seeing Luke every day, almost every waking hour for a few months, to seeing him randomly once every few months. So it’s only recently that I’ve really come to appreciate that I’m never going to see the particularly skinny Englishman again. Until now it was possible that not running into Luke was an unfortunate side effect of busy calendars. But now, 2 years since his death, I think my brain has fully accepted that meeting Luke is not going to happen again.

Sadness asides, I thought it would be interesting to those who never knew Mr Wilson or his work to use this anniversary as an opportunity to analyse a little of his work and try and understand some of the detail and reasoning in his compositions.

I’ve been watching a version of Luke’s club routine (which he mentions in Repetition, posted on Circus Geeks), filmed by Alan Plotkin. In Alan’s words, “This was the last time I filmed Luke Wilson. It was at Moisture Festival 2011 at the Vashon Island venue. I challenged him before the performance to go drop free and he nailed it.”

Unfortunately I never got to see this version live so I am almost certainly missing detail which video cannot convey. I did however see two versions of Luke’s older club routines live and Luke shared a couple of different older versions on video with me.

You can watch Luke talk briefly about his Moisture festival here:

The Moisture Festival version is my favourite of his club routines and in my opinion the most interesting and developed. It gives a clear definition of Luke’s artistic choices and yet leaves a couple of unanswered questions.

Act breakdown

Luke stood sideways on stage looking across stage- not at the audience. He is holding 5 clubs- two clubs in his left hand, visible to the audience.
0:28 Routine starts
Places 5 clubs one at a time precisely on stage in a line, using his hands and feet. Reminiscent on Sergei Ignatov. http://juggling.tv/160
0:41 Hands in pocket, takes a moment to collect the image.
0:44 Foot lingers, almost flirtatiously around the first club
0:49 Hands out of pockets in stylised way.
1st Club kicked up. Manipulation thumb roll sequence
0:53 2nd club kicked up
0:57 3rd club kicked up – juggle walks forward and turning
1:00 Stand still – leaning into juggle run
1:04 4th club kicked up – 4 in doubles, classic fountain. Walks forward – odd feet – reaching for the remaining club
1:15 5th club kicked up
1:21 Triple into scissor catch in squat. Looks at audience.
1:26 Club down – fake drop – foot catch into 4 club routine: multiplex
4 club fast triples
4 club singles
53 iIn triple singles – turing backwards in a circle
Switch to synchronous – splits
1:59 High throw into multiplex bend back
2:02 Freeze with odd catch. Look at audience. Manipulation turn
2:10 Careful placement of balance – finger – cross armed set 3
2:14 Clubs with a balance – left-handed start – 3 chin rolls – drop into 4 – 53 chin roll turing
2:26 collect
2:27 Pass club around body getting lower until on the foot.
2:31 Kick club causing it to roll on floor
2:34 Odd jump – pick up other club
2:35 Slow hand – look at remaining club – turn walk to it with purpose
2:43 5th club in kick up position – look at it
2:44 Kick up into multiplex pattern
2:57 Scissor catch look at audience – club still rocking gently
3:01 Stand up
3:05 Turn and throw 2 clubs away*
3:09 Almost a new person – new routine
3:13 Odd feet and club movements – puppet like – repeating patterns
Odd patterns, placements and wrist traps – odd starts and stops
linking moves, half turns
3:52 Chin roll combinations
3:57 Chin roll reverse cascade
4:01 Balance
4:06 Multi placements
4:09 Helicopter kick up – backcross combination – flat front 44strange1
4:15 Stylish 2 on a 342
4:20 Wilson 52242 wrong-end
4:22 Squat again – fast juggle – doubles with music
4:25 Fast doubles
4:27 Flats turning
4:33 High throw – Ignatov – slapbacks – half turns
4:45 Catch all 3 in right – squat – look at audience
4:52 Fake hard throw of one club
4:54 Slow 1 club slide – lego – puppetry movement style
5:05 Point
5:09 Helicopter wrist trap kick up – Luke signature
5:44 Ends kick up sequence
5:47 Contortion cascade
5:50 Under arm trap – problem and solution
5:57 Leg catch freeze – build up tension
6:04 Triplex kick up
6:07 1 up Pirouette
6:09 Throw clubs behind him
6:14 Bow
6:24 Exit stage

