Bob Bramson

A third gernaration circus artists and legendary juggler, highly respected all over the world by audiences, agents and jugglers. Bramson’s act is a classic, full of charm and packed with signature tricks and touches that made him successful on stage for over half a century.
 
If you’ve had the misfotune to never have come across his work before read this and this.
 
I started this blog with the aim to engage with circus performers, to share experiences and thoughts with others. So when heard Bob Bramson’s memoirs were coming I knew it would be a must read for me.

When my signed copy of ‘An Artists’s Luggage and Other Baggage | A Memory Kaleidoscope’ came through the letter box it was with more than a little excitement that I began to read.

My signed copy (showing off!)

The book is easy to consume, written in both German and English (Circus Geeks own Luke Wilson did the translation) and broken down into short paragraphs and chapters that flow nicely from one to the next. In the middle of the hardback are some historical photos and circus posters featuring Bramson and his family.

There are many anecdotes and incedents that standout; black market dealings, facing down tigers, running into the queen and techniques to quieten a crying baby. Bramson lived through the second world war and under Stasi enforcement, he took his art to new levels and had a varied and exciting career working with some of the biggest stars in the best venues – it makes a great read.

I’d recommend this book to anyone but particularly to any current or aspiring performing artists. And of course it’s a must read for anyone interested in circus.

The book is available on Amazon.

Poor Lighting

Being able to deal with less than idea conditions has been massively helpful to me over the years, particularly in the past few weeks on tour where there is little time to spend worry about lights after the get in and prop setting has been done.

Poor lighting affects almost all circus disciplines but none more so than juggling.

Here are a few training methods (some more useful than others) to help you train for poor lighting:

Practice in sunglasses
Practice directly under a bright light
Set up a bright lamp to shine in your eyes
Practice in low level lighting
Practice outdoors on a sunny day
Run your routine with someone switching on and off the lights
Practice with one eye shut (I’ve had to do a routine immediately after being accidentally poked in the eye!).
Practice with both eyes shut (are there tricks you can do blind, if so can you take advantage of this on stage?!)

Any suggestions? I’d love to hear how you train for poor lighting, leave a comment!

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

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.

Penn & Teller: Fool Us

Yesterday I went to the filming of an episode of ‘Penn & Teller; Fool Us’. Sam Veale was kind enough to hook my up with tickets on behalf of Romany who was appearing on the show.

I was a great afternoon, got to see some great magic but I won’t spoil it for you as you will get the chance to see it when it airs!

At the moment I’m seeing a lot of live magic and I’m really enjoying it. It’s still a relatively new medium for me to watch so it’s still a bit of a novelty.

Off to watch the Shoebox UK tour tonight, which I’m pretty excited about. Been wanting to see one since it started.

Too Complicated

Nearly back home after an incredible, exciting, inspiring and stressful 2 weeks of performing at the Moisture Festival in Seattle, USA. 3 ‘planes behind me, now an hour more on the train and a taxi to follow…

iPad plus iPhone internet tethering plus PlainText plus WordPress equals awesome.

I am often surprised by odd compliments. Especially those coming from fellow artists, and especially those that have a form that allow me to simply say “thank you very much”, whilst actually wanting to ask “what does that mean?”. Like “it was nice to see some art”, or “he’s a juggler’s juggler”.

Something that am always ready to reply to with “what does that mean?” however is when jugglers tell me that a particular trick, or sequence, is “too complicated for an audience to understand”. WTF does that mean? It compares to the equally enigmatic yet ridiculous soundbite “they can’t tell the difference if you are juggling 5 or 7”.

Who are these “they” of whom they speak? And why is “their” possible failure to understand an aspect of our performance a reflection on their stupidity, rather than a reflection on our own failure or inability to make ourselves understood?

There are three elements to any play. The play, the actors, and the audience. And the responsibility for success lies with them all. Does that mean we should patronise our audience to the point of stupefaction, reduce them to unknowing vessels, undeserving of our attention and edification? As long as my audience has given me the respect to come and sit in a theatre and watch me perform, then I shall give them respect and, hopefully, provide them with entertainment that also has the possibility to challenge and evoke them.

I shall hold their hands when they need it, but I shall assume them to be smart enough to follow me, and also to lead me to new places within my work.

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