Research Methodology

The following short, somewhat disjointed, essay is culled from my notes for a lecture I presented at a Duo-Acrobatics Symposium in Stockholm a couple of years ago. I was delighted to find that almost all that I spoke about turned out to be at least as applicable to that field as it was in my own experience within juggling. And of course many new and duo-acro specific concepts and ideas arose and were discussed. Special thanks to Celso and Francesca for organising that meeting: the circus world needs more geeks like them!

Special thanks also to Jay Gilligan, Ben Richter and Erik Åberg. It was the several-year spanning Manipulation Research Laboratories that helped me clarify my own thoughts somewhat on all these themes.

And the process is ongoing, and the research continues and changes each day anew.

Luke Wilson: Cologne, 23.06.2012


“There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”
Richard Buckminster Fuller.

Jugglers tend to think a lot about juggling.

Why is that? For one thing, it is simply a huge scene, consisting in large part of many hobbyists with time on their hands. There were over 6000 jugglers in attendance at the 31st European Juggling Convention in 2008 (Karlsruhe, Germany). Many people in this scene are of a mathematical or scientific bent, which has led to the fast development of that particular side of juggling. In addition, we jugglers have less physical responsibility than other disciplines. We can train longer. We don’t need to spend so much time warming up, building muscle, or at the physio. So we have more time and energy to invest in other aspects of the work.

Our theme now is research. And there are two things that we can research in circus (be it within juggling, acro, aerial, lion taming, etc…). We can research tricks (easy and fun), and we can research what the tricks are good for (hard and fun).

In other words, we can make new tricks, and we can make new applications for tricks.

Application is always and only to create an emotional reaction in the audience. Whether that reaction is amazement and applause, or tenderness and tears. Aesthetic or awkward.

This process feeds back in on itself. We can make tricks that are better for specific things, thus improving our success rate at conjuring applause or tears. Or, coming from the other direction, we can first find out what the trick is good for and exploit that knowledge. This may also help define what the discipline as a whole in itself is good for.

There are three aspects to the work, and once we have defined them we can begin to plan the research. This often leads to many questions, but perhaps not to many answers. Which is just how I like my work (or any creative work) to be.

1. PHYSICAL: inc. new tricks and performance / theatrical aspects (“theatre” being used in its loosest possible sense).
2. MENTAL: inc. what the trick is good for, the actual internal moment of execution, and also the “why?” of what we are doing.
3. SCIENTIFIC: inc. the research aspects of our work (and most of the questions that we will find!).

All the work we do is research: every hour in the gym and every minute on the stage. But often we either see it as long term and unfocused, or we do not even notice it as research, simply viewing it as part of the organic training process. So a target we can set ourselves is to be more efficient with this ongoing and ever-present research. We do all the work anyway, but perhaps we can compress and clarify it.

To break down the three aspects more clearly:

What are the physical elements of the work?

At least (but maybe not exclusively) the following:
i. Body
ii. Prop
iii. Environment

What are the mental elements of the work?

For example:
In training / on stage? Differences and similarities?
What is special about the skill (props, people, space etc)?
Why that particular discipline?
What is the discipline itself particularly good for?
WDYDWYD? A very zeitgeisty concept: Why Do You Do What You Do?
Why circus? Originally perhaps it was to show what could be. Maybe now it serves to show what is? Almost the exact opposite development of most (visual) arts!

What can we do about these factors?

Research preparation:
1. Identify the question
2. Define the elements
3. Design the experiment

Research application:
1. Perform the experiment
2. Explore/define the findings

I believe in fast creation: set the experiment, and take no more than 5-15 minutes to execute it / explore the identified concepts.

We must learn to trust our opinion of what is “good”. By taking fast decisions of artistic content or technique, we practice and reinforce trust in ourselves.


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.

But I want to write now not about touring in the UK (which is a great and wonderful novelty for me!), but about a project which shows once more that jugglers are the geekiest of the circus community.