Luke starts the routine standing still on stage, not looking at the audience – an interesting choice. It isn’t till a few seconds in that he looks at the audience, allowing them to take in his appearance and identity. Before that first look Luke is almost secondary to the props, the oddity in his moment and choices are clear but we don’t know how he feels about it.

The juggling begins with Luke kicking up into a 3 club cascade, he turns in a circle allowing the audience to take in this first and most classic pattern. From then on there are only a few classic juggling patterns which have been chosen for specific reasons. Most of the act consists of juggling created by the performer, something which used to be a rarity in juggling.

The first compliment (freeze) allows the audience in, before we have seen a window into his world, a taste of skill and things to come but that eye contact allows us to catch up and take Luke in. The freeze itself is an interesting position, in a sitting squat, far from a unusual ballet-influenced circus poses.

The section where Luke is continually moving and adjusting his legs, arms and clubs are a slight (but only slight) exaggeration of his OCD tendencies. Going for a coffee with Luke could be fun; moving the cutlery or various napkins off-centre would result in him subtly readjusting till everything was back to being in its rightful place, square and proper.

Watching Luke warm up every night for several months was also a chance to see how much he enjoyed systems which would be carried out pace for pace, throw for throw every night. Luke enjoyed his discipline. These puppet-esque movements sit very well with his energy on stage and yet are surprising and unusual, far from the normal movement qualities jugglers traditionally use.

The precision of placing the club into a balance on Luke’s head, is something that is common in many of his routines. Moments of careful precision that Luke was so excellent at, the weight and gravitas he gives the prop and the detail of the pinky finger out – reminiscent of a delicate tea cup which Luke was so fond of and makes for an important moment, heavily contrasting with some of the fast and complex juggling that has preceded it.

Luke runs his own version of a classic 423 kick-up using wrist traps to catch the kicked-up club (Luke help popularise wrist traps in club juggling, taken from another juggling prop – the devil stick. Luke invented many variations with wrist traps, now commonplace in contemporary juggling). This pattern is run for 33 rounds and lasts over half a minute. It’s an unusual choice of trick to run for so long.
Luke has chosen a unique trick to him, subtle in detail. It would be easy to miss the wrist trap if it were ran for only one or two rounds and it’s not a particularly difficult trick in a single repetition. As the pattern plays out the tension builds, we see Luke begin to struggle from the shear repetition and final relief when he breaks out of the loop. Repeating the pattern for so long allows the audience to take in and possibly understand the juggling and gives effective dramatic build in the act.

Luke also particularly enjoyed kick-up tricks which may also explain why he chose to repeat his 423 variation. He finishes the routine with a triplex kick-up, a trick Luke loved and is covered extensively in this video tutorial we made together in 2009.

The pirouette is the final full stop for the juggling, enforced by the dropping of the clubs**. The holding of breath as the audience begins to show it’s appreciation and the exhale of relief helps underscore how much concentration has gone into performing such a complex and well thought-out performance.

Luke was a talented magician and I can see it’s influence in the whole routine, particularly in his bow which was obviously thought out and practiced. The unbuttoning of his jacket and classic open hand position reminiscent to me of dove magician, Lance Burton as was Luke’s immaculately folded sleeves.

Luke left nothing to chance and thought out every detail of his work. Everything had been gone over with a fine comb, from the choice and variation of prop (Luke could probably have written a book on this subject) to his method of rolling up his selves.

Perhaps the biggest lesson for me to take from Luke’s work is to question every choice, be aware of every decision.  Do what you believe in.

