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.

Juggling vs. Magic

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

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

When I was 14 a juggling book followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cologne, December 2007 / Seattle, March 2011)