Earlier this month I was in Berlin for a week, participating in the first Juggling Teachers Meeting, held at the Berlin Juggling Center. Arranged by the centres owner, Alan Blim (the original founder of Berlin’s Juggling Katakomben), this five day workshop was supported by a European initiative for teaching, and had participants from Hungary, the Czech Republic, the UK, Italy, Spain, and of course Germany.
Berlin Juggling Center

So in all we had around a dozen students, and four teachers completed the group: myself, Alan Blim, Marco Paoletti, and Tim Roberts (long-time juggling teacher at the Chalôns school, now head of Higher Education at the Circus Space in London, and president of FEDEC).

Each of us was to teach a day (and to participate as students in the other days), and a target of the week was not only to teach our usual workshops or themes, but also to go deeper into the actual teaching theory behind our work. Each teacher had their own style and manner of course, which also meant that different teachers went at different levels, and in differing depths, into the theoretical aspects behind their teaching.

It became clear by the third day that teaching juggling in general can be divided into two large and different themes: long-term teaching (such as at a professional circus school, with the same students over a period of years), and short-term (like an hour workshop at a juggling convention). Knowing the context that the teaching is happening in informs the content and the detail of the work that is appropriate. Long-term teaching allows more personal research, and the teacher-student relationship can be more equal, with the teacher taking on something of a professor or mentor-like role. In short-term teaching, quicker results are usually desired by the students, and it can be more important to place focus on quick results – cool tricks or simple sequences.

Each of the four teachers material and teaching styles were very different from each other, but common themes showed themselves each days: suggesting that there is some common or shared vocabulary amongst us all. Building a strong foundation of technique and content, creating neutral space for new creation, exploring existing elements as deeply as possible, and noticing (and then breaking) habits we have formed.

Another major topic of discussion was a theme which I have talked about in previous blogs here: the reasons for, and the consequences of, the lack of permanent juggling teachers in comparison to those of other disciplines. As I have also postulated, I believe this is part of the reason for jugglers, historically speaking, pushing further creatively than other artists. But that has always seemed to be an accident of the situation (caused by students having a multitude of visiting, performing teachers), rather than the schools explicitly choosing to provide teaching in that manner.

The desire was always to create something more tangible from the weeks research, and through Tim’s involvement came the decision to write a juggling teachers manual for FEDEC. FEDEC has an ongoing project to create training manuals (free to download from the FEDEC website) for the circus disciplines, to promote exchange between the schools and a good level of teaching across all subjects. There are ten “chapters” so far, and two further (single wheel and straps) already in production. They start with the most basic of technique and preparatory work, before moving onto more advanced material. It became clear that the juggling manual doesn’t need low-level teaching material (the juggling students at the professional circus schools already enter with a high technique level), and so the focus shall be more directly centred on the artistic and theoretical aspects of the work.

Perhaps that approach can then feed back into the other disciplines, just as we jugglers can learn from them. It is also hoped that the work that was begun over the week can be continued and added to: to arrange another meeting, perhaps in London, with a greater mix of teachers with a greater range of experience and styles. Although the week was inspiring and felt very important, it also felt very much like a first step – a step towards a bigger and clearer project.

Manipulation Research Laboratory #3

Jay Gilligan writes:

“The third and final Manipulation Research Laboratory (MRL) took place in Stockholm, Sweden, on March 22-25, 2010. The first MRL focused on finding the rules of manipulation. During this process the realization came that these rules were actually speaking about composition, which became the theme for MRL #2. MRL #3 combined both previous topics of exploration and zoomed in on composition at the level of single tricks, as well as documenting the process of creation for making tricks.

Every trick has two main parts – not only the pure physical movement and concept, but also what physical object this movement is done with. Objects can then be further described by examining either their shape and form, or by the materials of which they are made.

The main research team consisted of Luke Wilson, Ivar Heckscher, Erik Åberg, Matias Salmenaho, along with myself. The laboratory was joined by three students – Ron Beeri, Patrik Elmnert, and Wes Peden. Ben Richter, a senior member of MRL #1 & 2, also contributed to early discussions of the work.”