I miss Luke.

**The dropping of the clubs really confused me. When studying on my degree Luke taught lessons examining at the nature of status and how we treating our props on stage adds to the communication of how much an audience should care about what we are doing (trying not to drop in the most part). 
Theories for Luke’s end throw include, it was as simple as a stylistic choice or that he got carried away after performing such a perfect routine. However both these reasons don’t fit well with me, they don’t take into account Lukes meticulous nature or his lessons on giving the props value.
For my money, the best guess comes from Jay Gilligan, he said that in one of the MRL laboratories Luke was exploring the idea of finding an ending that could not go on. Jay went onto say, “in one case his [Lukes] solution was to make an ending that was not only conceptual but also literal in the sense that he threw the clubs away from him, preventing any further contact and therefore erasing any doubt at all that he would continue.”
* At 3:05 into the act Luke turns and throws 2 clubs away. It looks slightly award and messy, if we understand the end drop then I cannot fathom this prop dump. My only attempt to grasp Luke’s choice here is that it’s a stylistic choice (or someone was supposed to take them from him?). I wish Luke was around now so I could quiz him about it.
Many thanks to Lauren Hendry,  Sean Gandini, Jon Udry and Jay Gilligan for their thoughts and feedback.

Circus Hackathon

NOLA Hackathon 2011
NOLA Hackathon 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading a bit about new ways technology is allowing people to collaborate, things like Google Drive, GitHub etc. It seems as usual circus has a bit of catching up to do!

In Wired a while ago I read an article about Hackathons and thought it would be great to see/take part/organise a circus equivalent. Hackathons are a chance for coders to meet up, work like crazy in small teams and produce a sketch version for a new service or product.

Earlier this year when I was in Montreal I spotted Impro Cirque, something quite close to my idea. Unfortunately I left before it took place but from video it looks pretty fun…

I’d love to see a more informal version done in the UK, perhaps no ‘public’ audience. No one gets paid- All it would need is some interested circus artists and some space (perhaps some pizza and beers at the end of it). Perhaps two days manic work and a fun showing at the end of it? Best team performance judged by a panel wins a years supply of Apple products (or not)?!

Just a thought….

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.

Story telling

Occasionally I hear circus artists/directors/random people who feel their opinion is important talk about ‘how to make circus more than just an act’, about how we can use circus to ‘tell stories’. As Mr. Wilson has so eliquentley commented on this before I’m inclined not to comment as I would be just wasting keystrokes.

However if you must layer on a storyline do it well. This video could help you do that:

Circus Sideshow “Geek”

GEEK: \’gēk\, noun
From the low German geck, meaning “fool” (1914).
1: A carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off of a live chicken or snake.
2: A person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked.
3: An enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity (computer geek).
— geek•dome, noun
— geek•i•ness, noun
— geeky, adjective
— geek, verb

Merriam Webster On-Line

I am actually considered a geek because I eat, or geek, fire. Any time we eat random items nowadays (lightbulbs, bugs, etc.) it is considered geeking. Though originally this term was reserved for biting (geeking) the heads off of chickens with great show, usually dressed is white.

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…

————–

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.

SaveSave

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

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.

The Technique IS the Character

I was talking recently with someone who is working on creating a new juggling act, and they mentioned that they wanted said new act to contain more “character”, and that they wanted to include more stops and pauses: for the purpose of showing that “character”.

Almost as recently, upon introducing myself to a fellow circus performer they asked me what “theme” my juggling act had. My reply of “juggling” left them nonplussed.

Having had to pick my jaw up from the floor on each of these occasions, I realised I could perhaps usefully try (for myself if no-one else) to form my thoughts into some kind of clarity on this matter.

The year is 2011. It was over 30 years ago that nouveau cirque made a clear and, surely at that time, necessary statement about the break they were making from non-nouveau cirque. But I sincerely hope that we are far enough now with the circus arts and their development to understand that we don’t have to justify our time on stage by claiming it to be circus “with theatre”, or “with dance”, or “without horses”. Or “with value added character”. Circus is circus, and it’s practitioners are circus artists.

If we are using the circus arts (circus techniques, as in skills and tricks) to express ourselves, then we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to show them some respect and to create and show work where that technique set is needed. Needed means not added on as a bonus but rather integral to, and defining of, the work. The technique should be a necessity of the performance (and perhaps also the other way round, but that is perhaps a topic for another time).

If technique is integral (which to me is a backbone of circus performance), then technique has a lot of responsibility. It is the major means we have to communicate our intent. I shall repeat that more clearly (and to really stress it, I shall do so by manually re-typing it, rather than using copy and paste): technique is the major tool that we have to communicate our intent.

That doesn’t mean that it should subsume the intent, but that it serves the intent.

If our intention includes the need to create a particular “character” (be that character one of pop-star, ninja, sailor or, dare we even say it, JUGGLER), then I hope it is clear that, although costuming and make-up, or staging and light, are important and valuable factors in our constructs, it is TECHNIQUE that must take the lead. We should innovate in our technique, believe in it, and shouldn’t be scared to trust it to tell an audience more about our intentions and emotional content then any other factor.

After all, love of technique is what drove us in the first place to learn this craft, and I hope that that same love is a factor in keeping us in this crazy, impossible, beautiful, painful, ghastly, inspiring, incredible life that we may call our job.

Innovate your technique: create the right trick for the right moment.

Trust in your tools: and let an audience share that trust.

And always remember: the technique IS the character.

The Importance of Being Selfish

I have been lucky in recent times to be able to work as a teacher/director in disciplines outside of just juggling. Amongst other projects, a few months ago I lectured on creativity and lead a workshop at a meeting of hand-to-hand acrobats in Stockholm, and even more recently I directed my favourite aerialist Petra Lange’s latest dance/acrobatics act.

And less far from my usual comfort zone, for his last two complete evening show productions, I have been listed on Ken Bardowicks‘ posters as “Magical Advisor”. Part creator, part director, part magician and part spectator. It can, and mostly does, jump from the most crazy brainstorming of impossible sounding effects, to the solving of the most banal of problems. Pulling techniques and methods from classic turn of the century sources, or as new as anything being thought of today, and finding solutions and workarounds to weak-points and logical inconsistencies.

And although it is by definition a work together, I am more than happy to acknowledge the purely selfish advantages that it brings to me.

More than anything in my own work, be it magic or juggling, I strive to create material that I personally would like to see performed. The reason I create is to fill a gap: a gap that should contain that which I want to see. I am certainly not alone with this approach to my art, with a pedigree of such people as the film director Tim Burton, or the juggler Jay Gilligan, to back up this standpoint. At the very least, there will be one happy person when I perform my work (me!). And as I do believe that we (the human race) as people have very similar needs and desires, so there is a reasonable chance that what makes me happy, will also make others happy. My contributions as Magical Advisor, or director to other disciplines within the performing arts, is an obvious extension of this selfish desire.

Through my work with Ken and others, I suddenly have so many more possibilities to see that which I want to see performed! No longer does my own technique set or performance outlets have to limit what I can see on stage! I can suggest ideas, and someone else will do them for me! A killer routine that I would be too lazy to do the set-up for every day? A beautiful effect that I could never build the apparatus for? No problem! And although sometimes the work is more about detailed corrections and choreographies, the excitement of seeing those wonderful effects that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to see is what keeps the excitement present in our continuing working relationship.

In any relationship, compromises are necessary. Sometimes one must back off from purely personal desires or needs. And in this one specifically, it is Ken’s work, the effects, the show, that are the clear priority. Sometimes (but rarely) we search for solutions to something that doesn’t stir me in a particularly emotional manner, but most of the time, what I take is worth at least that which I can give. And sometimes it is good to remember to be selfish.

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